Mask of Dust (or A Race for Life as it was called for release in the USA) is a 1954 film produced by Hammer Studios, directed by Terence Fisher and stars Richard Conte, Mari Aldon and George Coulouris.
This is an example of a film produced before Hammer Studios took its place as the home of the British Horror movie and it is best described as a melodrama, and a rather clichéd one at that. As with most of Hammer’s outpoint at this period, Mask of Dust is a film adaption of a BBC radio production to satisfy the legal need for Cinemas to screen British features. However a sign of the times is present in the movie as it involved some American cooperation in the production with an American leading man and lady, plus New Yorker Richard Landau writing the screenplay based on the original novel and radio play which was written by Welsh-born writer Jon Manchip-White who would later write for classic sixties spy series The Avengers.
Richard Conte stars as free style racing driver Peter Wells, who although trying to stage a comeback with an Italian team, is being encouraged by his wife (Mari Aldon) to give up racing due to his advancing age and the dangers in racing. He decides to have one last race when his best friend is killed in an accident and he sets to go out and beat the record on the track as a farewell performance. The first problem is none of the cast of characters are overly interesting and as a consequence of this the film fails to engage, the second problem is that a large chunk of the film is dedicated to two races which look near identical and are only really differentiated by the “sports commentary” on each. While there is an attempt to build up the tension in the second race with Wells’ car leaking oil and smoking up towards the end of the race it never is built up in the correct manner and the shots of his feet being increasingly covered in oil and smoke feel like cutaways to hide some even-by-1950s-standards hideous back projection for the close ups of Conte “driving” the car. Another plot device used is fill the race with a number of cars crashing on the course but since we as the audience have no connection to the vehicles and their anonymous drivers it seems an exercise in futility and fails to capture the idea of dread that Wells too might end up crashing. When on the final laps we see Wells pull into the pit stop and emerges covered in oil and is begged not to go on it just seems matter of fact, when really it needs to be a dramatic point to add a sense of threat to the finale but it fails to deliver. Indeed the rival driver is barely seen and the set is based on lap times rather than an out and out pitch for the chequered flag, which while more accurate, does not really create good drama.
Is it a total waste of 80 minutes? If vintage cars and racing is a hobby-horse of yours, then no, the film has location work at Goodwood and it is worth noting that some of the racing sequences featured specially shot racing footage featuring some of the top drivers of the time doubling for the cast including Stirling Moss, Reg Parnell and Alan Brown, the drivers even make a cameo appearance in a bar at one point during the movie. Also George Coulouris who was a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre has a significant role as Italian Manager “Pic” Dallapiccola and despite being lumbered with an OTT Italian accent for the film, does come across a believable character and fans of 1960s and 70s telefantasy should keep their eyes peeled for a young Edwin Richfield.
The Bottom Line
On the whole I would say that while the film is not bad per se it is guilty of a much more heinous crime, that of being largely forgettable. As a bit of a curio it might be of interest to classic racing car fans or to film buffs as an example of an early Hammer feature but in the case of the latter there are a few more interesting films to have a look at.
The DVD release contains more of interest to racing buffs with special features including two newsreels ‘BRM Wins at Goodwood’ and “Motor Racing” (the 1955 British Grand Prix), and a career retrospective of Sterling Moss entitled “Thank You, Stirling”.