The Mask of Dimitrios

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The Mask of Dimitrios
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Jean Negulesco
Produced by Henry Blanke
Screenplay by Frank Gruber
Based on the novel A Coffin for Dimitrios 
by Eric Ambler
Starring Sydney Greenstreet
Zachary Scott
Faye Emerson
Peter Lorre
Music by Adolph Deutsch
Cinematography Arthur Edeson
Edited by Frederick Richards
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • June 23, 1944 (1944-06-23) (United States)
Running time
95 minutes
Country United States
Language English

The Mask of Dimitrios is a 1944 American film noir directed by Jean Negulesco and written by Frank Gruber, based on the 1939 novel of the same name written by Eric Ambler (in America the novel was titled A Coffin for Dimitrios). Ambler is known as a major influence on writers and an inventor of the modern thriller genre. The drama features Sydney Greenstreet, Zachary Scott (as Dimitrios Makropoulos), Faye Emerson and Peter Lorre. This was the first film for Scott after signing a contract with Warner Bros. Pictures.[1]


Dutch mystery writer Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre) is visiting Istanbul. A fan of his, Colonel Haki (Kurt Katch) of the Turkish police (who appears in several Ambler books), believes he would be interested in the history of one Dimitrios Makropoulos (Zachary Scott), whose body was just washed up on the beach. Leyden is so fascinated by what Haki tells of the dead arch-criminal that he becomes determined to learn more.

He seeks out Dimitrios's associates all over Europe, none of whom has a kind word for the deceased. They reveal more of the man's sordid life. His ex-lover, Irana Preveza (Faye Emerson), tells of his failed assassination attempt. Afterwards, he borrowed money from her and never returned.

On his travels, Leyden meets Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet). Later, he catches Peters ransacking his hotel room. Peters reveals that he too had dealings with Dimitrios (he had done prison time when Dimitrios betrayed their smuggling ring to the police), and he is not convinced that the man is really dead. If he is indeed alive, Peters plans to blackmail him for keeping his secret. He generously offers Leyden a share, but the Dutchman is only interested in learning the truth. Nonetheless, the two men get along well together.

Wladislaw Grodek (Victor Francen) is the next link in the trail. He had hired Dimitrios to obtain some state secrets. Dimitrios manipulated Karel Bulic (Steven Geray), a meek, minor Yugoslav government official, into gambling and losing a huge sum, so he could be pressured into stealing charts of some minefields. Bulic later confessed to the authorities and committed suicide. Meanwhile, Dimitrios double crossed Grodek, selling the charts to the Italian government himself.

Eventually, the two men track Dimitrios down in Paris. Fearful of being exposed to the authorities, he pays Peters one million francs for his silence, but true to his nature, goes to Peters' home shortly thereafter and shoots him. Leyden, his rage over Peters being shot overcoming his fear, grapples with Dimitrios, allowing the wounded Peters to grab the gun. Peters sends Leyden away to spare him from witnessing the violence to come; then shots are heard. When the police show up, Peters admits to shooting Dimitrios and does not resist arrest, satisfied with what he has accomplished. As he is taken away, he asks that Leyden write a book about the affair, and to kindly send him a copy.



Critical response[edit]

Film critic Bosley Crowther gave the film a mixed review, writing, "In telling the picaresque story of a mystery writer on the trail of a Levantine bum whose career of crime in the Balkans has stimulated the writer's awe, the film wallows deeply in discourse and tediously trite flashbacks...To be sure, the Warner schemists have poured some scabby atmosphere into this film and have been very liberal with the scenery in picturing international haunts and Balkan dives...This sort of worldly melodrama calls for refinement in cinematic style, but the writing and direction of this picture betray a rather clumsy, conventional approach."[2]

A Channel 4 review states "the film promises more action than it delivers, but there are opportunities for fine performances by Lorre and, especially, Greenstreet as the master crook. Atmospheric cinematography and an intriguing script turn this into a fine example of film noir with an immensely entertaining cast."[3]

TV Guide calls the movie "One of the great film noir classics to come out of the 1940s, The Mask of Dimitrios boasts no superstars, just uniformly fine talents, a terrific script full of subtle intrigue and surprises, and Negulesco's exciting direction. It's an edge-of-the-seater all the way."[4]


The Mask of Dimitrios was adapted as a radio play on the April 16, 1945 broadcast of The Screen Guild Theater, with Greenstreet and Lorre reprising their roles.

Differences from novel[edit]

Other than Ambler's American title for his novel and the fact that the mystery-detective writer is English rather than Dutch the film remains relatively faithful to the original novel. Readers will note two much more significant differences. First, the relationship between the novelist and Mr. Peters is, wary and uncomfortable though it may be, rather closer than in the novel, enough so that, when Mr. Leyden attacks Dimitrios at the end, it is not simply to save himself, as Ambler's book makes out, but in outrage at what Dimitrios has done to a person who has almost become a friend. Second, in the novel, Mr. Peters is fatally wounded by Dimitrios, killing him before he expires, and the confrontation scene seems to indicate that this was the script's original intention. But in its final form, Mr. Peters emerges, wounded but alive—and, indeed, makes a progressive recovery as the police rush in and he announces that he has killed Dimitrios Makropolous. The last we see of him, he is on his feet, being hustled out the door by the police, having urged the detective story writer to write a book about the case and announcing that he will have plenty of time to read it where he is going. Mr. Leyden says to him: "Goodbye, Mr. Peters—au revoir. Sorry you won't be going to the Indies now," another clear implication that Mr. Peters is likely to recover. Mr. Peters's response makes a perfect closing line and a reassurance that he is the same figure he always has been: "You see? There's not enough kindness in the world." It seems conceivable that having realized the unexpected appeal of Sydney Greenstreet's character, the studio decided that audiences would rather not see him be killed.


  1. ^ The Mask of Dimitrios at the Internet Movie Database.
  2. ^ Crowther, Bosley. The New York Times, film review, June 24, 1944. Last accessed: December 1, 2009.
  3. ^ Channel 4. Film review, 2008. Last accessed: January 4, 2008.
  4. ^ TV Guide. Film review, ibid.

External links[edit]