The Aplomb of Herbert Lom

Hammer films, horror movies, "Mark of the Devil"He’s been the Phantom of the Opera, Captain Nemo, Simon Legree, Van Helsing and Chief Inspector Dreyfus in The Pink Panther movies.

Yet, in many cases, his familiar mug will elicit such responses from audience members as “Oh, it’s that guy again!” or “I’ve seen that actor lots of times, but I forgot his name.”

Well, the guy’s name is easy to remember: It’s Herbert Lom.

His given name was somewhat more challenging. He was born Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich von Schluderpacheru in Prague on September 11, 1917. Call it 17 Syllables on a Lom. He first appeared on-screen in a single Czech film, but his career picked up when he moved to England in his early 20s. Soon, he was getting lots of supporting work—most of it, like the rest of his career, in villainous roles.

He would occasionally get larger parts, most memorably as Napoleon Bonaparte in 1942’s The Young Mr. Pitt (he also played “the little general” in King Vidor’s 1956 version of War and Peace). He also received prime screen time playing twin trapeze artists fighting over a woman and lottery winnings in Dual Alibi (1948); a crook fronting a phony wrestling operation in Jules Dassin’s classic 1950 film noir Night and the City; took part in the period adventure The Black Rose with Tyrone Power; and essayed the role of a vicious hood in 1955’s classic Ealing Studios Alec Guinness comedy The Ladykillers.

His entrance into America was first blocked by government officials because of their belief he was a Communist sympathizer. And while he had a part in 1957’s Robert Mitchum-Jack Lemmon-Rita Hayworth Caribbean-set (but Trinidad-filmed) romantic adventure Fire Down Below, he continued to work overseas.  The latter part of the decade saw Lom impress as Major De Clam in Jose Ferrer’s version of I Accuse!,  the  saga of France’s Dreyfus Affair. He also shared the screen with the likes of Errol Flynn, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard and Daryl Zanuck gal pal Juliette Greco in The Roots of Heaven. Additionally, the actor got notable stage work, tackling the part of “the King” in The King and I which debuted in London.

During the early part of the 1960s, Lom’s stock rose, due to his talents and versatility. In Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), Lom was memorable as in a cast of all-stars, playing Tigranes Levantes, a pirate who betrays Spartacus and the other slaves after he ships them out of Italy. Six years after James Mason made an indelible impression as Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lom put a different spin on Jules Verne’s megalomaniacal character in Mysterious Island, lording over Ray Harryhausen’s oversized beasties. He also played Moorish warlord Ben Yusseff in the Charlton Heston-Sophia Loren spectacle El Cid.

However, the role many baby-boomers recall Lom in was the 1962 Hammer Studios version of The Phantom of the Opera. Major shifts were made in the legendary Gaston Leroux story, including relocating the setting to London, but Lom—who took the role after Cary Grant turned it down!—gives a bravura performance as the tortured Professor Petrie, horribly scarred in the fire that also destroyed his musical masterpiece. Behind a full face mask, Lom used his intense gaze and deep, distinctive voice wonderfully here, eliciting scares, pathos, desperation and ruthlessness, sometimes in the same scene.

Even with Hammer’s typically fine production values, a capable supporting cast (including the great Michael Gough)  and the handiwork of top studio director Terence Fisher (The Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein) the film did not succeed with critics or at the box-office. It proved a disappointment not only for Hammer, but for Lom as well. In fact, the actor consciously steered clear of horror films for several years, exploring other genres instead.

His experience in comedy was somewhat limited when he took the role of Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus in 1964’s A Shot in the Dark, the sequel to The Pink Panther. The project reunited Lom with Peter Sellers, with whom he worked with briefly in The Black Rose and in The Ladykillers. Dreyfus—a name with coincidental echoes to his role in I Accuse!—is the police chief who shows little patience for the incompetence of Sellers’ klutzy Inspector Clouseau. It was a role that Lom would essay several more times. The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), found Dreyfus gone completely batty, living in a castle, playing the pipe organ ala the Phantom of the Opera, and threatening to destroy the world with a doomsday device.

During the early part of the sixties, Lom dabbled in several different genres: suspensers (Return to the Ashes), caper flicks (Gambit), westerns (Villa Rides), and dramas (Simon Legree in a German version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin). He tackled TV, as well; his episode spot on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was morphed into the featurized The Karate Killers. He also portrayed a psychiatrist in The Human Jungle, a well-remembered British series that ABC aired on our shores.

