Behind the Mask (1932)

US / 68 minutes / bw / Columbia Dir: John Francis Dillon Pr: Harry Cohn Scr: Jo Swerling, Dorothy Howell Story: “In the Secret Service” (unpublished) by Jo Swerling Cine: Teddy Tetzlaff Cast: Jack Holt, Constance Cummings, Boris Karloff, Claude King, Bertha Mann, Edward Van Sloan, Willard Robertson, Tommy Jackson.

A few weeks ago I posted here about the 1946 movie Behind the Mask, which is one of the dire Monogram series featuring the pulps character The Shadow. I thought it might be interesting to check out its 1932 namesake, especially since it doesn’t feature The Shadow (although the arch-villain is at one point referred to as “a phantom, a shadow”!). My interest was further piqued when I was reminded that the cast includes Constance Cummings and Boris Karloff.

Jack Holt as ‘Quinn’ (left) and Boris Karloff as Henderson

The initial premise is familiar to anyone who watches too many old crime movies. A Secret Service agent, Jack Hart (Holt), is incarcerated in Sing Sing under a nom de guerre, Quinn, in order to ingratiate himself with another prisoner, Jim Henderson (Karloff), who’s known to be part of a major drug-running ring. The ruse works: Henderson is keen the two work together after their release and, when Quinn proposes to bust out of jail on his own, gives him an address where he’ll be “looked after.”

Constance Cummings as Julie

So Quinn fakes a breakout and a police chase, and ends up at a house occupied by senior gang member Arnold (King) and Arnold’s unwitting daughter Julie (Cummings), plus a housekeeper/nurse placed there by the gang’s mysterious leader to spy on them, Edwards (Mann).

On Henderson’s release, he first visits his boss in the gang, sinister Dr. August Steiner (Van Sloan, hamming it up appallingly), who has a penchant for messing about with electricity-arcing machinery that must have reminded Karloff of another, quite different and far more famous role he’d played the year before; and then has a reunion with his old prison buddy Quinn.

Edward Van Sloan as Steiner

By the time Steiner first lays eyes on Quinn—and recognizes him as a lawman—Quinn has been briefed on his first mission, which is to fly a small seaplane to transport a consignment of drugs. But Henderson, alerted to the problem, arranges that Quinn will never return from that mission . . .

Jack Holt as Jack

Boris Karloff as Henderson

Obviously Jack and Julie have fallen in love by now, because that’s what Cummings’s role is for. There are some more original ideas than this floating around, though, such as the use of a cemetery as a repository for the gang’s massive reservoir of dope. The dope’s stashed in coffins that theoretically belong to patients who have died on the operating table at the private Eastland Hospital, which is run by Dr. Steiner under his real name of Munsell. As Dr. Munsell he’s a highly regarded physician and has done a lot of work in conjunction with the Secret Service—which is why he recognized Jack/Quinn. (Jack doesn’t recognize Munsell-as-Steiner because Munsell dons thick glasses, a false beard and an even falser accent when he’s being Steiner.)

Bertha Mann as Rosa Klebs Edwards

Tom Jackson (credited as Tommy Jackson) plays Burke, the agent who runs Jack until Burke’s untimely demise at the hands of Henderson, while Willard Robertson has the role of Secret Service boss Captain E.J. Hawkes. There’s also, fascinatingly for this viewer, an early telephone-answering machine on display, a Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg-style (at least to modern eyes) device that uses wax cylinders.

Claude King as Arnold

Behind the Mask is not what you might call a good movie, and in places the pacing slows to a molasses-like creep, especially when Van Sloan is milking his part as Steiner for everything it’s got, streeetching out the siiiiinester-acccccccented speeeeech until you want to wring his neck. Twice, if possible. That “sinister” accent, supposedly thickly Middle European, wobbles into something that’s more like Lowland Scots at times. The consistency of the British actor Karloff’s American accent doesn’t bear too much examination either. Clearly, despite its cast, the movie didn’t have much in the budget to spend on voice-coaching or retakes.

Willard Robertson as Hawkes

Tom Jackson as Burke

Jo Swerling, who wrote the original story and was senior partner on the screenplay, was a writer for screen and stage of considerably greater stature than a watching of Behind the Mask might suggest. He received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay for The Pride of the Yankees (1942), but his most enduring movie is surely Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In the noir genre he wrote the screenplay for the classic LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945); this site also has his The Circus Queen Murder (1933) and will doubtless in due course have others, because he penned several 1930s and 1940s mystery/crime dramas. In addition, he co-wrote (with Abe Burrows) the script for the musical Guys and Dolls (1950).

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