THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK. MGM, UK, 1936. Re-released as Behind the Mask. Hugh Williams, Jane Baxter, Ronald Ward, Maurice Schwartz, George Merritt, Henry Oscar, Donald Calthorpe, Kitty Kelly. Screenplay by Jack Byrd, Syd Courtney, Ian Hay & Stanley Haynes, based on the novel The Chase of the Golden Plate by Jacques Fitrelle (sic). Directed by Michael Powell.

   This short but fast moving and complicated thriller based on a novel by American mystery writer Jacques Futrelle (his name misspelled in the titles) has a better pedigree than most, with legendary director Michael Powell (half of the famous Archers production company with Emric Pressberger, and director of Black Narcissus and The 49th Parallel among others) at the helm and novelist Ian Hay working on the dialogue.

   Nonetheless it is strictly B movie material, though slickly done and masterly paced so you never have time to ask questions as the novel’s complex plot and myriad mixed identities and double crosses unfold. It plays out like an Edgar Wallace thriller more than a Jacques Futrelle mystery.

   Lord Slade (Peter Cawthorpe) is giving a masked ball to show off the prize of his collection, the golden shield of Khan. The police are in attendance in the person of Chief Inspector Mallory (George Merritt) dressed as Frederick the Great, and a mysterious fellow dressed as Voltaire (Henry Oscar) playing chess with him as they watch the shield.

   Also in attendance are Lady June Slade (Jane Baxter) his daughter, the mysterious East Indian Harrah (Gerald Fielding), Dr. Walpole (Donald Calthorp) the famous surgeon, and Marion Weeks (Kitty Kelly) the doctor’s wisecracking assistant and housekeeper (“I’m dressed as Shirley Temple as Madame Dubarry.”).

   Not in attendance are Lord Slade’s wastrel son Jimmy (Ronald Ward) who argued with his father over money earlier and threatened to hold up a bank to get money if he had to, or Nicholas Barclay (Hugh Williams) a dashing pilot who is in love with June, and disliked by this lordship.

   June and Nicky have plans though; he’s to wear a disguise and slip into the ball, and at midnight when the lights go down he and June will slip away and get married with a special license he has obtained. But before he can even don his costume, he’s shot by an intruder in a mask, an intruder he believes to be Jimmy because of a triangle tattoo on his wrist, a tattoo that Jimmy, Nicky, and their dead friend Allan Hayden (Reginald Tate) all got back in school.

   With Nicky out, a man dressed as the Red Death enters the ball with Nicky’s invitation from June and the help of the butler aiding in the elopement. When the lights go down and everyone unmasks he steals the shield, and takes the car with June in it, being wounded in the shoulder by a detective whom he runs over as he escapes. June knows he isn’t Nicky, but is now a helpless captive.

   Meanwhile the mysterious Harrah travels to the estate of the Master (Maurice Schwartz), the astrologer who paid to have the shield stolen, but who has been double crossed by the thief and by Nadja (Morya Fagan) a follower to report his failure.

   Soon enough Jimmy is cleared, but Nicky didn’t go to the police thinking Jimmy shot him and instead went to be patched up by Dr. Walpole, and now the police want Nicky for the theft and running over the policeman and they know the thief was wounded in the shoulder, while the only clue Nicky has to the real thief is a tie he left behind sold by a haberdashery in a poorer part of London.

   From then on it’s a chase with Nicky, Jimmy, the Dr,, and wisecracking Miss Weeks pursuing the thief and Nadja to rescue June and return the shield, the police after Nicky with the Dr. in tow, and Harrah and the Master’s gang pursuing Nadja and the thief for the shield and eliminating anyone in their way, and when the policeman dies, Nicky is wanted for murder.

   The film is a fast paced diversion, confusing at times, fun with a solid cast, but mostly of interest for the direction of Michael Powell and being based on a novel by Jacques Futrelle (albeit one far inferior to his short stories).

   The real highlight is some brighter than usual dialogue and the scenes in the Master’s observatory, giving the film an almost science fictional feel with Maurice Schwartz, eyes hypnotic and mad, and hair in the style of mad scientist everywhere since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, part Mabuse, part Fu Manchu, and madder than a hatter. It’s a little forgotten gem among mad villains.

   A nod also to Richard Tate as Allan Hayden, who, sporting a black fedora and checkered overcoat, looks uncannily like the illustrations of Leslie Charteris’s The Saint that ran in Thriller. He’s good as an old school tie type who hasn’t quite forgotten the form.

   The ending is a little rushed, and there isn’t so much as a final embrace for Nicky and June, at least not on screen, but it’s satisfying in its own way.

Editorial Comment:   Most of the available prints of this film are less than an hour long, but this one (which I haven’t watched in its entirely) claims to be 1:33 long. If so, then IMDb does not know about it, stating that the original version is believed to be lost: