Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Mask of Diijon (1946) - Erich von Stroheim is No Longer Interested in Hollywood's Gags, Tricks and Illusions

The Mask of Diijon was Erich von Stroheim’s last American film before departing for France in 1946, where he would spend the rest of his career (except from a brief return to Hollywood for Sunset Boulevard in 1949). He had been anxiously waiting for the French film industry to get back on its feet after the Second World War as he felt his talents were better appreciated in Europe and he would be finally spared the constant humiliation he had endured in Hollywood since the early 30s and the end of his career as a director. The Mask of Diijon was acknowledged by Stroheim as beneath his talents (he referred to it as a "stinko") but as usual he needed the money so accepted the work. Luckily, the Poverty Row picture by PRC (Producer's Releasing Corporation) with its swift pace, moody visuals and frequent close ups is a cut above their usual fare and one of their better efforts. In fact, with a few tweaks and bit more gloss it could easily pass for a B picture from the likes of Universal or RKO, and Stroheim more than compensates for any budgetary limitations with his steely star power.

The film opens with a clever piece of misdirection as we are shown a girl being dragged to the guillotine in Revolutionary France. The blade falls and we see the disembodied head sitting in the wicker basket. The head then gives a wide grin as the camera pulls back to reveal the tableau as an elaborate piece of stage magic. The trick was orchestrated in an effort to coax retired magician Diijon (Stroheim) out of retirement but he remains stone faced and unimpressed. His friend then asks incredulously, “What is the matter with you Diijon? Less than a year ago you were one of the top magicians in vaudeville”. As with similar roles in The Great Gabbo and The Great Flamarion, Stroheim plays a cheap music hall turn, and one who has seen better days. This fact was probably not lost on Stroheim whose life and career had remained under a cloud of failure since his fall from grace in the late 20s. Diijon snaps back, probably echoing conversations he had endured many times over, “Stop it! I’m no longer interested in gags, tricks and illusions…I can stand on my own feet. I need no help from you, nor anyone else”. At that point another character remarks, “He’s a stubborn egomaniac”. Once again, the troubled biography of Erich von Stroheim bleeds into his fictional life. Diijon and his failures have become indistinguishable from Stroheim’s own.

The first half of the movie concerns Diijon’s continued obsession with the art of hypnotism (which is equated with the occult for some reason) and the concern felt from his wife (played by Jeanne Bates) about his mental and financial health. Diijon refuses help from his friends and becomes increasingly withdrawn from society, stubbornly refusing offers of employment and friendship and as in real life refusing to compromise his beliefs. The strange thing is, for all the talk of the dark occult world Diijon is dabbling in, his desire to develop and discipline his mind in an effort to ‘touch the infinite’ is actually rather admirable. However, he blames his wife (amongst others) for his problems spitting back at her almost poignantly, “You couldn’t hurt me anymore, nobody can”. Again, lines like these must have given Stroheim a delicious thrill given his propensity for self flagellation in his movie roles. Diijon’s real downfall begins when he is convinced to return to his stage act to earn some money and the trick goes disastrously wrong. His levitating woman abruptly stops levitating and he is humiliated and exposed in front of a nightclub audience. As ever he refuses to take the blame for his failure, and in a line of dialogue that strikes slightly too close to the bone it is declared that “The mastermind is nothing but a stupid charlatan”.

The rest of the film is pure hokum, a dazzling yet gaudy tale of mesmerism, murder and jealous rage ending in a delirious shoot out and an audaciously deranged ending that literally no one can see coming. In fact if there is any reason to watch the movie other than for Erich von Stroheim it is the ending. I can’t spoil it but it is truly jaw dropping in its sudden left turn into incongruity. It truly has to be seen to be believed! Other than that the production has some beautifully cinematic moments from director Lew Landers, with one memorable scene where Diijon walks the night streets, his hat, cane and cape masked by the darkness and swirling fog and his fragile mental state heightened by obtuse camera angles. Cinematographer Jack Greenhalgh at times attempts to give the movie a dreamlike, hypnotic atmosphere to echo the tormented mind of Diijon and this in itself lifts the picture up far higher than the average PRC or Poverty Row fare. Though talky at times, often preposterous in its subject matter (there is an awful lot of the “You will do exactly as I say” school of filmic hypnosis on show) and quite blandly staged, the good definitely outweighs the bad. The camera is clearly drawn to its charismatic yet damaged star and reacts accordingly. 

I’ve always been fascinated by Stroheim’s acting style and screen persona. Based on his reputation as a fearsome and intimidating presence both on and off screen in the silent era, it’s initially quite surprising what a soft voice he has. He has a clipped European accent that is difficult to pin down (I’d guess it’s his natural Austrian accent softened by years spent in America) and a delivery that is disarmingly pleasant yet hints at a cultured cruelty and menace. Perhaps the mere fact that his voice doesn’t immediately match the myth of Stroheim in the popular consciousness meant that he lost out on a lot of potentially juicy roles in the sound era, but he is too good an actor to be saddled with such nonsense. With his relatively small stature and his always elegantly tailored apparel (including all manner of props such as canes, monocles and cigarettes) he has an imposing and spellbinding presence. Nonetheless, his voice and acting style lend themselves to the creation of a nuanced and complex screen character that was often wasted in turgid melodrama playing mad doctors and hypnotists.

