Carol Reed’s The Third Man held its central character, Harry Lime, like a privileged secret. There are no flashbacks just other characters' spoken recollections. Its a deeply nuanced route as every person is not just unreliable, but playing their own game. Their accounts of Harry Lime are at the same time selling their version of the man while sussing out the motivations of their audience.
The Mask of Dimitrios, made five years prior to the Third Man shows the immediate flaws of using flashbacks to sell such a story. It was billed, and remembered, as one of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet’s collaborations. Greenstreet’s eloquent verbal riposting found a fantastic sparring partner in Lorre’s heavily accented paranoia. Every scene they share here is a highlight, even if the plot tortures itself to bring them together. But their pairing--Greenstreet as a smuggler, and Lorre as a naif crime writer--acts primarily as a framing device for the dastardly Dimitrious.
Dimitrious himself plays a lightly fictionalized version of Europe from the end of World War I to the beginnings of World War II. His three vignettes play out roughly the same. Dimitrious approaches a simple and otherwise innocent person with promises of money, of which they always accept. The ensuing schemes only result in death, but its Dimitrious’s associates that wind up suffering while he steals away to another European country, another identity, and even bigger schemes.
Dimitrious as played by Zachary Scott is hardly a match for Greenstreet and Lorre. The film sinks quite a bit in his long stretches, but at the same time Mask never really aims very high in its ambitions.