Monday, 31 August 2015

ROOM AT THE BOTTOM: LAURENCE HARVEY AND FILM NOIR




“I’ve never been able to like you”, Sam Houston (Richard Boone) to Col. William Travis (Laurence Harvey), The Alamo (1960)

“Get down off your high horse, Travis”, Col. Davy Crockett (John Wayne)


Some of the best things British are named Harvey: crime writer John Harvey, Harvey’s Shooting Sherry (very dry and sadly no longer available), London’s venerable Harvey Nichols department store, and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, so far ahead of its time that time’s still running to catch up.   

Then, of course, there’s Laurence Harvey, a man who many people disliked and some despised, both as an actor and human being.

It’s true that Harvey could be a bit of a cad, though that’s probably being too English and polite about it. Harvey was cold, arrogant, conceited, and ruthless in his climb to the top of the heap as an actor. He preyed upon and wed older women (actress Margaret Leighton and studio mogul Harry Cohn’s widow, Joan Perry Cohn) and had affairs with others so as to advance his career and support his expensive tastes. He also bedded men when it suited him for the same reasons and many who knew him well enough believed him to be homosexual.



As for his acting ability, some were unimpressed. British character actor Joss Ackland said, “Americans seemed to think that Harvey was some sort of great actor, which his colleagues certainly did not”. Dame Judy Dench who’d appeared with Harvey on stage spoke of being bewildered at how he never looked at her during his lines. Jane Fonda, who later starred with him in Walk on the Wild Side, 1962, said, “Acting with Laurence Harvey is like acting by yourself”. Others who worked with him are on record as saying that they didn’t like him much:  Shirley MacLaine (Two Loves, 1961), Capucine and Barbara Stanwyck (Walk on the Wild Side, 1962), and Kim Novak (Of Human Bondage, 1964) to name only a few.  In his autobiography, Knight Errant, actor Sir Robert Stephens, once heir-apparent to Laurence Olivier, describes Harvey as “an appalling man and even more unforgivably, an appalling actor.” And British film critic, David Shipman, author of the best-selling The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, wrote of him, “Laurence Harvey’s career should be an inspiration to all budding actors: he has demonstrated conclusively that it is possible to succeed without managing to evoke the least audience interest or sympathy and to go on succeeding despite unanimous critical antipathy and overwhelming public apathy. His twenty year career of mainly unprofitable films is a curiosity of film history.”

Yet Harvey was not without his supporters, admirers and friends. When he befriended a co-star like Elizabeth Taylor (BUtterfield 8, 1960), John Wayne (The Alamo, 1960), John Ireland (The Good Die Young, 1954), or Frank Sinatra (THe Manchurian Candidate, 1962), those friendships were for a lifetime. Sinatra, always a champion of the underdog, was quoted in valet George Jacobs’ autobiography, Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra as saying, “Harvey has the handicaps of being a homo, a Jew and a Polack, so people should go easy on him.” (Harvey was born Ziv Mosheh Skikne in Lithuania). 



Michael Craig who co-starred with Harvey in The Silent Enemy (1958) said that off-camera Harvey was relaxed and could be wonderful to be with but in front of the camera he “became stiff and started to act”.  Daniel Angel who produced one of Harvey’s early films, Women of Twilight (1952) thought he was “a bloody good actor” and Jack Clayton who directed Harvey in Room at the Top (1959) was delighted with him and his performance. Harvey also was nominated for the 1960 Oscar for Best Actor and the 1959 BAFTA Best British Actor Awards for Room at the Top, as well a nomination at the 1960 BAFTA’s for his part as an oily talent agent in Expresso Bongo (1959). He was icily effective as the brainwashed Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate and then again as a double agent instructed to kill himself in A Dandy in Aspic (1968).

It’s not too much to say that few actors ever hit the screen with more impact than Laurence Harvey did in 1959’s Room at the Top, a film that would define both a career and the emergence of a new British cinema that eschewed the quaintness of the past in favor of the gritty vérité of postwar Britain. His performance as an ambitious and amoral social climber who leaves a wake of emotional destruction was central to the movie’s finding its international audience. It also opened the doors for Tom Courtney, Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and a generation of others who breasted the New Wave as working class heroes ready to embrace success at all costs, including self-betrayal.



Joe Lampton made Harvey a star for a while on both sides of the Atlantic, though he appeared to drift back and forth to Hollywood out of no clear conviction. He was able to find a perfect role in The Manchurian Candidate , though the soulless quality of the character seemed to echo Harvey’s own emotionless core and his performance was more admired than liked. Returning to the UK after the poorly received Walk on the Wild Side and disasters-to-follow, The Ceremony (1963) and Martin Ritt’s The Outrage (1964), Harvey reprised Joe Lampton in Life at the Top (1965). Directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, the film turned out to be a respectable sequel, mostly due to the continuities that Harvey brought to it. He also got a brief re-bound from John Schlesinger’s Darling (1965).

