On the day of his BAFTA Fellowship Award, I present ten of my favourite screen roles from the towering giant of British cinema that is Sir Christopher Lee. In chronological order:
1. DRACULA (1958)
The definitive screen Count, his controlled sinister charm making the neck-plunging even more effective when it strikes! At his best in Dracula (1958) and Dracula – Prince Of Darkness (1966), before the role grew ever more caricatured and rarely allowed Lee any dialogue. Dracula A.D 1972 has a curious novelty appeal however!
2. TASTE OF FEAR (1962)
One of the best in Hammer’s run of Black & White thrillers and Lee’s personal favourite of all his films for the studio. His Doctor Gerrard is only a supporting role but it’s one of Lee’s most restrained and likeable performances.
3. DR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965)
Lee plays art critic Franklyn Marsh, whose caustic put downs result in a visit from the Beast With Five Fingers! The best segment in an otherwise weak first horror compendium from Amicus.
4. RASPUTIN, THE MAD MONK (1966)
A full-throttle melodramatic performance here from Lee as Russia’s Greatest Love Machine (the mad ra-ra-rascal!)
5. THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968)
Hammer’s classic screen adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s occult thriller sees Lee in heroic mode as the charismatic Duc de Richleau. A peerless performance.
6. THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970)
Having previously played Sherlock and Sir Henry Baskerville on film, here Lee has a small but very effective role as Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s wonderful interpretation of Holmes.
7. I, MONSTER (1971)
Amicus’ take on Jekyll & Hyde allowed Lee the opportunity of playing the dual role from the novella he loved. Shame they had to entirely change Stevenson’s character names though.
8. HORROR EXPRESS (1973)
All aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway for a real ‘B’ Movie treat as Lee’s Professor Saxton boards the train with the frozen remains of a primitive creature. Next stop, Terror Central, calling at Cheap-Scares Common and Chills-On-A-Budget Parkway!
9. THE WICKER MAN (1973)
Lee’s contribution to the greatest British horror film is not only his terrifying on-screen Lord Summerisle (That singing! That wig!) but also his off-screen championing of the film, which has doubtless helped it’s current status as an enduring classic of cinema.
10. THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974)
As Ian Fleming’s cousin, Lee was perhaps destined to play a memorable screen Bond villain (having been Fleming’s preferred choice to play Dr. No back in 1962) and you don’t get more memorable than the three-nippled assassin Scaramanga and his absurd fun house!
Starring: Thommy Berggren, Anja Schmidt, Kelvin Malave, Evert Anderson, Cathy Smith, Hasse Persson, David Moritz, Richard Weber, Joel Miller
Bo Widerberg seems destined to remain an obscure filmmaker, which is a crying shame if The Ballad Of Joe Hill is anything to go by. Carving out something of a niche in beautiful impressionistic dramas depicting earnest subject matters, Widerberg sealed his artistic reputation on the festival circuit with Elvira Madigan (1967), about two lovers in a suicide pact, and Adalen 31 (1969), about a 1931 industrial strike that ends in tragedy, both films based on real-life events. Whilst Ingmar Bergman was leading the way with Swedish dramas geared upwards towards man’s relationship with life, death and religion, Widerberg preferred to direct his issues sideways at man’s place within society and his perpetual social conflicts. As Widerberg stated in his book A Vision Of Swedish Cinema, “Nor me or my friends saw very much in [Bergman] … We didn’t find the issues of god’s existence that damn important”. There’s no better example of Widerberg’s more socially conscious approach than his 1971 retelling of the life of legendary Swedish political activist and songwriter Joe Hill.
The film opens with Joe Hill’s arrival in New York as an emigrant in 1902, details his move to the west coast and his involvement with the Industrial Workers of the World movement, and ends with his controversial trial for murder and subsequent execution (I wouldn’t say these are spoilers in any way since the life and death of Joe Hill is well documented). The delicate recreation of the period is meticulous and absorbing, with the slightly muddied Eastmancolor adding an almost sepia hue to the photography, but also a harsher realism befitting the story’s bleak conditions. Presenting a distanced outsider’s view of a transitional period in American history, Widerberg unashamedly romanticizes (some would say rightly extols) the important role played by defiant immigrant workers in shaping a modern democratic USA.
Widerberg’s detailed poetic touch notwithstanding, Thommy Berggren’s wonderfully commanding performance as Joe Hill is crucial to the film’s dramatic success. Berggren imbues the role with impassioned joy and fearless tenacity, roaming the land as a prophetic figure determined to alter the social landscape, making his ultimate fate all the more tragic. In early scenes, Hill becomes enamoured with the muffled sound of opera heard with his ear up against the back wall of the Metropolitan Opera House. Listening with him is the equally penniless Lucia (Anja Schmidt), whose fate is to end up as mistress to the lead Tenor after being discovered at the back door and invited inside, thereby immediately rising to the top social echelon. Hill meanwhile has no such luck (or maybe it was Lucia who really missed out?), making his way across America hidden on the underside of trains and swinging from one hazardous and underpaid job to another. In one memorable scene, Hill stands alone singing his self-penned ‘Pie in The Sky’ (a phrase originated by Hill) against the sound of a Salvation Army hymn, gradually commanding a large appreciative audience. The film is peppered with well-rounded and engaging supporting characters, notably a plucky young street urchin and a kindly nomadic old-timer, both of whom are vital in setting Hill off on his mission to galvanize the working class through speeches and songs.
The closing sequences of Hill’s imprisonment and ultimate execution have a lingering dramatic potency. A thorough and unflinching portrayal of capital punishment, Hill’s struggle to remove his blind fold only to discover his assassins hiding behind a dark canvas, their rifles peeking through small cut-out holes, perfectly conveys the state’s own guilt and hypocrisy in their treatment of political activists. Joe Hill’s death is even shown to be doubly sacrificial, strengthening the labourer’s cause with infamous martyrdom as well as protecting the reputation of a married woman who could have provided his alibi. Widerberg marks the scenes with several striking visual moments, such as Hill’s beautiful pastel drawing of California on his cell floor being scrubbed away with a mop. The whole sequence is the most powerful and emotive depiction of state murder until Krsysztof Kieslowski’s far grimmer A Short Film About Killing (1988). After his death, as folklore has it, Hill’s ashes were sent in envelopes to every IWW local, in the hope that they would be scattered and encourage his influence to grow. The film concludes with the envelopes being sent and a reading of the singer’s final written words: “Perhaps some fading flower then/Would come to life and bloom again/This is my Last and final Will/Good Luck to All of you, Joe Hill“.
The Ballad Of Joe Hill is strong fictionalised romanticism from a clearly masterful filmmaker. Just as Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s Winstanley (1975), a similarly powerful tale of historical social turbulence, received a trumpeted re-release in 2008, one can only hope that the work of Bo Widerberg and The Ballad Of Joe Hill in particular can benefit from a much-needed reappraisal. But until then it remains a buried gem.
Starring Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton, Michael Hogben, Maximilian Rüthlein
Well, where does one start with Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession? Pretentious and confused metaphorical drama masquerading as horror; exploitative gross-out nonsense; or miraculous and unequalled arthouse/genre movie crossover? Well Possession is all these things – and a great deal more. Few single films have effectively straddled so many contrasting areas of cinema, one reason for the polarizing effect it has on audiences. After all, how many movies can claim to be an underground cult horror banned under the 1984 ‘Video Nasties’ Act as well as being a prize winner at both the Cannes Film Festival and the César Awards. Only Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), surely influenced by Żuławski’s film, comes to mind as appeasing (and equally offending) horror aficionados and arthouse respectability, but even that didn’t win at Cannes. Clearly Possession is something pointedly dangerous and extraordinary.
The plot and themes of Possession could be endlessly interpreted and allegorized regardless of whether there may or may not be any actual intended meaning (and believe me there’s plenty of baffling ambiguity involving pink socks and dopplegangers) but Żuławski has naturally (and playfully) kept tight-lipped about it all. But the basic concept is clear enough when described in a single sentence: After the collapse of a marriage, the man looks after the child whilst the woman gives birth to a hideous tentacled creature. There, that’s all you really need to know. And from that the obvious implication is that dissolution of the family unit can spawn a monster. Since the film makes great play of its bleak and unforgiving West Germany setting, we could just as easily say that federal state control can spawn a monster. Also, an individual’s own selfishness and obsessive desires can spawn a monster. Maybe even religion can spawn a monster. Anything and everything could spawn a monster in this film.
Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill are Anna and Mark, the disintegrating couple in question. Sam Neill, who has since proven himself to be a consummate actor, here pitches his performance somewhere between wooden and maladjusted. But nowhere near as unhinged as Isabelle Adjani, whose performance must rank as one of the most committed depictions of raving hysteria in all of cinema, and by committed I could just as easily be referring to an asylum. Adjani won the Best Actress award at Cannes and the Césars for a role which requires her to self-abuse with a knife, have an apparent epileptic seizure in a subway and spew odious white fluid from every part of her body. For sheer committment to the part she deserved every award she got. But Adjani and Neill both deliver their characters at just the right level of warped lunacy appropriate for the film, because in the end Possession is all about being compulsively trapped in the experience of watching it for the entire 2 hours. Regardless of its muddled thinking, as a purely cinematic experience Possession is the greatest ordeal imaginable. It’s a masterclass in sustained frenzy, as excessive as it is exacting.
Considering the film’s overlapping cult horror/arthouse credentials it’s not surprising that, depending which camp you’re in, Possession has been criticized as compromising and not fully exploiting either field. But for my money, this is horror filmmaking in its purest sense. Scenes of startling horrific content punctuate an overall tone of unremitting fever pitch. When they strike, the horror elements are unquestionably brilliant, the best the genre has to offer. The taut atmosphere and surrealist slant recalls Polanki’s Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) – further examples of mental angst in rundown bed sits – or Skolimowski’s Deep End (1971) and The Shout (1978) (there’s clearly something special about Polish-directed English language psychological horror!). The disgusting tentacled creature itself is a wonderful achievement, designed by Carlo Rambaldi a year before winning plaudits as the creator of E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial. A gruesomely tactile creation, dripping with repulsive detail – only David Cronenberg has achieved the same level of graphic monstrosity. It’s no surprise that, for a film which gradually escalates the level of horror throughout, Possession concludes with levels of stylish and extravagant violence to make any Giallo proud.
Possession is an exhausting, perplexing and revolting experience. Every self-respecting horror fan simply has to put themselves through it. A Masterpiece.
Starring: Donald Pleasance, Hugh Armstrong, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, June Turner, Clive Swift, James Cossins, Christopher Lee
Released in America under the more sensationally titled Raw Meat, Gary Sherman’s horror curio is literally an underground classic. When British horror of the early 1970’s mainly consisted of the Hammer studios struggling to break free of their gothic cycle and Amicus studios making starry US co-produced anthologies, Death Line represented a small number of UK independent films influenced by the sleazier, gorier horror of early Wes Craven, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento (the following years would see Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren both carve out a gruesome niche in this very style). Chicago-born Gary Sherman moved to London as a commercials director, but found that the London Underground provided the perfect backdrop for his directorial feature debut. Marketed as an exploitative splatter horror, the film poster’s tagline – “Beneath modern London buried alive in its plague-ridden tunnels live a tribe of once human. Neither man nor woman, they are less than animals … they are the raw meat of the human race!” – neatly sums up the ‘lost race’ concept but is entirely misleading in respect to the film’s highly irregular narrative approach. Images of a scantily clad race of blonde zombies on the poster could not be further from the truth! So quite what audiences made of Death Line in 1972 one can only wonder, but it’s a fair guess that, depending on their taste, reactions would have ranged from baffled annoyance to joyous surprise.
