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Favourite dead not-American actors: an Advent Calendar

Day 23: Marlene Dietrich 

So here’s the thing about Marlene. Even though I know she’s got a (von-Sternberg-lit) face to kill for, and a magnetic vulnerability that is devastating, it’s the sense that if she were lost in a jungle, she would not only know how to spot the deadly snakes, she could machete her way to safety, drink the locals under the table, and still have perfect eyebrows. That is what I love about her. 

Now I’m no expert, and there are a ton of her films I’ve yet to see, but apart from her ability to make cigarette smoking obscene, and an amazing way with hats and shadows, there is a remarkable range underneath the ridiculously famous face and voice, which - especially in later years - she gets to show off. And there is also, as well as an air of tragedy, a sense of humour, and a self-awareness that makes her human, rather than just iconic. She is iconic of course; I could happily watch the cabaret scene from Morocco on a loop forever, but when she gets the chance to really act, she takes it.

I like her best when she has a top-quality leading man (Coop, Donat, Jimmy Stewart - because I am an equal opportunities ogler), or - as in her later films - when she plays with her persona, either working it to the hilt (Stage Fright) or twisting it to great effect (Witness for the Prosecution). 

Favourite Role: Frenchy in Destry Rides Again (1939) which is a delight of a film, zippy, funny and taut, with a fabulous turn from Dietrich who has marvellous chemistry with Jimmy Stewart as the laconic yet determined Destry.

Another good place to start: Christine in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) which is a perfect film, full of humour and tension with a marvellous cast, and a terrific performance from Marlene. On a lighter note, Madeleine in Desire (1936) which, while not as iconic as her previous film with Gary Cooper is (I think) much better; romantic, comedic, and you get goofy Coop instead of cocky Coop, and that’s my favourite Coop. 

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Favourite dead not-American actors: an Advent Calendar

Day 22: Claude Rains 

Dear Claude. Which of the powers that be was it that decided that he would never quite be the romantic hero? When he’s not being awesomely obsessed and increasingly insane (The Invisible Man) he’s the unloved suitor, (Mr Skeffington, Notorious), the kindly, no-nonsense authority figure (Here Comes Mr Jordan, Now Voyager), or the gay sassy best friend (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood). Perhaps this is why the ending of Casablanca is so satisfying: finally Claude gets the partner he wants. 

As with many of the great British actors of his generation, he belies his humble (in his case, cockney) origins and is the epitome of class, quality, substance, and sophistication. It’s not just the voice, of course, although that is marvellous; it’s his subtlety and understated playing, his ability to be at once completely natural and always charismatic. He is almost unique in Hollywood history in that he is a character/supporting actor who is also a star, and because of this he has a greater opportunity to play a wide range of characters, and to do some of his best work in non-heroic roles. Who else can show to quite the same degree the pain, stoicism and self-awareness of the man who knows that the woman he loves does not love him?

Bette Davies (in Mr Skeffington) says ‘you’re laughing at me’ and it’s this quality of delicious amusement that I love the most. At his most sublime, he glides through films like some kind of fairy godfather; effortless but never camp, dropping sparkling asides like glitter, elevating proceedings to a perfect, swishy level of glory. 

Favourite Role: Captain Renault in Casablanca (1942). It’s saying something that in a film with seven actors I like (two of whom I love beyond reason) Claude outshines them all. It’s a corker of a role, of course, and the film is the glorious sum of its excellent parts, but Claude’s lightness of touch, his worldly amusement, is simply perfection. 

Another good place to start: Alexander Sebastian in Notorious (1946), a remarkable performance of depth, subtlety and intelligence in a flawless film, one of Hitchcock’s best, with career-best performances from Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant too. In my life only two people have ever made me even fleetingly sympathetic towards a Nazi, and Claude is one of them.  Also you can’t go wrong with his Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938); fabulously delicious, endlessly amused by Errol’s exuberant Robin, and Basil’s intense Guy. 

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Favourite dead not-American actors: an Advent Calendar

Day 25: Peter Lorre 

Oh, Peter. Peter Peter PETER. I adore him beyond reason. It’s weird to think now that I first encountered - and loved - him in the Mr Moto films, in my teens (thank you british telly for so many hours of film matinées) as - although he’s fabulous - they are of varying quality and also very different to his most famous roles; understated, still, precise, subtle. Peter does this remarkably well, as in The Man Who Knew Too Much, or Der Verlorene; performances often overshadowed by his larger, more grotesque characters.

 There is a voluble intensity to him, and an unpredictability that he can use for comedy (his ‘hairless Mexican’ in Secret Agent), tragedy (M) or Grand Guignol (the quite astonishing Dr Gogol in Mad Love.) There are always layers to his characters, and a sense not just of an inner life, but a conflict, and what’s most striking, a self-awareness; he is a man at the mercy of terrible impulses, and we see it in his eyes, in his face. There is really no-one quite like him in the whole of film, because who could be the intense Gogol and yet also the adorable Conseil (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) as well as the delicate, mendacious Joel Cairo (The Maltese Falcon)? 

Graham Greene says it much better than me, but he loves the shuddering, tormented Peter the most, and I love ALL of Peter. He is a delight in every film, even in the smallest of roles, when he can be seen merrily stealing scenes behind the lead actors’ backs, even without speaking. 

Favourite Role: Abbott in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) which is especially amazing considering it’s his first english-speaking role. Never has he been so understated, so casual, so amiable, so minute with his gestures, and yet he holds the screen completely. It’s also a cracking film, less highly rated for some reason than Hitch’s other 30s films (and indeed the remake). 

Another good place to start: Hans Beckert in (1931); still one of the most astonishing inhabitings of a role on film; fearless, intense, despairing, in a wonderful, innovative (you would never know Lang was cautious about sound), gripping film. Also, of his many supporting roles, I think his Dr Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) is not just his best but his most endearing, and it is of course a gem of a film, with beautiful performances from the whole cast.