After that, his career spiraled down as he drifted through a string of forgotten and failed projects for nearly a decade before dying in 1975 at age 45 of stomach cancer. His only child, Domino, a daughter with third wife model Paulene Stone, followed a troubled path, going from model to bounty hunter before her death from a drug overdose in 2005. Her life story was highly fictionalized by director Tony Scott in Domino (2005) with Keira Knightley in the title role.   



In all, Laurence Harvey both on and off the screen was not what some would have liked. However, as they say, he was who he was and never appeared to be uncomfortable with the fact. The image that he fostered was not far removed from the roles he played. “I’m a flamboyant character, an extrovert who doesn’t want to reveal his feelings”, he once said. “To bare your soul to the world, I find unutterably boring. I think part of our profession is to have a quixotic personality.” He went on to say, “Once someone asked me, ‘Why do so many people hate you?” and I said, “Do they? How super! I’m really quite pleased about it.”

In life and death, Laurence Harvey held a fascination for both public and press. Strikingly handsome, he was for a period one of the most exciting and watchable movie stars there was. We admire some actors because we see in their performances something of their true nature that captivates us – which why the comment, “He’s just being himself on screen” often makes little sense. Call it type casting but it’s often all we want from certain actors.

In Harvey’s case, it’s precisely the iciness, the arrogance, the conceit, the snobbery that attracts. He could express more with just a look than many actors can with words. There was anger about him, a bloodlust. He was always ready to do battle. There was that Harvey look, all bared teeth and arched cheekbones. Creases would appear on his forehead and the area around the eyes would tighten, whether suggesting nastiness or a sure attempt to appeal. There’s a boldness and urgency that often makes one want to side with him even when he’s the villain of the piece. Which when all is said and done, made Harvey an ideal fit for film noir. After Room at the Top, he too often found himself cast in roles for which he was unsuited, unlike earlier on in his career before encumbered by stardom. Below are ten of those ‘before’ films, all of them bracing crime dramas or thrillers, some more deeply noir-stained than others, in which Harvey featured. Several are among his best films, some were just best for him. But all are a true reflection of one of the most compelling actors ever to star in classic British film noir.


HOUSE OF DARKNESS (1948)



In his first film after graduating the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), Laurence Harvey begins as he intends to go on. He plays an arrogant, egomaniac Francis Merrivale who believes that he’s been cheated out of his inheritance by his two step brothers, John and Noel. John suffers from a weak heart and Noel from a paralyzing weakness of mind. Francis causes John to have a fatal heart attack and Noel to vacate the family home by convincing him it’s haunted, leaving Francis as master of the house. However, Francis slowly descends into guilt-induced madness as he begins to believe that the house is cursed with the ghost of the vengeful John.

Though on release House of Darkness was viewed as a horror film, it’s really more a psychological thriller and easily qualifies as a period film noir. The story’s familiar but the film is singular, with a literate script by John Gilling and a darkly ‘haunting’ musical score by George Melachrino, whose orchestra rivalled that of the better-known Mantovanni. The movie features Melachrino who recounts his fictional visit to the ‘House of Darkness’ which inspired one of his symphonies (part of the movie’s orchestration). 

The movie also has Laurence Harvey who as Francis is something to behold in his infantile petulance and fury. His brother John, accuses him of being, “a little egotistical tin-pot Cromwell, puffed up with a delusion of grandeur” while Noel dismisses him as an, “insufferable, conceited cad”. Harvey’s performance also conjures up Bela Lugosi in films such as Dracula (1931) and White Zombie (1932). He would have made an impressive Count Dracula. His malign and chilling presence now memorably inscribed in House of Darkness, Harvey was on his way.


THE MAN FROM YESTERDAY (1949)



The head of an English country estate, Gerald Amersley (John Stuart) invites an old friend from India, Julius Rickman (Henry Oscar), to stay with him. But Rickman, a believer in spiritualism, exerts a baleful influence over the family. Amersley’s wife (Grace Arnold), is wary of Rickman while admitting that that he possesses “some secret fascination, at least to women”.  Amersley’s daughter, Doreen (Gwynneth Vaughn) thinks that Rickman is “unwholesome” and a “malignant spirit” but becomes romantically, if not sexually, involved with him. And Doris, Amersley’s sister, whose lover, Cedric, died under uncertain circumstances, begs Rickman to connect her with Cedric’s spirit. Rickman says to Doris he believes Cedric was murdered and that Gerald may have been responsible.

Doreen’s fiancée, John Matthews (Laurence Harvey) has his own suspicions about Rickman’s motives. When he sees Doreen about to succumb, he tells Rickman, “the poison is sometimes harder to identify than the symptoms of the poisoning” and orders him to leave. Rickman refuses and things go from bad to worse.  
          
With a stodgy direction from Oswald Mitchell and an uneven screenplay by John Gilling, The Man from Yesterday is held together by its excellent performances, especially that of Henry Oscar as the repellent homme fatal, Julius Rickman. For his part, Laurence Harvey is more a presence than a protagonist in this one. He nevertheless asserts himself in what would become a familiar manner, being never quite likeable and always too much in love with himself. 
   
