by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran us a movie from the rather curious collection of movies with Boris Karloff that TCM had run on Saturday: Behind the Mask, not a horror film per se but a fairly conventional undercover cop movie tricked out with a very unconventional Gothic atmosphere, at least for the cops ’n’ robbers genre. As William K. Everson explained in his book The Detective in Film, Behind the Mask was an action vehicle for Jack Holt (something of the Bruce Willis of the early 1930’s) as an FBI agent working with the Secret Service “to break up a drug ring run by Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloan for an unknown ‘higher-up.’ The writers [Jo Swerling, story and dialogue; Dorothy Howell, continuity] were apparently unable to forget that Karloff and Van Sloan were more familiarly associated with the horror film and incorporated some bizarre electrical machinery and graveyard scenes into their narrative.”
The film begins with some clips from Columbia’s The Criminal Code — made in 1931, a year before Behind the Mask, and also featuring Karloff and leading lady Constance Cummings — showing a small army of prisoners being marched through an exercise yard, then dollies into the prison set (presumably also left over from The Criminal Code) and discovers convicts Henderson (Boris Karloff) and Quinn (Jack Holt). Henderson is telling Quinn that when they get out they should hook up with Arnold (Claude King), a high official who will put them to work in the mysterious “Mr. X”’s drug cartel and enable them to make plenty of money. In fact, Henderson boasts, Arnold has the clout to get him sprung early — but Quinn says he’s too impatient and plans to escape that very night, which he does. The scene shifts to Arnold’s Gothic mansion on the proverbial dark and stormy night, and to a scene between him and his daughter Julie (Constance Cummings) in which she tells him she knows he’s involved in something shady, even though she doesn’t know exactly what, and if he knows what’s good for him he’ll get out of it before it destroys him. Arnold is in mortal fear of being killed by Mr. X, particularly since his housemaid Edwards (Bertha Mann) is a spy for Mr. X, who has installed in his headquarters a 1932 version of an answering machine. She puts in a call to Mr. X’s special phone line and it’s answered by a mechanical contraption which puts the phone receiver next to a transmitter, which in turn is connected to a Dictaphone machine which records the incoming message on a cylinder.
Another high-up figure in the drug ring is Dr. August Steiner (Edward Van Sloan in an outrageously false beard — according to the American Film Institute Catalog, “Contemporary reviewers commented on Edward Van Sloan’s excellent makeup,” which is almost impossible to believe to anyone who sees this film now), who hires Henderson as his hit person and orders him to dispose of Arnold. Thanks to his network of spies, Dr. Steiner discovers that Quinn, who’s shown up at Arnold’s offering to join the gang, is really an FBI guy, and on his orders Henderson kills Burt, the Secret Service agent who was Quinn’s contact. Quinn, whose real name is Jack Hart (obviously the writers were coming as close as possible to the actor’s real name!), gets assigned to fly a plane to pick up drugs from a ship anchored 200 miles offshore — not knowing that the gang has already “made” him and it’s a trap: they’re going to have him bail out and then let him drown in the water off Long Island after he’s delivered their drugs. Julie, to whom Jack has confessed his true name and job, gets wind of this and there’s a great scene in which she’s driving madly in a big car on a windy night, desperate to reach Jack before his plane takes off; she doesn’t make it, but he intuits the plot on his own, rigs up a dummy, attaches it to his parachute and throws it out of his plane, thereby fooling the bad guys while getting away clean.
Then Jack and his supervisor, E. J. Hawkes (Willard Robertson), go to arrest Arnold but find that he’s been taken to Dr. Steiner’s hospital — and when they arrive they learn that Steiner has murdered him by performing unnecessary surgery on him. But they can’t prove it without exhuming his body, and rather than wait for a court order they traipse right over to the graveyard and dig it out, planning to have an autopsy performed by Dr. Alec Munsell (also Edward Van Sloan), who’s head of a citizens’ committee that has offered $25,000 for the capture of the head of the drug ring. Only when they get the coffin, they find that it doesn’t contain a dead body — instead it contains the drugs the gang has been smuggling (morphine in neat, professionally made medical ampules).