Death Line is essentially split into two contrasting narratives, an overground/underground story divide as stylistically different in tone, design and direction as is possible. Firstly, overground we have the comings and goings at Russell Square tube station and a London of the early 70’s that’s not so much swinging as simmering. After some bizarre and groovy title music, two dreary 20-somethings Alex and Trisha find a man collapsed on a tube staircase and then bicker about it at length in their bed sit; a rather seedy Minister gets more than he bargained for after being rejected by a Soho prostitute; and Christopher Lee crops up as an MI5 agent for a 2-minute cameo sporting a terrible fake moustache which nevertheless bagged him a special writ-large title credit. Then there’s the wonderful horror stalwart Donald Pleasance, stealing the film as the grouchy tea-obsessed Inspector Calhoun, one of the greatest screen coppers and a clear forerunner to The Sweeney‘s Jack Regan. A gloriously eccentric performance filled with subtle ticks and quirks, Pleasance provides a much-needed comic tone to an otherwise grim and downbeat movie. In one delightful scene, the main plot is totally disregarded in favour of Pleasance getting hilariously drunk in an East End boozer. Earlier, over a nice cup of tea Inspector Calhoun is informed of a Victorian-era accident which trapped a number of men and women deep in the underground. Then with a sharp jump cut the film takes a startling turn …
In an astonishing 7-minute tracking shot, the camera slowly makes its way through a dark cave of unspeakable horrors. The noise of steady dripping water, a gradually increasing heartbeat and feral cries from an unseen creature accompany images of strewn decaying corpses. Eventually the camera pauses on The Man (Hugh Armstrong), a revolting wart-covered Neanderthal crying over his dying partner. The shot disappears through the damp mouldy walls, pulls back along a large disused tube tunnel and rises towards the noise of a train arriving at a busy Russell Square tube station. The sequence is an audacious side-step from the action that David Lynch would be proud of, enough for audiences to think someone had put the wrong reel in. Lingering on all the grisly details – crawling maggots, rotting flesh, pools of blood – the scene has the resolute ambition of the director stamped all over it. Later things get a whole lot nastier, as The Man drinks from the neck of a victim and gets particularly inventive with a spade. There are some truly shocking and incredibly gory attacks which were among the first of their kind in British cinema.
One of the first films to explicitly depict cannibalism, ‘The Man’ was making light work of carcasses two years before Frightmare‘s Dorothy Yates or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Leatherface. Hugh Armstrong’s compassionate performance makes The Man simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic, similar to Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster. He is a beast created through inhumanity and represents the fearful by-product of man’s own negligence. Apart from a series of wails and whimpers, The Man’s only words are the anguished repetitive cry of ‘MIND THE DOORS’, presumably the only words he has heard from above, which is both chilling and imbued with pathos. The film’s macabre eye for detail earned it a hardened fan base, including Guillermo Del Toro, who declared at a 2002 Lincoln Centre Horror season that it was one of his all-time favourites. Death Line even became respectable when it won the inaugural Golden Scroll award from the Academy of Science-Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. In 2000 a panel of critics named Death Line as one of the ‘Ten Most Important British Horror Films of the 20th Century”.
Death Line could be described as slight and underdeveloped, clocking in at a mere 84 minutes, but as an exercise in brutal and unusual horror it can’t easily be dismissed. An essential film for any horror fan looking for something extraordinary – and verging on arthouse – beyond the canonical classics. It’s certainly enough to make you look twice next time you’re on the Piccadilly line!
Starring John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, Adolfo Celi, Terry-Thomas
The word cool just doesn’t do justice to Danger: Diabolik. It’s an uber-cool cult classic. If Danger: Diabolik is Dino De Laurentiis’ sibling movie to his own Barbarella from the same year, then it’s a trendier and wiser younger brother. After a run of mould-breaking and influential horror films, Mario Bava used his expert craftmanship to perfectly capture many popular traits of late-1960’s cinema: the spy thriller, the heist movie, exploitative sex and violence, and colourful escapism. Far from being euro trash, Danger: Diabolik is sublime pop art. It’s the Citizen Kane of hip psychotronic cinema, a comparison that isn’t quite as daft as it first sounds – Bava’s inventive, experimental and influential techniques have more in common with Orson Welles than one might imagine. For example, Diabolik’s underground lair, largely created through stunning matte paintings and subtle framing, is completely in the spirit of Welles’ audacious design for Kane’s Xanadu. Adapted from the popular Italian fumetti comic featuring the iconic anti-hero Diabolik, Bava succeeds in recreating the visual pace of the comic strip with cinematic flair. Clearly aware that the art of the comic book panel is to capture movement and emotional intensity in a still image, Bava injects every shot with a similar sense of depth and perspective, and every cut with the same dramatic urgency. His famously resourceful use of a small budget is remarkable – the impressive sets rival You Only Live Twice, tremendous underwater sequences are the equal of Thunderball, but all are filmed for a pittance of the Bond budget.
