Friday, September 28, 2012
In Memoriam: Herbert Lom, 1917-2012
The Siren felt a bit of eerie coincidence on hearing that Herbert Lom had died at the venerable age of 95. Less than three weeks ago, she saw the fine old British psychiatric romance The Seventh Veil. In it Lom plays the silken, sexy-voiced head-shrinker to Ann Todd's suicidal concert pianist, but he does not fall in love with her. Instead, he puts her under hypnosis with the aid of an injection. Narcosis, he calls it. (Do such drugs exist, where you get shot up and presto, you remember your whole life in screenplay-perfect detail? Frankly, the Siren hopes not.)
As Dr. Larsen, Lom's plot function is to reveal to Todd which of the three men in her life she truly loves. This he does by sitting just out of her sightlines and asking wise, perceptive questions, until the end, when he gets out of the office and does some detective work by asking wise, perceptive questions of the people who know the pianist. The notion that talk therapy, with or without magic injections, can yield life-resurrecting results in a mere matter of weeks deserved skepticism in 1945, and these days such claims are on par with losing 20 pounds in two weeks without dieting. Yet The Seventh Veil is a marvelously entertaining film, utterly committed to its premise, and full of memorable scenes. (Todd said strangers talked to her about the scene where James Mason strikes her hands with a cane for the rest of her life.)
About 20 minutes in, the Siren's better half plopped on the sofa to watch a bit too, drawn by the music. He kept watching, and a little while later when he piped up, it was to say, "The shrink is great."
It's true, Lom is wonderful, as soothingly intelligent and trustworthy as Claude Rains' Dr. Jaquith. Dr. Larsen is a hard part to play, all that sympathizing and empathizing and commiserating and you don't even get the girl. Twenty years later, Lom was cast as a psychiatrist in a TV series and according to the Guardian, he groused: "All I had to do was sit behind a desk saying, 'And vot happened next?', and the terribly interesting patient got all the good bits." Some part of him may have been thinking about The Seventh Veil too, massive hit though it was. He must have known how good he was, though, and that it would have been a lesser movie without him. Lom's listening is so active, so engaged, his faith in his charge's rescue-ability so strong--your belief in the whole concept depends on him.
Lom's obituaries reveal a vividly interesting life that included his escape from Czechoslovakia just ahead of the Nazi invasion. His Jewish girlfriend died in a concentration camp after being turned away by British authorities. Later, when Lom wanted to make a career in Hollywood--which would have been lucky to have him--he ran into a brick wall with American immigration for reasons that don't appear to have amounted to much of anything. In those days, they didn't have to. He married three times and had three children. He wrote two novels that the Siren would love to read.
Lom's a type of actor that fascinates the Siren. A name known to many, but never a big star, and not a character actor with one instantly recognizable film-to-film persona, either. But an actor who worked for decades--a few leads including this one, plenty of heavies, comic parts, stage, TV, and films, whatever came along. El Cid, The Ladykillers, he racked up some indelible films over a six-decade career. The Siren enjoys his pirate in Spartacus and his wonderful Napoleon in King Vidor's underrated War and Peace. Lom played Bonaparte two other times--once on stage, once on film for Carol Reed in Young Mr. Pitt--and wryly called the Emperor a "much-maligned gentleman," which gives a hint of why his portrayal avoided biopic dullness.
Lom's obits give pride of place to his Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films, which is understandable, although the Siren has admitted before that the series isn't her taste. But the role certainly shows Lom's versatility; how often do you get an actor who can play both brilliant farce, and utterly terrifying criminality? All right, Peter Sellers himself did, if you've seen this one.
But hey, Lom did it too, many times, including the great Night and the City. As the crime boss Kristo, his all-purpose accent standing in for Greek this time, Lom got to play an ending so bleak they shied away from it in the weak 1992 remake. Probably it was lack of nerve, but the lack of Herbert Lom didn't help.
One of the many reasons the Siren loves to write about actors is that the good ones reap so much from such tiny, tiny choices. It's miraculous to her. In Night and the City, Kristo's rackets include wrestling. His father, Gregorius, is a wrestler, an honorable one, who nonetheless has been caught up in the get-rich-quick schemes of Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark). Here Gregorius, and Fabian, make the fateful mistake of tangling with Mike Mazurki's Strangler.
At around the 5:15 mark, you hear one word from Lom as Kristo: "Papa." You don't see him utter it, but the whole backstory's in his voice: hero-worship, concern, tenderness, old father-son disputes, and above all, a warning that spins every head in that room in the crime boss' direction. You see all that, too, in the way Lom drapes a robe across Stanislaus Zbyszko's shoulders.
After Gregorius staggers to the store room and Kristo helps his father lie down, the wrestler asks his son to close a window that isn't open. Then he asks a second time, when the camera is on the back of Lom's head, and the responding nod is so small it's barely perceptible. It speaks of Kristo's dread and denial, as if keeping the acknowledgement tiny will somehow change the fact that Gregorius is already growing cold. Ditto Kristo standing and resting his hand on the closed window; Lom's back is almost entirely to the camera again, we have just a sliver of his profile. He can't give his father his full face when he's lying. There's the perfectly calibrated timing of how long Kristo embraces Gregorius' dead body. Kristo's been a villain from the beginning, but from the moment he raises his head, Lom makes the character something else, an executioner. God it's brilliant, one piece of why Night and the City is a superlative film.
And for Herbert Lom, it was one screen performance among more than a hundred.