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.


Gloria said...

One of my favoritest actors beautifully celebrated at one of my favoritest blogs.

Tony Dayoub said...

Nice tribute. And fantastic banner.

The Siren said...

Thanks guys! as I emailed a friend this morning, "Well, nobody else is gonna do a Herbert Lom tribute and barely mention the Pink Panther so it might as well be me."

Tinky said...

I'm with you on the Panther. Never my favorite series, and I was a bit annoyed to see it played up in the obits, the way I disliked the lead for William Holden's obituary being his serving as the best man at Reagan's wedding. Anyway, a great tribute, and you're right; he was an odd but wonderful duck among actors.

Rozsaphile said...

I guess he could sing too: he opened opposite Valerie Hobson in the London production of The King and I.

Laura said...

What! I didn't know he could be sexy! Well, I sort of had the suspicion, but that picture at the top! What! Who am I? Where? My fluttering heart.

Lovely tribute. He always combined a brooding, menacing presence with a subtle but likable warmth.

And apparently he was also really hot. 'Kay, I'll stop being tasteless now.

Kevin WOlf said...

A beauty of a post. Thanks.

grandoldmovies said...

Lom was such a great actor, who seemed uncategorizable as a performer; maybe that versatility is why he didn't become a 'star.' He's heartbreaking in the '62 Hammer version of Phantom of the Opera (he's the best thing about the film). His Pink Panther quality you point out, of playing for both farce and criminality, is marvelously on display in 'The Ladykillers'; he's hilarious to watch while persuading you that this character is also dangerously crazy. And he practically steals the film from such accomplished farceurs as Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, and Cecil Parker (though not from Katie Johnson; she stands alone).

gmoke said...

You got it perfectly right. Lom was so much more than Dreyfus although the twitch that developed over the series was spectacular. I too remember "The Psychiatrist." Don't think I ever saw a bad Lom performance. He will be missed but his work will survive.

Another one of those faces and actors we have too few of these days. Why does David Strathairn come to mind? Now that I think about it, a lot of the John Sayles crew is those kind of actors.

Dave Enkosky said...

Thank you for this wonderful tribute to the man.

rcocean said...

Great tribute. He's also good in 'N.W. Frontier' as the sinister half-Dutch journalist Mr Van Leyden.

"Night and City" is a great Noir. Widmark had an amazing range - he could play pipsqueak losers, laughing psychos, and leading men.

The Siren said...

I'm so pleased at all this Lom love, and I have a little list of Further Viewing options. When I heard he'd died I was dismayed that I hadn't even realized he was still with us. Then I started going through his filmography and was thunderstruck by all the roles that came flooding back into my memory. And I thought, this man had a brilliant career, and I want to write something about it.

Then like rcocean says, I got to thinking about how great Night and the City is. And Widmark is just towering but Lom gives a stock part such depth and emotion. When I saw that death scene I was half-rooting for Fabian to get his, too, because Lom's grief was so stark.

And Laura, yes he was handsome, and he had a beautiful voice, and we all know the Siren has a major thing for a man with a beautiful speaking voice.

Speaking of which, Rozsaphile, I wonder if he talk-sang like Brynner, or really sang?

Operator_99 said...

Thanks for putting the emphasis on the wonderful roles he played, with only fleeting mention of anything pink. R.I.P.

Yojimboen said...

A couple of shots for the ladies…
(Vapors alert!)
With Valerie Hobson
With Martha Hyer in The Big Fisherman (1959)
Yesterday’s Daily Mail Obit

I never held the Panthers against him. It was a series of well-paid gigs well-deserved.

Juanita's Journal said...

The last production I saw Herbert Lom was a television adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel. That was eight years ago and I was surprised to see him alive.

There are three roles of his that I'll always remember:


2)Inspector Dreyfus in the PINK PANTHER movies

3)A businessman named Mondrago in an episode of "HAWAII FIVE O"

He was a great actor and I'll miss him.

Vanwall said...

Lom had one of my favorite voices in film - he could stake out a claim in a scene with just that, and woe betide the actor that tried to beat him at that game, you couldn't shoulder him aside with tank after that - throw in his acting and he steals whole films.

Michael Dempsey said...

Another stellar Herbert Lom performance is his rendition of the Muslim general Ben Yusuf in the majestic "El Cid" -- for my money the finest epic film, apart from "Lawrence of Arabia" ever made.

It is a small role, but the fanatical warrior's fierceness he projects ("...and the knife to the hilt")is one of many indelible small moments in movies that from time to time flit through my mind for no apparent reason.

The Siren said...

Yojimboen, I think his sex appeal is in the same range as Claude Rains, who also played the!

Operator, even if I were attached to the Panther movies I might have glossed over them just because I like to occasionally take a "this too" approach to a memorial post. He did a great twitch though, this is true.

Juanita, "Mondrago" is a *superb* villain name. Brilliant.

Vanwall, it really is a beautiful voice and you definitely figure that it's a sound that can call Ann Todd back from the brink of suicide, if only to ask him to recite "The Eve of St. Agnes" or some equally sexy poem.

Michael, I'm not a huge fan of El Cid but Lom's general is definitely one of its liveliest elements.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Ys he steals The Ladykillers clean away from everyone else.

Night and the City needed Lom as much as it needed Widmark.

Kevin Deany said...

My favorite Captain Nemo is Lom's portrayal in Harryhausen's "Mysterious Island." I even like him more than James Mason, but don't tell anyone I said that.

Jeff Gee said...

Replace Charles Boyer in "The Cobweb" with Herbert Lom. Either in Inspector Dreyfuss mode or Kristo mode. Or shoot it both ways, and each version ends with a different set of drapes.

Unknown said...

I also am with you on The Pink Panther. Massively overrated. I saw HL as The Phantom of the Opera when I was about ten and just fell in love with his tragedy and the way he said "It's my music." Just wanted to run in and save him from all the meanies.