Jack has also discovered the secret recording machine in Dr. Steiner’s office and has stashed Julie in a hotel room, telling her not to leave until he returns so the gang doesn’t kidnap her — which they do anyway, and Jack spills the whole story to the hotel maid and asks her to call the cops, not realizing that she too is part of the gang (though we guessed that almost immediately!) Jack makes it to the hospital where Julie is being held, but is taken prisoner himself, rendered unconscious and placed on Dr. Steiner’s operating table, where Dr. Steiner says he’s a very sick man and needs immediate surgery but is too weak to stand being anaesthetized. Dr. Steiner calls for Edwards, who in addition to being his spy at Arnold’s place is also his nurse, but the masked and gowned woman who enters is really Julie, who escaped, got a gun from somewhere and shoots down Dr. Steiner — who turns out to be the same person as Dr. Munsell and the real head of the dope ring.
Charles found a lot of plot holes in Behind the Mask — like why does a doctor have to go through all these shenanigans of having the drugs smuggled in when he could just order them and claim he needed them for his hospital (my guess was he was dealing in larger quantities than he could justify even as an M.D. with a hospital of his own) and the fact that the drug ring seems to have no way to distribute the stuff (though maybe they were just acquiring the drugs and then selling them to another gang, which actually merchandised them), or why the cops seemed so determined to go after the drug gang but weren’t concerning themselves with who was selling the stuff to users — which is what real narcotics agents would have been most interested in.
Yes, there are a lot of credibility gaps in this movie — including the singular obviousness of Edward Van Sloan’s makeup (director John Francis Dillon tried to avoid “outing” Munsell as the same person as Steiner by shooting him at odd angles and having Van Sloan try to disguse his accent, but the opening credits — which identify Edward Van Sloan’s character name as Munsell, not Steiner — gave the game away), but for my money the film was so rich, so drenched in atmosphere, and so creative in its intermixing of gangster and horror clichés that it was worth watching anyway even though Karloff probably wondered why he was still getting offered roles like this — a pretty stereotypical lieutenant in a criminal organization — after his breakthrough role in Frankenstein. The shots in Steiner’s lab are vividly atmospheric (including some of Kenneth Strickfaden’s cool electrical equipment that no doubt both Karloff and Van Sloan recognized from the lab set of Frankenstein!), and so are the dark-and-stormy-night scenes at Arnold’s home.
The film went through several titles, including In the Secret Service and The Man Who Dared, and it occurred to me that a better title might have been Behind the Masks — plural — because of how many characters on both sides of the law, including the principal hero as well as the principal villain, are in disguise. The acting is on the whole pretty good — Van Sloan clearly enjoyed the chance to play a florid villain instead of the avuncular voice of reason he was in both Dracula and Frankenstein — and though Karloff does the best he can with a pretty one-dimensional role (a far cry from the challenges he got in The Criminal Code, Five Star Final and Frankenstein), the real surprise is Constance Cummings.
In The Criminal Code (as the warden’s daughter who falls in love with unjustly convicted inmate Phillips Holmes) she’d seemed little more than decorative, but here, under Dillon’s powerful direction and with a challenging character to play, she’s excellent at expressing the conflicting loyalties that are tearing her character apart and acts with real power and authority. Behind the Mask is the sort of quirky film that doesn’t let its quirks sink it, but actually gains from them; the overall “horrific” atmosphere and the use of horror actors as well as situations (and the “pre-Code” ability to make narcotics the MacGuffin — though the relative freedom stopped with being able to depict Dr. Steiner’s sadistic surgeries; the notice with the U.S. Copyright office mentions “horrific scenes showing Dr. Steiner’s operations,” but they’re not in the extant prints) elevates this well above the typical crime programmer and makes the movie a sort of good clean scary fun.