It wasn’t long before Lom went back to genre films, becoming a staple in European shockers of all sorts. For Spanish director Jess Franco, Lom played Governor Santos, a sleazy prison warden, in 1969’s 99 Women. Alternately known as Women’s Penitentiary 12, Prostitutes in Prison, Island of Despair, Isle of Lost Women and The Hot Death, this lurid potboiler that also starred Mercedes McCambridge, Maria Schell and Luciano Paluzzi helped kickstart the women-in-prison film cycle of the 1970s.

For his 1970 Count Dracula, Franco recruited Lom to play Van Helsing opposite Klaus Kinski’s Renfield and Christopher Lee in the title role. The film has its fans (because of Lee’s dynamic performance, and because at least part of it plays it close to Bram Stoker’s book) and detractors (you name it). Lom took the part to perform with Lee, who had made a name for himself playing the vampire count in the classic Hammer films. But when Lom got to Spain to make the movie, he got a big surprise. “They didn’t have the money to keep Christopher Lee long enough to play his scenes with me,” Lom said in an interview. “By the time I arrived in Barcelona, he had already left. So I had to act the main dramatic scenes addressing the script girl!”

Count Dracula did mark one of the collaborations between Lom and Harry Allen Towers (aka Peter Welbeck), the prolific British producer/writer known for his low-budget epics and, later, his relationship with Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus and their Cannon Films. With Towers, Lom found steady employment for years, beginning with the thriller Ban! Bang! You’re Dead with Tony Randall and appearing in the likes of Dorian Gray (1970), the ultra-violent version of Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971), King Solomon’s Mines (1985),  Dragonard (1987), Masque of the Red Death (1991), and two versions of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1974 and 1989).

Between these and other Towers productions, Lom –who became a British citizen after World War II and married three times–found time to appear in Amicus productions’ Asylum, a horror anthology with four different stories. He played a patient in a British mental hospital who has been experimenting placing peoples’ souls into robotic dolls. One of the effigies, in fact, resembled Lom himself.

“Asylum was good exposure for me and it is still shown quite often on television,” Lom told an interviewer years later. “I remember the special effects people had fun making a little doll that looked like me – which is not so easy – and it had to move along the floor.”

Also for Amicus, Lom also appeared in …And Now the Screaming Starts, in which Lom played the patriarch of a cursed clan whose son (Ian Oglivy) and new daughter-in-law (Stephanie Beacham) experience horrors stemming from dark family secrets.

The most notorious production that Lom was showcased in during the 1970s—and perhaps, of his entire career—was 1970’s Mark of the Devil, the movie rated “’V’ for Violence” and saw its American exhibitors  offer patrons “stomach distress bags” when they entered theaters. Set in 18th century Austria, Mark of the Devil featured Lom as Lord Cumberland, who travels the countryside with young assistant Count Christian de Meruh (Udo Kier), in order to find witches and have them tortured under the guise of the State and the Church. Lom’s performance as the educated witchfinder added a touch of demented class to the depravity around him, as no shortage of despicable acts of cruelty, especially towards women, were explicitly depicted.

Lom—a sprinter for the Czechoslovakian team at the 1938 “Jesse Owens” Olympics in Berlin and the  author of two books—one about Shakespearean era-writer  Christopher Marlowe, the other about the inventor of the guillotine—had always wanted to be prolific.

Two of the highpoints of Lom’s career came in the ‘80s, as he played a Russian intelligence officer in Hopscotch (1980) and the doctor sympathetic to the plight of newly-psychic Christopher Walken in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983).

Although many view a sizable chunk of Lom’s screen portfolio as “beneath his talents,” he certainly achieved his dream of working steadily for decades. The actor’s final credit came courtesy of the British TV series Agatha Christie’s Marple, when he played Ausgustin Dufosse in the 2004 whodunit Murder at the Vicarage.

“You know, I always do my best, no matter the quality of the film,” Lom once said in an interview. “One thing I hate is when directors come to me before shooting a take and say: ‘Herbert, give me your best!’ And I think: ‘But it’s my job to give my best. I can’t give anything else!’ Whether it is good enough for those who sit in the cinema is quite another matter.”