Contemporary critics assumed that Danger: Diabolik was stylistically informed by the high camp of the Batman TV series (ABC 1966 – 68), but in fact the two have little in common beyond the obvious comic book source and the paranoid city bureaucrats akin to Gotham City. But whilst Batman is unabashedly campy and a clear-cut good vs evil duel, Diabolik goes way beyond camp, acknowledging and relishing its own extravagances to the point of satire (30 years before Austin Powers foolishly thought it was clever to parody what was already a parody) and ploughing a far more subversive, morally skewed path. The character of Diabolik represents the archetype of the European criminal as a heroic figure. Unlike the victorious and moralistic American super-heroes, post-war Italy had a healthy cynicism for government and capitalism, and by the 1960’s Diabolik filled the need for a counterculture anti-hero who goes so far as to destroy all government buildings representing funding and taxation. Also noteworthy, whilst USA superheroes live with their butlers or etch out respectable careers as journalists, Diabolik proves that bad guys have more fun, revelling in his hedonistic lifestyle of casual sex and violence.
Danger: Diabolik fully embraces the late 60’s counter-culture ethos, with its attacks on materialistic pleasures and desire to bring down the state. In a perfect visual rendering of both these ideas, after Diabolik has stolen $10 million in bank notes from the government, he simply uses the money to make love in – and on a revolving love nest too! Diabolik is avarice personified and crucially he doesn’t even have an alter-ego – when Diabolik removes his mask he is still Diabolik, hungry for the gratification of sex or wealth and living the life of a decadent hermit. But there’s a doomed loneliness to the life of Diabolik and Eva Kant (his icy blonde sexpot companion), living in luxury but still living a trapped existence separate from any form of society. They’re like Bonnie and Clyde, only less rounded and charismatic! The criminals here are a vapid and humourless pair, almost enough to make one root for the police – if they weren’t so inept. As such, the moral tone of Danger: Diabolik is a confusing one – neither the good or bad guys illicit any real compassion, but one thing’s for sure: dislikeable people committing horrendous acts (even mass terrorism) has never been so much fun!
The late John Phillip Law (fresh from Barbarella) presents the hardest working pair of eyebrows in the business, his somewhat limited acting style finding its perfect arena here with a deliberately over-egged performance as Diabolik. This is, after all, not a film concerned with ‘acting’ but of actors inhabiting cut-and-paste characters with vim and vigour. Michel Piccoli, better know for his collaborations with Luis Buñuel, may have been paying the rent with this one but gives an enjoyable performance as the head of police obsessively hunting down the elusive master criminal. Ennio Morricone’s score is a connoisseurs delight, an absolutely terrific mix of psychedelic pop and his own unique orchestration of wails and jangling guitars as heard in the Leone westerns. The main theme “Deep Deep Down” is the sexy equal of any Bond theme and “Valmont’s GoGo Pad” captures the hippy zeitgeist as well as “Age Of Aquarius” despite its illegible lyrics! One of the great tragedies of cinema is that the soundtrack never received an official release, all master tapes having been destroyed in a studio fire.
Danger: Diabolik is also an incredibly kinky film, its euro trash leanings perhaps allowing it to flirt dangerously where other mainstream spy movies could only dream – its fetishistic costumes, explicit drug use and sexual abandon being enough to make even James Bond think “that’s a bit much!” Like all Italian films of this era, the slightly off dubbing contributes greatly to films otherworldly aesthetic. There’s a bizarre mix of beautiful Italian locales, a central US dollar monetary system and the very British Terry-Thomas as Minister Of Finance – yes, the unspecified world of Danger: Diabolik could only exist in an internationally co-financed sixties caper movie!
Just as Diabolik’s fate is to be trapped in a mould of molten gold, so the film is a 24-carat encapsulation of a wild and exuberant age of cinema. It represents the zenith (and last gasp) of colourful 1960’s escapism, filled with extravagant sixties fashion and design, before the 1970’s brought with it an earthier, more naturalistic style and a darker realism across all film genres. Even in 1968 the film was not a massive hit, the far more serious tone of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet Of The Apes heralding a new level of earnest fantasy that must have made Danger: Diabolik look all the more lightweight and frivolous. Only in retrospect can the film’s significant place in sixties pop culture be fully recognised. Time has been more than kind to it, revealing new pleasures of euro-cool kitsch and iconic pulp fiction with each passing year. The film literally ends with the largest wink to an audience imaginable, followed by the most deliriously maniacal laughter ever heard in a film. Diabolik gets the last laugh, in every conceivable sense.
Smarter, funnier, sexier and more knowing than any of its contemporaries or forerunners (Bond, Batman, Flint, Powers, and all subsequent superhero movies). The greatest comic book film ever made? Deep down, you know it is.
