“It’s my job to give my best. I can’t give anything else.”
And he never did. Herbert Lom, who has died aged 95, was one of those great actors whose appearance illuminated any film he appeared in. Perhaps it was because he was exceptionally good at selecting these films or perhaps it was because he carried his characters with such aplomb, but it is hard to think of one which did not seem to be worth watching at least once, often twice and sometimes whenever the eye alights on the DVD.
Being of Central European extraction, he was a gift to film makers in the era immediately after the Second World War who needed someone to play the bad guy for pieces like Snowbound but who wasn’t actually a German. What Lom – actually a Czech, born in Prague when it was still in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – thought of such roles is another matter. But they paid the bills and brought him the interesting characters in the films – devious characters, outwardly merely verging on amoral and turning out to be thoroughly unpleasant. (Though Snowbound is particularly fun in this regard, transforming the normally interesting character of mixed and hidden motivations by giving this trait to the entire cast. Guy Middleton, normally seen in gap-toothed upper-class twit roles until he was driven from them by Terry-Thomas, therefore gets to appear on the VHS box cover pointing a gun or two at Dennis Price’s unconscious form. Those wishing to see more bog-standard Guy Middleton may prefer to watch him playing around Audrey Hepburn in Laughter in Paradise or chatting up the French teacher in The Belles of St Trinians.)
The 1950s brought a widening of roles and one of two characters for which Lom will be remembered – Louis Harvey. Harvey is a remarkably vicious creation, driving Cecil Parker’s innocent Major character off a roof and placidly remarking after that “I shouldn’t think he felt a thing,” but not a wholly two-dimensional one – even he has his limits, particularly with regards to old ladies. One wonders if it was wholly a coincidence that Lom’s two particularly outstanding characters have since been “remade” by Hollywood, which regrettably neglected to cast him in the new versions. Perhaps not even Lom could have salvaged something from the plotless, humourless mess that is The Ladykillers Mark II.
For The Ladykillers Mark I Lom makes just one appearance with his hat off, in a strangely comic scene where Alec Guinness is playing the piano while a variety of old ladies are singing along and drinking tea – led by the glorious Katie Johnson – in a room littered with flowers and parrots. He looks completely out of place and it is obvious why many of his roles up to that time featured him in thuggish characters. When a couple of years later he cropped up in North-West Frontier – about a small boy being taken over the Indian border into Afghanistan by train around the time of the Indian Mutiny – it must have been fairly apparent to the audience that there was going to be some reason why he would not be joining such luminaries as Wilfred Hyde-White, Lauren Bacall and Kenneth More on the side of the boy. As in Snowbound, he gets to play scenes as a bored, disinterested character watching everyone else work.
So it must have been a pleasant change when Mysterious Island made him a brilliant scientist in a fancy diving suit with dozens of wonderful gadgets – few of which would have worked, but who cares in a fantasy film with Joan Greenwood floating around the set shooting at a giant chicken produced by Ray Harryhausen. Oddly, Mysterious Island has also recently joined the ranks of Lom films to have been remade. One has to wonder when Snowbound‘s turn will come.
Gambit, from the mid-1960s and starring Michael Cain and Shirley MacLaine (a rather good pairing who still come up from time to time in films like 2005’s Bewitched), is also now apparently engaged in being remade. Obviously a film with Lom, Maclaine and Caine in it is a strong candidate for a remake to bring the powerful story to new audiences. The fact that its list of leading lights was of such quality, rather like Ladykillers and Caine’s The Italian Job, obviously has nothing to do with its success. The ending is very memorable, though the rest of the film is not quite so much.
Lom missed The Pink Panther – one of his co-stars from The Ladykillers, Peter Sellers, took the best-remembered role in this glorious ensemble piece – but was brought in as Chief Inspector Dreyfus for A Shot in the Dark, the second of the series. It was his other brilliant, memorable role. Lom continued to play an increasingly insane Dreyfus for the rest of the series, driven round the bend by Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau. He is seen variously biting Clouseau’s ankle, demolishing the UN building in New York and eventually getting straight to the point with the line “It is Clouseau! Hahahaha…. Kill him… Hahahaha…“. Fortunately the US authorities were more interested in the outcome of a baseball match than the motivations of this hilarious terrorist.
Lom always played his comic roles completely straight and it is by this means – playing the role for itself (his element) rather than for its humour quotient (Sellers’s element) – that he occasionally manages to outdo Sellers on the laughs front. The Hollywood remakes of the Pink Panther films missed this element. Clouseau is correctly played by a comedy actor, one Steve Martin. Lom’s role was however also passed to a comedy actor, in the form of John Cleese. Cleese has consistently demonstrated since the days of The Ferret Song that he can play comedy straight, but he will never quite be the same as an actor with a sense of humour simply perfectly playing a role which happens to be funny. (This was how Ealing Studios put together their particularly great comedies, including both Ladykillers and its stablemate Kind Hearts and Coronets. The latter managed to include Dennis Price, Joan Greenwood and Alec Guinness (not forgetting Valerie Hobson, who acted opposite Lom in The King and I in 1953 on stage in what must have been an impressive set of performances) but neglected to find a role for Lom – whose film persona of the time probably wouldn’t have fitted.)
After A Shot in the Dark, Lom’s roles continued to have a villainous element but were also likely to have a level of humour. Towards the end of his career he almost returned to his starting parts, playing a German Colonel in the 1985 version of King Solomon’s Mines. But this was not any evil German Colonel aiming to find the treasure before Allan Quatermain (Richard Chamberlain) and, if possible, kill him and his ladyfriend (Sharon Stone) off in the process. This German Colonel insisted on being accompanied by a baggage carrier whose job was to carry a wind-up record player providing a continuous soundtrack of Wagner to proceedings. Lom sweeps impressively through the film, although the loss of his record player is closely contested for “most memorable moment” by a scene starring a lion observing Quatermain and ladyfriend sat in an escaped cooking pot.
Between whiles he also cropped up in a string of Hammer Horror films, annoying directors by refusing to bash his head against stone walls (stone walls are cheaper than rubber ones). He finished his career with Son of the Pink Panther in 1993, which was not successful enough to lead to a new generation of Pink Panther and so left him to retire at the age of 76. His private life, if his other obituaries and Wikipedia article are anything to go by, was strictly private and varied in success.
Count Herbert Karel Angelo Kuchacevič ze Schluderpacheru (Herbert Lom) was born 11 September 1917 in Pragu and died 27 September 2012 (aged 95).