Behind the Mask (1932)

This comes from that early talkie period when Hollywood genres weren't quite settled and horror and urban crime could be freely blended. The plot has an Edgar Wallace-cum-Mabuse flavour, moving from prison breaks, dope-smugglers, gangsters and undercover G-men to a household of dread, sinister servants, crackling electrical equipment, a mastermind never seen by his minions, sadistic torture and bits of fringe-science fiction gadgetry (eg: an early telephone answering machine, which records messages on wax cylinders). Stolid hero Jack Hart (Jack Holt) goes to prison White Heat-style to get close to convict Jim Henderson, breaking out with him in order to infiltrate the mob and identify the troublesome mystery man 'Mr X'. The thuggish Henderson is played by Boris Karloff, making a brave stab at an American snarl and trading on his persona from The Criminal Code.

Frankenstein was still in the future when this was shot, though it came out after Karloff had broken big, and Columbia promoted it as a cash-in horror picture. There's a bit of high seas action involving a dope shipment picked up by seaplane and Henderson leaving his buddy, whom he knows is an undercover rat, to drown after he has parachuted - it later turns out that Hart rigged up a dummy. Mostly, however, Behind the Mask is a housebound drama as nervy heroine Julie Arnold (Constance Cummings) worries about her father (Claude King), who is entrapped by the unknown 'Mr X' and at the mercy of his evil housekeeper (Bertha Mann). Karloff sadly vanishes mid-film and his function as heavy is taken up by his Frankenstein / Mummy co-star Edward Van Sloan as Dr Steiner / Dr Munsell, a Wallace-like respectable society doctor who has a false-bearded mad scientist alternate identity (we see him playing with lab equipment, but never find out what all that apparatus actually does).

The film's strangest scene is the finale, with Hart strapped to an operating table as 'Mr X' (in surgical mask) delivers a wonderful soliloquy on how much the procedure he has planned is going to hurt and how much he will enjoy it ('the pain whilst I am cutting through the outer layers of skin will not be unendurable … it is only when I commence to carve on your vital organs that you will know you are having ... an experience'). In a pleasing reverse, the girl intervenes and shoots the baddie, freeing a helpless hero. It's brief (68 minutes), but sadly still manages to be quite dull for the most part, with only the odd acting highlight and the strange genre shifts stirring the interest.
KIM NEWMAN

First published in this form here.


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