Vintage Pulp Jun 23 2020
THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK
It's mostly for his protection, but it's also for everyone else's.


We read the novel The Mask of Dimitrios a couple of years ago, so it was a given we'd eventually talk about the movie. Starring Petter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, it deals with a legendary malefactor named Dimitrios Makropoulos who washes up dead on a Turkish beach and draws the interest of a novelist, who decides to research the dead man's life with an eye toward writing a thriller about it. That's a great set-up for a movie right there, and it's even cooler because everything happens in Europe. Lorre, who plays the author, traces the movements of Dimitrios the bogeyman from Istanbul, to Athens, to Sofia, and finally to Paris, seeking to illuminate the man's life and criminal career.

Flashbacks tell us how evil Dimitrios was. Nothing was beyond him—theft, blackmail, political crimes, murder. We're talking irredeemable badness, a virus, a plague. Lorre and Greenstreet cross paths and decide to unravel the Dimitrios mystery together. Its solution offers the possibility of financial reward—one million francs. Lorre is less interested in those than a story he can turn into a great novel, but money up front never hurts. Unless it gets you killed. But while the flashbacks offer crucial exposition, they also shift focus from the film's two unique leads, and in so doing sap the narrative of momentum. They could have been shorter. More screen time for Lorre and Greenstreet would have been the benefit.

The Mask of Dimitrios is classified as a film noir on many websites, but as a drama on AFI.com, which is where we go for genre clarity because crowd sourced sites like Wikipedia and IMDB cast an excessively wide net with their categorizations. Some readers may disagree about whether this particular film is a noir, but what's true is it doesn't have a large number of the usual noir gimmicks, save for those interminable flashbacks, and occasional clever work with shadows. It almost entirely lacks other forms of noir iconography, and particularly lacks the key element of a disaffected central character or character that's screwed and gets more screwed as the plot progresses. On the other hand most of the players are shady and/or amoral.

We know what you're thinking. We aren't a pure pulp site, so how can we be purists about film noir? We're not. We tell you right in the “About Us” section that we're expanding the idea of pulp just for our personal pleasure, not trying to convince readers to redefine it in defiance of what is understood to be pure pulp. Going into The Mask of Dimitrios expecting film noir might lead to disappointment for noir fans, so we're just letting you know where the movie stands. It has its charms, regardless, but overall it's decent, not good, and certainly falls short of being excellent. Even so, watching old crime movies is incredibly satisfying, even when they aren't top notch. The Mask of Dimitrios premiered in today in 1944.
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Vintage Pulp Sep 2 2019
'KAPI CATS
Schell, Mercouri, and Ustinov plan a field trip to the local museum.


This French promo poster was made for the big screen Technicolor thriller Topkapi, which was based on a novel by Eric Ambler, who was such a popular author that the book was optioned before it even hit bookstores. The sedateness of the poster, which was painted by Yves Thos and René Ferracci, belies how outlandish the movie is at points. It starred Greek actress Melina Mercouri, British actor Peter Ustinov, and Austrian actor Maximilian Schell, with American Jules Dassin in the director's chair, filming mainly in Istanbul and using the location to voyeuristic effect as he documents exotic aspects of Turkish life. Inside all the window dressing is a heist flick about a group intent on stealing a priceless jewel encrusted dagger from the Topkapi Palace Museum. Aspects of this will look familiar to fans of the Mission: Impossible films, but Dassin adds extravagances such as direct-to-audience narration by Mercouri, a touch of Hitchcockian vertigo, and some overly broad comedic digressions that make the final result thrilling and bizarre in equal parts. While we had issues with the movie, who are we to argue with the top critics of the day? They mostly liked it and audiences did too. Topkapi had its world premiere in France today in 1965.

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Vintage Pulp Oct 15 2018
DEATH MASK
A stranger in strange lands comes to know pure evil.


Because Eric Ambler's 1939 thriller The Mask of Dimitrios is the source of the 1944 film noir of the same name starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, we should have read it long ago, but better late than never. The book tells the story of a writer in Istanbul who becomes interested in a killer, smuggler, slaver, and political agitator known as Dimitrios Makropoulos. In hopes of finding inspiration the writer begins to piece together the life of this mystery man.

The investigation carries him from Istanbul to Sofia to Geneva and beyond. That sounds exotic, but the story is almost entirely driven by external and internal dialogues, with little effort spent bringing alive its far flung locales. While we see that as a missed opportunity, and the book could be shorter considering so much of the aforementioned dialogue fails to further illuminate matters, it's fascinating how Dimitrios is slowly pieced together. Here's a line to remember, as the main character Latimer reflects upon the modern age and what the world is becoming:

“The logic of Michelangelo's David and Beethoven's quartets and Einstein's physics had been replaced by that of The Stock Exchange Yearbook and Hitler's Mein Kampf.”

That isn't one you'd soon forget. Ambler sees casino capitalism and Nazism as twin signposts on a road to perdition built by people like Dimitrios. We can't even imagine that being written by a popular author today without controversy, but Ambler, writing in England during the late 1930s, had zero trouble identifying exactly what he was looking at. This Great Pan edition of The Mask of Dimitrios appeared many years later in 1961, and it has unusual but effective cover art from S. R. Boldero. 

 
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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
October 23
1935—Four Gangsters Gunned Down in New Jersey
In Newark, New Jersey, the organized crime figures Dutch Schultz, Abe Landau, Otto Berman, and Bernard "Lulu" Rosencrantz are fatally shot at the Palace Chophouse restaurant. Schultz, who was the target, lingers in the hospital for about a day before dying. The killings are committed by a group of professional gunmen known as Murder, Inc., and the event becomes known as the Chophouse Massacre.
1950—Al Jolson Dies
Vaudeville and screen performer Al Jolson dies of a heart attack in San Francisco after a trip to Korea to entertain troops causes lung problems. Jolson is best known for his film The Jazz Singer, and for his performances in blackface make-up, which were not considered offensive at the time, but have now come to be seen as a form of racial bigotry.
October 22
1926—Houdini Fatally Punched in Stomach
After a performance in Montreal, Hungarian-born magician and escape artist Harry Houdini is approached by a university student named J. Gordon Whitehead, who asks if it is true that Houdini can endure any blow to the stomach. Before Houdini is ready Whitehead strikes him several times, causing internal injuries that lead to the magician's death.
October 21
1973—Kidnappers Cut Off Getty's Ear
After holding Jean Paul Getty III for more than three months, kidnappers cut off his ear and mail it to a newspaper in Rome. Because of a postal strike it doesn't arrive until November 8. Along with the ear is a lock of hair and ransom note that says: "This is Paul’s ear. If we don’t get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits." Getty's grandfather, billionaire oilman Jean Paul Getty, at first refused to pay the 3.2 million dollar ransom, then negotiated it down to 2.8 million, and finally agreed to pay as long as his grandson repaid the sum at 4% interest.
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