Thursday, June 25, 2009


This B-movie is difficult to classify; because it stars Peter Lorre, it is often lumped into the horror category, but its only horrific element is the main character's fire-scarred face which we see for only a split-second. It has some stylistic features of the film noir, but it's really more a crime melodrama with an antihero at its center. Lorre is an immigrant come to make an honest living in America. He becomes friends with a neighborhood cop (Don Beddoe) who loans him some money and gives him a lead on a cheap apartment. Unfortunately, that night, there's a fire in the room next to his and Lorre is trapped in the building. He survives but his face is horribly maimed and he can't get a job, despite his skills with watch repair, because of his looks. One night he meets up with two-bit crook Dinky (George E. Stone) and they develop a symbiotic relationship like that of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy; when Stone gets sick, Lorre takes care of him and resorts to robbery to make money for the two of them. Stone tells him that he could get plastic surgery, so Lorre decides to keep up his string of daring "phantom robberies" (as the press dubs them), and he even becomes the leader of Stone's small gang, formerly led by James Seay (Kris Kringle's doctor in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET). When Seay gets out of jail, he tries to muscle his way back in, but Lorre keeps the upper hand and Seay remains in the group as a member, obviously biding his time until he can exact his revenge. A doctor tells Lorre that surgery won’t help, so he gets a latex mask (making him look like a wax figure of Peter Lorre). On the verge of pulling a big diamond job, Lorre meets a young blind woman (Evelyn Keyes) and their budding relationship causes him to re-think his crime career. Seay, thinking Lorre is about to betray the gang, sees a chance to get back at Lorre by planting a car bomb, but it's Keyes (in a scene echoed years later in THE BIG HEAT and THE GODFATHER) who gets in the car instead. The grief-stricken Lorre gets his revenge in a well-planned and chilling finale.

Lorre is very good and Beddoe is good in his few scenes as the friendly cop (who returns to play an important part in the ending), but for me it's Stone who really stands out in an excellent and underrated performance; he appeared in some 150 movies between the late 20's and the early 60's, usually playing a colorful underworld character (or, as in the Boston Blackie series, a comic sidekick) and he's usually fun to watch, but here he actually makes us feel something for his character, and he gets more screen time than usual, as he is really more important to the narrative than any of the other secondary characters (even Keyes, who is rather bland here). Not a scary movie, but a compelling one which I suspect will benefit from repeat viewings--and should get a DVD release one of these days. [TCM]

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