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!
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.
Apart from his distinctive and much-imitated delivery, James Mason has always stood out for me in films because his performances evoke a conflict of interests – his characters are at the same time fascinating and charismatic whilst also mysterious and unsympathetic. It makes him all the more unlikely as a Hollywood star and, looking back at his career, few actors could claim such a number of polarizing lead roles. Even when playing the archetypal British villain in Hollywood, notably in The Prisoner Of Zenda (1952), Julius Ceasar (1953), 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), and North By Northwest (1959), there’s a depth of character that stands out as something mysterious and sinister. In Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, there are hints that the villain Phillip Vandamm is in a relationship with his henchman, suggesting hidden depths of guilt and pretence under his suave and controlled exterior.
Once established as a reliable supporting actor in America, his first significant leading role was in A Star Is Born (1954), where he played opposite Judy Garland as a violent alcoholic who ultimately drowns himself – a pretty demanding role for any film, let alone a Hollywood musical! Mason was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar and won a Golden Globe for the film.
His definitive film role came with Lolita in 1962 and it’s hardly surprising that Mason was Stanley Kubrick’s first choice for the role of the sophisticated paedophile Humbert Humbert. About as controversial as a mainstream film could be in 1962 (even though Kubrick raised the age of Lolita from 12 in the novel to 14 for the movie) Mason still won plaudits for his intense portrayal and it’s now impossible to imagine any other actor successfully tackling the dark complexities of this part. A similarly obsessive role came in Michael Powell’s Age Of Consent (1969), playing a jaded painter opposite a young Helen Mirren.
A few interesting collaborations with Sidney Lumet followed, including the bleakly atmospheric spy thriller The Deadly Affair (1966), Chekhov’s The Seagull (1968) and the acclaimed courtroom drama The Verdict (1982), but Mason’s later films were largely supporting roles, offering neither the depth or intrigue of his 50’s and 60’s work. His last great film was The Shooting Party (1985), which put Mason at the centre of an impressive cast including John Gielgud and Edward Fox and, appropriately enough, concerned a landowner whose very existence and way of life were becoming obsolete. Mason died in 1984, before the film’s release.
Of all his Hollywood roles, perhaps the most interesting was that of Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life (1956), a family man who agrees to take part in an experimental drug treatment for his life-threatening illness, the result of which turns him into a dangerous psychotic with serious delusions of grandeur. The character serves to critique the dangerous trappings of conformist suburban life, a topic that may have been close to Mason, given that he also co-wrote and produced the film. A remarkably scathing movie for its time, Bigger Than Life took a typically perverse view of 1950’s suburbia from director Nicholas Ray and it may have been too much for contemporary audiences to take because the film was a flop, although it’s now increasingly being recognised as a masterpiece. It stands as a fitting monument to Mason’s bizarre career as Hollywood’s ultimate un-romantic lead.