Very much a forgotten gem of British Cinema and a masterclass in sharp observational drama, The Ploughman’s Lunch captured the caustic nature of Thatcher’s Britain during the Falklands war like no other film, and found critical appreciation both at the cinema and as part of Channel 4’s inaugural Film On 4 season. The film also became famous for surreptitiously filming scenes against the backdrop of the 1982 Conservative Party conference in Brighton, similar to the use of the Democratic National Convention backdrop in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), even including footage of Margaret Thatcher’s speech.
Jonathan Pryce stars as the ambitious BBC radio journalist James Penfield, who has been commissioned to write a book on the 1956 Suez crisis at the same time as the Falklands War begins to dominate media coverage. During his research Penfield pursues the equally odious Susan in order to get assistance from her mother Ann Barrington (the excellent Rosemary Harris), a noted historian, who he eventually sleeps with in order to secure the fate of his book. Pryce’s compelling performance makes his sullen and pointedly unsympathetic character difficult to take your eyes off, despite being one of the most selfish leading men ever put on screen.
Ian McKewan’s script is unsurprisingly thorough and novelistic in its use of recurring themes and acutely observed characterisation. The prominent theme is the manipulation of truth – in the selective rewriting of history (the Suez Crisis), media coverage (Penfield dictates radio news scripts), and most devastatingly, the rewriting of one’s own history and personality. For example, Penfield is ashamed of his working-class parents, telling people they are dead. The film’s bleakest scenes show him grudgingly visiting them and showing no compassion for his mother’s terminal illness. Similarly deceptive, Ann’s marriage to Advert Director Matthew Fox (Frank Finlay) is a sham, existing for purely economic reasons. Matthew’s own arena of advertising is of course built on fabrications, as his character explains that the titular Ploughman’s Lunch is nothing more than a marketing trick, a 1950’s invention dressed up as an archaically traditional meal.
The Ploughman’s Lunch succeeds in making its thoroughly unlikable set of characters incredibly watchable. Like peering into a nest of vipers, the film reveals a morally and emotionally bankrupt British media – a rot which the film projects throughout the whole of society. Every scene and almost every character displays a soulless self-interest, offering a doomed vision of a country heading towards total ethical deterioration. Richard Eyre’s direction gives events a moody grey outlook and, in one stunning sequence when Penfield stumbles across a protest camp in a Norfolk airbase, there’s an almost apocalyptic feel to the landscape.
The Ploughman’s Lunch is the kind of film that forces the viewer to dig deeper, each viewing uncovering new subtleties in theme and characterisation. A cynical, severe and intelligent drama, given its concepts of moral decay at the heart of media, politics and society, perhaps it’s the right time for The Ploughman’s Lunch to find a new audience – it’s clearly as relevant now as it was in 1983.
Describing himself in a 1969 TV Times interview, Dennis Price wryly said he was “very nearly Britain’s biggest film star”. By the late 1960’s, after experiencing 30 years of ups and downs in British films, Price had seen all too clearly how haphazard the life of a “movie star” could be. For my money, Dennis Price is up there with Olivier, Richardson and Guinness (more on him later!) as the consummate British actor, but he is now almost a forgotten name, certainly a neglected one, even among film buffs. The reasons are many fold and pretty much a textbook example of a tragic film career. A brief look through his film roles offer possible answers as to why he is such a forgotten star, but they also remind us how he was one of the greatest actors of his generation.
His first film role could hardly have been any grander – a starring part in the excellent 1944 war drama A Canterbury Tale from the prodigious Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, which sees Price in thoroughly serious acting mode, hiding the naturally dry comic style with which he became known. The film was not a box office hit but is now regarded as one in a number of Powell & Pressburger classics. But the Dennis Price of this era seemed just another in a line of dashing leading men appearing in slushy melodramas that were ten a penny from Gainsborough studios, albeit with some good performance notices. But his leading role in The Bad Lord Byron (1949) didn’t even have those and met with a critical backlash, halting any chances of a move to Hollywood.
