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In the late thirties and early forties, Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre starred in a series of exceptional mystery films. The Mask of Dimitrios, like The Maltese Falcon, On Green Dolphin Street and Casablanca, follows modern fairy-tale characters through intriguing morasses of international espionage, murder, and blackmail with a charm that remains fresh.
In one of his few "good guy" roles, Peter Lorre plays a Dutch college professor and novelist who hears of the legendary Dimitrios Makropoulos in Istanbul, and begins a search for biographical material which leads him across tense, 1938 Europe to Paris and a meeting with the ruthless spy. The fabulous, impossible plot unwinds in smokey cabarets in Athens, on the slick, rain-shiny streets of some hiding city, and on trains rattling through electric nights towards Paris.
Lorre is not alone in his search for information: mountainous Sidney Greenstreet, as Petersen, an international smuggler, turns up to heave his scene-stealing bulk in revenge after Makropoulos, who years ago ratted on Petersen and the fellows.
In spite of now worn out situations and often musty dialogue, ("I've known lots of men, but the only man who ever scared me was Dimitrios,") the movies of this memorable breed remain fresh because the actors play their parts at once wholeheartedly, and with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. Lorre's bulge-eyed gulp in the muzzle of a Luger pointed at him is an exaggeration of all fears of death, and so very ludicrous and excrutiatingly funny. Humor in humorless situations, as Greenstreet waddles at top speed through the Metro to escape a gunman, and then safely aboard a train doffs his hat to the killer, keep the story moving at high speed, always fascinating.
Perhaps what makes this film such engrossing entertainment, like the others of the unique series, is its power to make one live episodes which could not happen; Zachary Scott's Dimitrios is more smooth, and more thoroughly lousey than an international weasel could be. Each character plays his part with a light hearted desperation one can revel in for an hour and a half of a plotless day Escape.
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