Behind the Mask
behind the mask | john francis dillon | jo swerling | jack holt | constance cummings | boris karloff | crime | mystery | romance | based on | novel | united states | claude king | bertha mann | edward van sloan | willard robertson | martha mattox | thomas e. jackson
Film: Behind the Mask
Director: John Francis Dillon
Writer: Jo Swerling
Starring: Jack Holt, Constance Cummings and Boris Karloff
This is a film that I didn’t know about until going through Letterboxd for horror from 1932. Seeing that this was another Boris Karloff movie that I could tick off my list was good enough for me. I’ll be honest, coming in I didn’t know a lot and it was just the next one up.
Synopsis: an undercover federal officer serving time in prison fakes his escape to infiltrate a heroin smuggling ring.
I’ll be honest, I came into this one blind. I didn’t read the synopsis. I just knew that it was on YouTube and the aspects above. We start with Quinn (Jack Holt) talking to Jim Henderson (Karloff). They’re in prison and have time in the yard. Quinn reveals that night he is breaking out. Jim tries to change his mind, saying that he has powerful friends who are getting him out soon. Quinn states he cannot wait for that. Jim does offer him a job when he gets out.
We then shift to a house that belongs to Arnold (Claude King). He lives there with his daughter Julie (Constance Cummings). Watching over them is a Nurse Edwards (Bertha Mann). They both feel like a prisoner as she reports to an evil crime boss who is known as Mr. X. During this night, Quinn makes his escape and is shot in the process. He seeks refuge with the Arnolds and this makes Nurse Edwards suspicious. She also takes notice when Arnold is strongarmed over the phone by Agent Burke (Thomas E. Jackson).
Jim then gets out and meets with a Dr. August Steiner (Edward Van Sloan). During their meeting, Dr. Steiner notices that he has a tail and they need to lose him. Before they part ways, Jim relays about Quinn and they hire him for a job that involves the latter flying a plane over the ocean to pick up a shipment of drugs.
Not everyone is as they seem though. Quinn is Jack Hart, the federal agent from the synopsis. He isn’t the only double agent though. No matter what the feds try to do, the criminals seem to be one step ahead of them. They might also be on to Jack as well.
That should be enough to recap the story and introduce our characters. Where I’ll start is what I’ve noticed about many of the last movies I’ve watched from 1932. They are light on the horror elements in them. This is to the point that I’m not sure I would consider them in genre if they were made today. I do think this one goes a bit more into horror than some, but still light on the elements.
Where I’ll delve then first would be into this criminal organization. This movie is pointing out some commentary that I saw in a subtle way. The first would be in prison. It is interesting to see how lax the system is, but it makes sense how strict they are now. What I was getting at though is Quinn and Jim becoming friends. My problem with the prison system is that I don’t think it works. Without going too political, I know that it is a broken system that is using slave labor. My true issue is that we are putting criminals together, allowing them to interact and then making their lives harder when they’re released. They are institutionalized to needing the structure to keep them out of trouble. Finding work after when they are convicted felons isn’t easy. We see what happens here. Quinn joins Mr. X’s crew and Jim isn’t rehabilitated when he gets out. He goes right back to what he is doing before in crime. There aren’t a lot of people who would hire him and this is still an issue. It is wild this movie is 90+ years old and the concept is still relevant. I would say even more so today.
Getting into why I consider this horror is where I’ll take this next. Mr. X deals in drugs. That would be a terrifying life of crime to be involved in. What I like is that he has a doctor working under him of Dr. Steiner. We see the depths this guy will go. Patients are brought into his private hospital and he can keep them quiet. That is terrifying to me. The movie is interesting as they don’t suspect a doctor could be behind something like this. I think that idea comes from it being a profession we should trust. We would see in the years to come that there are doctors who are psycho or sociopaths who were serial killers. I like that the movie is exploring this idea. Another aspect to go along with this that is scary is being undercover. We know at one point that Mr. X and his crew has taken out multiple federal agents. Trying to live a double life where you could die scares me and I can see the horror there.
There isn’t anything else I need to flesh out for the story so I’ll go over to the acting. I thought that Holt does well as portraying the rough criminal Quinn as well as the tough federal agent in Jack. He fits for the chess game that he is playing to stay alive. Cummings is fine. She isn’t given a lot and is more of the love interest for him. Being that her father is in too deep does add tension for her worry. Karloff is solid in his side character. I like seeing him given a bit to work with. King, Mann, Willard Robertson and Thomas E. Jackson are all solid as well. Another actor though I was impressed with as Van Sloan. He’s given more here than other film I’ve seen him in. It is a shame he seems to be regulated to minor characters as he is good as a villain.
The last things then would be the filmmaking. I think that we get good cinematography here. There are only a few set pieces we see. I did like what they did with the ocean sequences. Other than that, they don’t do anything too out of the ordinary. It is limited on the effects used, but it also isn’t that type of movie. How things play out before the characters is more important. The only other thing would be the soundtrack. It didn’t stand out or hurt the movie for how it was used.
In conclusion, this movie was interesting enough. I like the different elements we have come into a play with this early crime film that incorporates some horror elements. Having a double agent infiltrating this crime organization was good. Using a killer doctor is an intriguing element there. I’d say that the acting was solid across the board. This movie is well made as well. After this first viewing, I would say this is an above average movie for me. I’d recommend it for the cast and the elements for a movie this early into cinema.
My Rating: 7 out of 10