Cast & Crew
John Francis Dillon
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In jail, convict Henderson expects to be freed, but his cellmate, Quinn, decides to break out on his own. Quinn goes to the home of Arnold, a member of a dope smuggling gang, whose daughter Julie treats Quinn's wounds. Arnold, whom the Secret Service believes is a potential informer, is warned by another agent that the gang is about to be rounded up, and Arnold's nurse and maid reports this information by telephone. Henderson, having been released from prison, goes to Dr. August Steiner, who tells him to take over from Arnold. Burt has followed Henderson to Steiner's office, and Steiner orders Henderson to kill Burt. Captain E. J. Hawkes, meanwhile, summons a meeting of a citizen's committee that is headed by the respected Dr. Alec Munsell. Hawkes anticipates the arrest of the gang, but then learns that Burt has been killed. Quinn has become Arnold's chauffeur, and he and Julie are in love. While visiting Henderson, Steiner recognizes Quinn as Jack Hart, another Secret Service man working undercover. Henderson is told to have Jack fly in the next shipment, then have him killed. After Jack tells Julie that her father is involved in a most unsavory business, she learns from him Jack's true identity. When Julie learns of Jack's fate, she tries to warn him, but is too late. Henderson orders Jack to ditch his plane and bail out by parachute, then abandons him 200 miles offshore. Meanwhile, a concerned Julie goes to Hawkes and learns that, by dumping a dummy attached to a parachute Jack tricked Henderson and is still alive. Upon returning to arrest Arnold, Jack and Hawkes find a note that Arnold has been admitted to the Eastland hospital. Arnold dies, after which Jack hides Julie at the Hotel Ansonia, then goes to Steiner's office. There, Jack finds a hidden dictaphone whose cylinder he takes. He then suggests an autopsy of Arnold's body, and late at night, they bring the casket to Munsell's home. However, upon opening the coffin, they find it full of narcotics. Jack leaves, then finds Julie sick at the hospital, where he is taken prisoner himself. He awakes on the operating table, where Steiner is about to perform surgery on him without an anesthetic. Julie, having recovered, enters and shoots Steiner, who is actually Munsell in disguise.
John Francis Dillon
Edward Van Sloan
Behind the Mask
The screenplay for Behind the Mask was written by Jo Swerling, based on his unpublished story In the Secret Service. It opens in Sing Sing prison, as Quinn (Jack Holt) tells his cellmate Jim Henderson (Boris Karloff) of his plan to break out. Henderson offers the name of a criminal contact on the outside. Quinn does indeed escape, but it is a ruse; he is actually Secret Service man Jack Hart, gathering information on a drug ring. Quinn/ Hart shoots himself in the arm and arrives on a stormy night at the gloomy home of Henderson's contact, the nervous Arnold (Claude King). Hart is nursed by Arnold's daughter Julie (Constance Cummings), while the potential informer Arnold speaks with a police officer named Burke (Thomas E. Jackson) - a phone conversation recorded by the housekeeper (Bertha Mann) on a cylinder recorder. Later, Henderson is released from prison and reports to the mysterious Dr. August Steiner (Edward Van Sloan). Steiner speaks of a powerful "Mr. X" who issues orders to the gang, including one to eliminate Agent Burke. Hart later attempts to protect his cover by flying a plane to pick up a batch of drugs from an offshore boat, but Steiner and Henderson plot to make sure that Hart does not return.
Behind the Mask shifts into horror territory in the scenes involving Edward Van Sloan as Dr. August Steiner. Van Sloan was quite familiar to horror fans for his roles as Van Helsing in Dracula (1931), Dr. Waldman in Frankenstein, and Professor Muller in The Mummy (1932). Here he sports a beard, a thick Germanic accent, and a morbid glee in inflicting pain. The inner recesses of his office contain a few of the same wild electrical devices that Ken Strickfaden rented out to Universal for Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. In the final minutes of Behind the Mask, Van Sloan gets to shift into full maniacal mode and recite some of the most chilling dialogue of the early 1930s, as he holds a surgical scalpel to his victim: "The pain when I am going through the layers of skin will not be unendurable. It is only when I begin to cut on the inside that you will realize that you are having...an experience. Wasn't it Nietzsche who said that unendurable pain merges into ecstasy? We shall find out whether that was an epigram or a fact. For my part, I know it will be ecstasy."
