In The Face Behind The Mask, Peter Lorre arrives in America as a naive immigre watchmaker. Practicing his English on the deck of the ship sailing into New York harbor, he asks a man "Do you have a match?" The man lights a match. Lorre says "Thank You. I do not smoke." Dependable character player Don Beddoe is an NYC cop who befriends him. On his first night in America, a fire starts in his cheap hotel, and Lorre's face is badly burned.
After a montage of job interviews that go nowhere because of his ghastly visage, Lorre is down at the docks, about to throw himself into the river. A chance encounter with a friendly criminal leads Lorre into a life of crime, in which he proves to be a genius.
When he learns of plastic surgery, he goes straight away to a clinic. But the doctors tell him it's is too late to fix the damage. What they can do is make him a life-like mask to wear. So we have Peter Lorre wearing makeup to make it look like he's wearing a mask that looks like Peter Lorre.
Of course, the man with the unsightly face meets and falls for a beautiful blind girl, Evelyn Keyes. Complicating matters is the release from prison of Jeff, whose gang Lorre has taken over.
The Face Behind the Mask is maybe a transitional film, a little early to the Noir party in 1941, but sporting 1930s-style cliches like the impossibly good and virginal female lead, and the small-time crook with a heart of gold. Lorre's character is almost a super villian, leaving no clues at the crime scene, easily overpowering a much bigger man, and masterminding a fiendish plot of revenge.
The story would have easily fit into a formulaic detective series like the Falcon or Boston Blackie, except that Beddoe's cop is barely in the movie. However the quality of the script, Lorre's performance, the cinematography and direction raise this film to a much higher plateau.
The Noir City crowd almost didn't get to see this entertaining obscurity. Sony Pictures, owners of the Columbia catalogue, had doubled-booked the only print, sending it to an Austrian film festival held the same week. When someone from Sony apologetically broke the news to Noir City founder Eddie Muller earlier in the week, they asked if they could do anything to make up for their mistake. Muller requested that they strike a new print. It arrived at the Castro Theater on Sunday at noon, just a few hours before that day's first showing.