Saturday 31 October 2009

Behind the Mask (1932)

Director: John Francis Dillon
Star: Jack Holt, Constance Cummings and Boris Karloff
Find Arnold and tell him I sent you, says Jim Henderson to Quinn in the prison yard at Sing Sing. Henderson is a convict, played with the expected sort of menace given that the actor is Boris Karloff, right at the peak of his initial impact in Hollywood. This was a year after Frankenstein and Five Star Final, the same year as The Old Dark House, The Mummy and Scarface: The Shame of a Nation. While Karloff was enjoying massive attention from the public, Henderson is dreaming of it. He's waiting for the day when the man he works for springs him, though he doesn't even know who that is. There's a mystery here, for sure, one that ends up with a Mr X.

Quinn is good old square jawed Jack Holt, who promptly escapes that evening, and finds his way to Arnold. He sets up an impressive meeting too, being chased there in the rain by a cop who is shooting at him, though the bullet in his arm is one he deliberately puts there himself for effect because he's secretly Jack Hart, secret agent. And he makes an effect, not just on Arnold but on his lovely daughter Julie, played by Constance Cummings. She knew her co-stars well, having worked with both of them before. Her debut on screen was in a Karloff movie called The Criminal Code and she preceding this one with another, The Guilty Generation. In between were three others, including The Last Parade with Holt.

Arnold turns out to be a nervous man, harried by phone calls from the Secret Service and spied on by his housekeeper Edwards, who speaks in a sinister monotone like a bad serial villain. Like Henderson, Arnold works for Mr X but has no idea who he is, even though the only other member of the gang seems to be a real character of a physician called Dr August Steiner. He has heavy glasses and plenty of facial hair, so much so that the mere glimpse of him suggests that he's wearing a disguise. We can't even work out his accent, it being a bizarre mix of Yiddish, Scots and Outright Villainous. Even a six year old kid would know that Dr Steiner was also Mr X, but there is a little mystery in figuring out who else Mr X is and how he knows what he knows, because he knows plenty.

In fact while this is a pleasant enough way to spend just over an hour, there's hardly any substance at all. The characters are all cardboard cutouts, with only Karloff being really given any real chance to strut his stuff. He's certainly the best thing about the film and he leaves it too early. Jack Holt was always great at playing the sturdy hero, so this was no stretch for him, so much so that at points he seems like he's getting bored with it. Edward van Sloan is outrageously villainous as Dr Steiner, chewing up every bit of scenery he can find, especially in his final scene in the operating room. He's utterly different in his other role. Constance Cummings is fine as Julie Arnold, but there's precisely nothing for her to do. She deserved better roles which she never really got, though she did appear in some interesting films over the next couple of years, including Attorney for the Defense, Washington Merry-Go-Round and The Mind Reader.

Unfortunately the acting is the up side. In comparison, the story is almost entirely transparent, the dialogue is cliched throughout and the cheap budget is readily apparent. I've never seen a hospital so bare and desolate. I've never seen a mere physician with the evil doctor's lab that Dr Steiner has and I wonder which horror movie they borrowed it from. I've certainly never seen a seaplane that contains enough material to construct a dummy and hook it up to a parachute in no time flat, from the cockpit while in flight. Sometimes they didn't even try to make it make sense. Worst of all, it really doesn't know whether it wants to be about mystery, suspense or horror. Is this a secret agent movie or is it a horror movie? Who knows? More importantly who cares?

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