Tag Archives: Fred Astaire

The Mask of Dimitrios

Movie night!

At the prompting of my erudite friend Walter Tunis, I watched TCM’s showing of Three Strangers (1946). While I wasn’t as taken with the film or Geraldine Fitzgerald’s performance as Eddie Muller, I was quite arrested by Joan Lorring’s portrayal of Icey.

And of course seeing Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet together again reminded me…

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) features one of my favorite acting teams. Unlike Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers they don’t dance and sing. Unlike William Powell and Myrna Loy they are not rich and in love with each other. Unlike Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis they are not stupid.

Greenstreet and Lorre could not be more unlike. Nor could their differences be more delightful.

Greenstreet and Lorre don’t even appear together in the same scene in a movie sometimes Casablanca (1942) comes to mind. Lorre squirms, fawns, and dies in Rick’s Café Americaine long before we see Greenstreet fleecing foreigners and swatting flies (with similar personal involvement, I might point out) in the Blue Parrot.

In The Maltese Falcon (1941), Greenstreet; “…likes talking to a man who likes to talk…”, while Lorre complains; “…you’ll understand our conversations have not been such that I wish to continue them.” The chemistry between them is sizzling…like Oliver and Hardy…but with real bullets.

In Dimitrios, the bullets are indeed real. The stakes are sinister and high. The rooms are exquisite and bright, as are the wits. The stairs outside are dark and ominous, as are the intentions. The disgraced remain disgraced. The dead remain…or do they?

Frank Capra can stay home on this one. Ain’ no angels earnin’ wings ‘round these parts.

In these waters, Greenstreet and Lorre swim for their lives while criss-crossing Europe in sleeper cars, sipping champagne, and lookin’ fine in their threads.

If these two fine character actors are both in a flick, you can bet with confidence that the flick is gonna be interesting. The Mask of Dimitrios is exactly that.

I really like this one.

Drinking With Stanislavsky

“Is that what you call drunk?”

It was a gentle question from the director of the play, delivered quietly, but the sneer behind it was clear.

I was appalled. I was nineteen and had never had an alcoholic drink in my life. What was wrong with me? How did the director know? What did I do wrong?

Wait a minute.

The question wasn’t for me.

The director, a 22-year-old student himself, was relentless; “You understand this guy’s a drunk…and he’s a hired killer…and he’s in no hurry? You understand that?”

Relentless, as only a student peer can be; “You played that like a cartoon.”

Relentless; “Have you never been drunk in your life?”

Eddie, the actor being skewered; “Well…as a matter of fact……no.”

Amidst the snickers, I tried to become invisible in my shock; (“Holy moly, there’s two of us on the planet!”)

The director, juggling his months-old worldly sophistication with two decades of Southern Kentucky parental expectations, struggled to find a path that would advance his play without making his mama ashamed.

“Well…we’ll need to fix that.”

A date was set. Eddie volunteered his apartment, which was great ‘cause he had the only TV set in our cast. The plan was to rehearse and then take the whole cast over to Eddie’s place and get him drunk. The director would question Eddie during the liquid applications, we might do some of the scenes from the show, and Eddie would absorb a useful sensory memory upon which he could draw to portray his villain on stage.

Ol’ Constantine Stanislavsky would be so proud.

Cherry vodka was the agreed-upon ingredient: one pint was the agreed-upon dosage. I’m reminded here of the gospel according to Woody Guthrie; “There’s a lotta truth in a pint of whiskey…but not too much in a quart.”

What could go wrong?

Eddie’s character in the play was Irish, sullen, murderous.

Well…

Eddie was a big fan of Fred Astaire and Cole Porter and had always wanted to sing.

He was loud. He was full of glee. He was occasionally in tune.

It was useless for the purposes of the show, but it validated my belief in the basic, boisterous, goodness of the human race and the genius of the American songbook.

Unfortunately, it made me miss the late night movie I was hopin’ to see on Eddie’s TV. I think it was Flying Down to Rio, Fred and Ginger’s first film together.

Sigh…

High art demands high sacrifice.

(see what I did there?)