Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Man Who Could Cheat Mediocrity

I have a critique of Terence Fisher's THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1959) going into the next issue of VW -- it's available on DVD as one of those confounded "Best Buy exclusives" from Legend Films. While going through the disc in search of some screen grabs suitable to accompany my review, I was stopped in my tracks by this impressive shot of Christopher Lee, which had passed over me without particular effect as I watched the film itself. But seen here, as a composed image, I feel that cameraman Jack Asher succeeded in capturing something close to the soul of this much-too-easily-taken-for-granted actor and why I and so many of my generation love him so much.

In this film, which hasn't dated particularly well in my opinion, Lee plays the thankless "other man" role of Dr. Pierre Gérard -- just one of many laughably unimaginative French names peopling Jimmy Sangster's script. (The villain of the piece actually resides at No. 13 Rue Noire!) It's the sort of dull, stiff-upper-lip role that Lee readily accepted in his early determination not to become typecast as one of Hammer's monster men, and I used to think he was boring in it... when I was a much younger viewer not so well-versed in the ways of life and love. Seeing the movie now, I find that Lee is one of its most interesting, enduring facets: I admire his character's deeply held moral convictions, the way he values the medical experience of the elderly character played by Arnold Marlé, and especially the way he readily -- indeed, heroically -- responds in the affirmative when the film's villain, played by Anton Diffring, asks if he's in love with Janine Dubois, the heroine played by Hazel Court -- something we instinctively know he has not yet found the right moment to confide to her. It's in this single outburst of heart that he qualifies himself as the film's hero, allowing some heat to pass through his cool public image -- not that it would make any difference to Janine who, in the final reel, agrees even to damnation if it means remaining by the side of the man she loves so unwisely. The film ends with the usual incendiary mayhem and offers no real closure for Pierre Gérard, and it is only after reflecting on the film from a distance, and revisiting a shot such as this, that we realize that Janine's choice has probably damned him, too.

Few actors could have played this man with such innate nobility and melancholy, and it's high time Christopher Lee was complimented on making something so touching out of next to nothing.

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