Karloff is third-billed and has several scenes as a lower-tier henchman, although his character also disappears from sight for long stretches of screen time. In his article on the film in Midnight Marquee Actors Series: Boris Karloff, Dennis Fischer wrote that "Karloff makes a game try at an American accent in the film, but his soft-spoken British accent keeps coming through. Henderson's capture takes place off-camera, giving Karloff no exciting action scenes in which to shine. Nevertheless, he does a good job of conveying a ruthless underling who lives in fear of his unknown master."
Jo Swerling was a prolific contract writer at Columbia through most of the 1930s, and worked on dozens of films, including Man's Castle and The Circus Queen Murder (both 1933), as well as several early Frank Capra movies such as Dirigible, The Miracle Woman, and Platinum Blonde (all 1931). By the 1940s Swerling was contributing to the screenplays of such high-profile movies as The Westerner (1940), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), Lifeboat (1944), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), and Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). After years of film work, Swerling co-wrote the book to the Frank Loesser musical play Guys and Dolls, which opened on Broadway in 1950 and was adapted for the screen in 1955.
Reviews for Behind the Mask were mixed, and indicated that audiences were responding with more laughs than thrills. Mordaunt Hall, critic for the New York Times, called the film "a weird and far from pleasant picture," and went on to say, "with all the strenuous efforts to be morbid and gruesome, this film only succeeds in being unintentionally humorous...Mr. Swerling is responsible for the dialogue of this film. It is scarcely a task deserving of praise. John Francis Dillon's direction is frequently amateurish." The British Bioscope said that "the idea has undoubted possibilities, but the director has here exploited them to such a tone that his efforts are apt to be received with derisive laughter rather than serious attention."
One the other hand, "Bige" of Variety found more in Behind the Mask to admire, although he notes the deceptive advertising: "Exploited as another horror picture, this doesn't horrify sufficiently to class with preceding baby-scarers. But its virtues are a not-so-bad Secret Service story, well acted by a cast of veterans, and an inexpensive investment... The scare stuff seems tossed in regardless of where it fits, but it gets results...Karloff's threatening pan makes him a natural for his part." Behind the Mask continued to be touted as a horror film rather than as a crime film, even decades after its theatrical run. During the "Monster Craze" of the 1960s, Behind the Mask and a few other non-Universal films were a part of the Shock Theater package of movies syndicated to television. Here again, a new generation of Karloff fans were probably disappointed that their fright favorite was relegated to a supporting role, leaving the leering menace to co-star Van Sloan.
Producer: Harry Cohn (uncredited)
Director: John Francis Dillon
Screenplay: Jo Swerling (screenplay, dialogue, story "In the Secret Service"); Dorothy Howell (continuity)
Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff
Film Editing: Otis Garrett
Sound: Glenn Rominger
Cast: Jack Holt (Jack Hart aka Quinn), Constance Cummings (Julie Arnold), Boris Karloff (Jim Henderson), Claude King (Arnold), Bertha Mann (Nurse Edwards), Edward Van Sloan (Dr. August Steiner/Dr. Alec Munsell/Mr. X), Willard Robertson (Capt. E.J. Hawkes), Thomas E. Jackson (Agent Burke)
by John M. Miller
Sources: The Films of Boris Karloff, Richard Bojarski and Kenneth Beals
Midnight Marquee Actors Series: Boris Karloff, edited by Gary J. and Susan Svehla
Karloff: The Man, The Monster, The Movies, Dennis Gifford
Behind the Mask
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.- Mr. X
Behind the Mask was reviewed in Hollywood Reporter and Motion Picture Herald as The Man Who Dared . The unpublished story by Jo Swerling was entitled "In the Secret Service." The copyright summary mentions horrific scenes showing Dr. Steiner's operations, but these scenes were not seen in the viewed print. Contemporary reviewers commented on Edward Van Sloan's excellent makeup.