Then things took a turn with Kind Hearts And Coronets, the film that if anything Price is today best remembered for. His role as the devilishly suave psychopath Louis Mazzini showed how charismatic and funny Price could be. But he was cast against a certain Alec Guinness, appearing chameleon like as no fewer than eight members of the doomed D’Asgoyne family, a feat which largely stole the film’s plaudits. But Price’s performance in the film is absolutely pitch-perfect, a model of ruthless manipulation and cruel composure, surveying his victims as obstructive nuisances to be neatly swept aside. Despite his top billing, and being arguably Price’s best film and best role, Kind Hearts And Coronets is now only ever referred to today as the ‘classic Ealing black comedy” or ‘the film where Alec Guinness plays eight parts’. Another false start, it seemed. Price never made another Ealing comedy and Guinness went on to star in another four before launching an international career. Price seemed to make do with lesser comedies such as Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951) and a run of B-movie crime thrillers.
Thanks to the Boulting Brothers, Price finally got another slickly diabolical role to get his teeth into with Private’s Progress (1956). Sharing top-billing with Richard Attenborough, Price’s performance as the corrupt Brigadier Bertram Tracepurcel simply oozes ‘dispicable bounder’ from every pore. Invited to reprise the role in the landmark sequel, I’m All Right Jack in 1959, Price more than holds his own in a cast of British comedy goliaths: Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas, Irene Handl and Margaret Rutherford. But once again, Price’s role is somewhat neglected, given the stellar cast, the fact that the wonderful Ian Carmichael pretty much dominates the action and, like Guinness in 1949, Peter Sellers won all the plaudits in 1959. Price provided sterling support in many comedies from this British golden age – in The Naked Truth (again with Sellers and T-T), School For Scoundrels (with T-T and Carmichael), Double Bunk and What A Carve Up! (both with Sid James), and Go To Blazes (1962), but these roles were often all too throwaway and barely did his talent justice.
The 1960’s showed Price making a number of brief pit stops with stardom, mostly in notable supporting roles. In 1960 he was Sophia Loren’s analyst in The Millionairess (again with Sellers), but then the same year Tunes Of Glory presented a rare chance for Price to combine his persona of inscrutable upper-class cad with his some real dramatic meat. But yet again his role is somewhat obscured, given that the film is essentially a two-hander between John Mills and Alec Guinness (who actually used his considerable clout to make sure Price was cast, clearly demonstrating a professional respect Guinness had for him). It’s well worth revisiting Tunes Of Glory to take in Price’s delicate and subtle performance. The following year he gave what many considered a deeply personal performance as an actor blackmailed over his homosexuality in the controversial drama Victim, with Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms. A small role but an effective one, contemporary critics have made much about how Price’s own homosexuality informed the part, which no doubt it did, but more striking is how it perhaps laid bare Price’s own insecurities about the trappings of fame and the fragile nature of success.
A late career upturn took place with the role of Jeeves in the BBC’s The World Of Wooster (1965 – 67) but sadly recordings of the show barely exist today. Continued financial troubles forced Price to become a tax exile on the island of Sark in 1967, making it hard for him to accept regular work. So it’s always a bonus to see Price briefly crop up in some good comedies of this era – The Magic Christian (1969), Some Will Some Won’t (1970) and The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer (1970). For the last few years of this life however, Price fell into something of an undignified trough and many a cult horror fan will recognize him for his many bit parts in a whole range of horror films – from the half-decent Twins Of Evil, the enjoyably bad Haunted House Of Horror and Horror Hospital, the below-par for Hammer Horror Of Frankenstein, to the downright awful Tower Of Evil and Vampiros Lesbos! One of his last roles was a good one though, as a bitchy theatre critic in the deliciously over-the-top Theatre Of Blood (1973), but Price died of heart failure after a hip fracture and a long battle with alcoholism before the film’s release.
So Dennis Price, one of the great underrated British film stars? There are a dozen film roles which stand as testament to his huge talent and natural gift for comedy, a handful of striking dramatic roles, and a flurry of enjoyable supporting turns. But perhaps he never fulfilled the potential he displayed in Kind Hearts And Coronets. Although did he ever really hunger after the role of revered leading man? As he once admitted, with sharp self-awareness: “I am a second-rate feature actor. I am not a star and never was. I lack the essential spark, you see.” Of course, he was quite wrong about the spark.
Recommended reading: Elliot J. Huntley’s excellent and thorough Dennis Price: A Tribute – The Life And Death of Dennis Price, which had a limited print run but it’s well worth tracking down a copy.