It’s been well documented (such as in Arthur Lennig‘s superlative biography Stroheim) that, denied the opportunity to direct motion pictures Erich von Stroheim found ways to incorporate his filmic world into his acting roles. He took an intense interest in the details of every script, every costume and every set design. And despite often causing many arguments with directors, writers and fellow actors he managed to win various concessions to his own private narrative and obsessions. This is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Stroheim the actor and unpicking his performances to discover the layers of meaning he has placed into the added lines of dialogue, the random character traits given to his roles and the minute details of his costuming and set dressing give a tantalising piece of the puzzle. More importantly they gave Stroheim an outlet for his creative urges and a way to feel, even fleetingly, in control of his career and art. 

In The Mask of Diijon, Stroheim must have had very low expectations going in as there are apparently no known script additions, and Diijon has none of the familiar disabilities or deformities so favoured by the master. In fact, though Stroheim gives a very good performance which as ever blurs the lines between myth, reality and fiction in his life, he falls back on his standard acting trick to get by – smoking. There is no one in film history who smokes better than Erich von Stroheim. Not Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis or Greta Garbo. Stroheim looks like he was born with a cigarette in his mouth and born to smoke it and he masterfully uses a cigarette as a prop to convey all manner of emotions and character traits. Whether holding it proudly in his mouth while swaggering down the stairs in a defiant moment or lowering it downwards and close to his body when feeling defensive, the cigarette is ever present and always adding to his performance. It’s the brief moments that would be lost on most viewers that are the most revealing: the way he flicks his ash arrogantly while talking to his friends, or discarding it carelessly while engrossed in his book “The Power of Suggestion”. This is contrasted by a scene in a cafĂ© after he has endured the humiliation of this magic act going wrong where he sits down at the counter and immediately reaches for an ashtray to nervously tap the ash into, his former confident state shattered.

Yet more than anything it’s the stench of failure that hangs over Stroheim in roles like these. There is a constant referral back to the greater glories of the past as he toils away in the tawdry present of parlour tricks and vaudeville. Every success is counteracted by a disaster of his own making, bringing to mind the self destructive reflex in Stroheim's nature. At some point, the deeply wounded Stroheim must have got a wry chuckle from these parts, as he plays them so often as to become typecast as a has been. Either Hollywood was playing a cruel joke on him, or Stroheim decided to offer himself up for regular humiliation as a kind of perverse penance to the machine. Despite this there is an embattled dignity in Erich von Stroheim’s acting in these Poverty Row potboilers. Even when a playing bitter, stubborn egomaniac like Diijon there is a sense of vulnerability and pain at the centre of his performance. As in life, the on screen Stroheim is a proud, driven man pushed to the edge of his wits but remaining unbroken and true to his values. Even without props and set dressing Stroheim embodies the old world chivalry of his native lands, in all its tattered, hypocritical and outdated glory and rightly or wrongly he refuses to bend to the will of his tormentors.

After The Mask of Diijon, Stroheim’s time in Hollywood was at an end. There would be no more insignificant parts in insignificant films to torment him. He thought that the movie industry in France would welcome him with open arms but sadly though acknowledged as a true artist in France, their industry in 1946 had neither the money nor the creative ability to give him what he wanted. However, it was better than the purgatory of Hollywood, and Stroheim made some good (and some not so good) films in his final years, and found many more ways to interfere with scripts and to incorporate all his peculiar interests into his cinematic characters. He even wrote an couple of novels that synthesized all his obsessions into grim, unreadable pulp fiction. His lone return to Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard was not without its uncomfortably cathartic problems, but in hindsight became a major triumph and perhaps the film he is most known for today (as much as this would have wounded him). Strangely, it didn’t result in any further work for him. Stroheim's burned bridges in Hollywood remained firmly burned.

As it is, The Mask of Diijon is a decent ending to a disappointing chapter in Stroheim’s life. It’s a better than average and fairly entertaining production with suitably bizarre and ridiculous moments and gives its star a chance to breeze through a picture with minimum effort and stress and pick up a much needed paycheck. Stroheim conveys the air of a once broken man who stubbornly refuses to accept his current reality and instead seeks to reach beyond the veil and achieve something far larger and more important than his previous life of parlour tricks. As Diijon, Erich von Stroheim manages to encapsulate his struggle with the system, his refusal to bend to the whims of inferior talents and his own self destructive urge to destroy his own success. Right up to the end he remains forever, that "stubborn egomaniac".