Sunday, September 30, 2012

Gangsters, dictators, monsters, and a crazy boss: Deceased Artiste Herbert Lom

When Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru, better known as Herbert Lom, died last week at 95, most folks had assumed he had been gone for a while, as he effectively quit acting back in the early Nineties. Lom could be a very menacing and “mysterious” presence on film, but he is best known for doing a phenomenal job as Sellers' harassed boss in the Pink Panther films and for playing in an endless slew of mysteries, thrillers, and horror pictures.

He was born in Czechoslovakia as the son of a count (!) in 1917. By 1939, he'd already appeared in small roles in two Czech films, but he wanted to “make good” and someday meet Greta Garbo (he finally did, but after she had been out of the biz for many years).

His 1939 journey to England with his girlfriend changed his life forever – the trip sadly ended her life, as she was turned back at Dover and wound up dying in a concentration camp (Lom spoke fondly of her in one of the last newspaper interviews he did, nearly six decades after the end of the war). He parents survived the war and joined him in England in peacetime.

Lom had an auspicious debut in British cinema, playing Napoleon in The Young Mr. Pitt (1942); he later played Nap again in War and Peace (1956). He worked steadily in British film and TV for the next half-century, with two of his early roles catching attention elsewhere, as a therapist in The Seventh Veil (1945) and as a refined but dangerous gangster in the wonderful noir Night and the City (1950).

His varied career found him singing onstage as the King of Siam in the West End production of The King and I and writing two novels (about Christopher Marlowe, and the inventor of the guillotine). As noted, he played in a LOT of thrillers and horror films, including not one but two versions of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians (the 1974 and 1989 versions; the trailer for the former can be found here).

Perhaps his worst credit (I'm going to take a bet this is the worst by far – and that includes Mark of the Devil, about which more below) – is Going Bananas (1987), a comedy with Jimmie Walker and Dom DeLuise (here's a Lom-less sequence that is mind-boggling).. But let us not dwell on the worst moments of Lom's career, and instead celebrate the finest. Or at least the most notorious...

A year before he supported James Mason in The Seventh Veil, the two appeared together in Hotel Reserve (1944). Here you see Lom as an average, ordinary husband – of an all-to-gorgeous babe (start the clip at 2:14):

Lom was a member of two great ensembles in Fifties British films. The first was obviously The Ladykillers (with Guiness and Sellers, 1955) and then Hell Drivers (1957), with Stanley Baker and Peggy Cummins, as well as a then-unknown trio of future super-spies: Patrick McGoohan, Sean Connery, and David McCallum.

Those films are a lot easier to digest than a movie that Lom probably made a lot more money doing, namely El Cid (1961). Here he tells off crucifixion victim Raf Vallone (why not?):

Lom played many larger-than-life characters. In Mysterious Island (1961), he inherited the mantle of Captain Nemo from his old castmate James Mason:

In Count Dracula (1970), the somewhat lame adaptation of Stoker by the always-working Jesus Franco, Lom inherited the mantle of Van Helsing from Peter Cushing (and Drac has a mustache – Why? Because it's a Jess Franco film!):

And speaking of Franco, here's the trailer for his lurid (but still not entirely satisfyingly sleazy) women's prison film 99 Women (1969), starring Lom and Mercedes McCambridge amidst all the chicks in chains:

The most notorious of all of Lom's films was the West German horror pic Mark of the Devil (1970), directed by a Brit (Michael Armstrong). The film was promoted in the U.S. with the distribution of “vomit bags” that were given to every person who bought a ticket.

I remember wanting to go to the film as a kid just to get the bag, since it was such a sublimely gross idea. I'm sure the movie would've messed my mind up, but I wanted that bag! I later found an old one laying on the street and was forbidden to bring it home by my mother. Ah, memories...

I've never sat through the film, but the trailer makes it look like any number of cheesy Euro horror flicks. The gore effects were the main thrust of the film, but Udo Kier's piercing eyes are clearly the most important effect for those of us who are mesmerized by Udo:

Lom was SUCH a familiar face that he appeared in a Benson and Hedges “small cigar” TV ad:

In terms of monster-movie mythology, Lom was assigned a very important role in 1962: he was the screen's third Phantom of the Opera. The film is up in its entirety on YT (twice!) and is worth a look. It is not a great horror picture, but Lom does his best as the Phantom and has a very cool full-face mask:

And the last clip has got to be Lom in his best-remembered role as Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films. The character is in all but the first of the series and was the invention of Blake Edwards and coscripter William Peter Blatty for the film version of the play A Shot in the Dark (1964), which was retrofitted for Sellers' Inspector Clouseau character.

Lom was quoted as saying that he did the series for 20 years, but they ran out of good scripts in the first ten years. Actually there were no Pink Panther films between Shot in '64 and The Return of the Pink Panther in 1975 (a boon for both Sellers and Edwards, whose careers were floundering).

The films after Sellers died were godawful. Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), a piece-o-shit collection of Sellers outtakes extended into a feature. The Curse of the Pink Panther (1983) was another awful pic featuring Ted Wass as an accident-prone NYC cop who goes looking for the missing Clouseau. I love the work of Roberto Benigni, but one of his worst-ever vehicles was Son of the Pink Panther (1993), where he plays Sellers' son, who bedevils Dreyfus like his dad did. As I argued in my obit for Edwards, his career was filled with extremely bad, indulgent films among the few great ones.

Here is a fan's wonderful montage of the best Lom moments from the Pink Panther pics. It was put together in 2009 by someone who adopted the YT moniker “Dreyfus fan” and shows exactly how expert a straight man Lom was, and why he will forever be remembered for that role:

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