MAN ON THE RUN (1949)



Cpl. Newman (Kenneth More) wanders into coastal pub and recognizes Peter Burden (Derek Farr), an army deserter working behind the bar. Burden bolts to London and needing money for rent, decides to pawn his service revolver. As he goes to show the gun to the store keeper, two armed crooks burst in, assault the jeweler and kill a police constable in the getaway. Burden, now on the run is taken in by a war widow, Jean Adams (Joan Hopkins) who believes his story, both in regard to the robbery and the circumstances of his desertion. Burden is sure he can recognize one of thieves and Joan agrees to help find him. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard officers Chief Inspector Mitchell (Edward Chapman) and Detective Sergeant Lawson (Laurence Harvey) are on the hunt for Burden. They’ve become suspicious of Joan and pick her up for further questioning. But Burden has managed to trace the thief and his partner who abduct him with the intention of doing him in before fleeing to Belfast by boat. The race is now on for the police to track them down before they kill Burden and escape.

Man on the Run is an atmospheric and well-paced thriller, given elegant and expressive direction by Lance Huntington (Night Boat to Dublin 1946, A Voice in the Night 1946, The Upturned Glass 1947 and Mr. Perrin and Mr. Trail 1948). The film suggests some sympathy for the post-war plight of deserters, who in being criminalized are forced to live the rest of their lives as criminals. However, it doesn’t go so far as to advocate amnesty (though the German theatrical release came to a different judgement). 
      
Everyone in the film is excellent, with Laurence Harvey in a nicely unmannered performance as the deferential and sympathetic Detective Sergeant Lawson.


CAIRO ROAD (1950)



Cairo Road, exotic in setting and evocative in detail, is a procedural noir set in Egypt with most of the filming done in Cairo, Port Said, and along the Suez Canal. Col. Youssef Bey (Eric Portman) and his subordinate, Lt. Mourad (Laurence Harvey), recently arrived from Paris with his wife Maria (Maria Mauban), are in charge of Egypt’s Anti-Narcotic Bureau. Mourad is mustard-keen but finds Bey difficult and conservative in his methods. His mantra is, “Let’s keep the facts tidy in our minds, never mind the theories.” But Mourad soon falls in as they follow a thread of inquiry that leads from a murdered man in a dingy Cairo apartment to a drug smuggling ring operated by Bey’s nemeses, the fabled Pavlis brothers.

Unfortunately David MacDonald’s (Snowbound, 1948, Good-Time Girl 1948, The Big Frame 1952, Tread Softly 1952) too leisurely direction never allows the excitement to rise quite to the level of the film’s flavorful settings and story. However, a film beautifully shot in deep etchings of black and white, Cairo Road wins on other counts.

Acting honors go to Harold Lang, a distinctive British character actor who appeared in any number of Brit noirs. Lang plays Humble, a glibly charming Cockney importer who is not who he says he is. Lang as usual invests his character with streetwise insolence and shrewdness and a fey, sexually ambiguous menace. Eric Portman’s gift for playing rigid and repressed authority figures is well exploited while Laurence Harvey with his maturing good looks and presence imposes himself nearly every scene as the talented but fallible Mourad.


SCARLET THREAD (1950)



Freddie (Laurence Harvey) is a down-at-the heels London street hoodlum who one evening attempts to pick the wrong pocket belonging to an urbane jewel thief, Marcon (Syd Tafler). But Marcon, needing an accomplice for a job to come decides to take Freddie on, despite doubts about his boorishness and womanizing. Along with getaway driver Sam (Harry Fowler), they pull a smash-and-grab at a jewelry shop in Cambridge but things go wrong when Freddie shoots a bystander and Sam drives off, leaving them to escape on foot. They end up on the grounds of one of the university colleges where they encounter Josephine (Kathleen Byron), the Master’s daughter. Marcon introduces himself as a visiting graduate of the college, which intrigues her but not nearly much as Freddie whom Marcon passes off as his American guest. Josephine is weary of college life and yearns for more and Freddie soon gets around to giving it to her. Eventually, things fall apart for the thieves but even more so for Josephine who realizes she's been wronged in a far more terrible way than merely having been seduced and abandoned.

Scarlet Thread is a movie hobbled with improbabilities, especially the notion that two desperate criminals could concoct such a charade and get away with it. However, there’s still much to enjoy in the film, particularly Kathleen Byron, whose English matter-of-factness and restraint, like that of Deborah Kerr, don’t entirely conceal the flesh-and-blood beneath. Josephine’s desire is palpable and arousing.  Laurence Harvey has a harder time of it, trying to model himself on a Hollywood version of an American gangster. This provokes some unforgiveable overacting, but Harvey’s growing star shine is evident.


THERE IS ANOTHER SUN (1951)




Dare-devil ‘Wall of Death’ motorcycle rider Eddie ‘Racer’ Pleskett (Maxwell Reed) needs a new bike to get back onto the racing circuit after being thrown off for killing another rider. He forces his pal, Mag Maguire (Laurence Harvey) to help him steal the money. Pleskett is a plain villain while Maguire is a decent guy and an up-and-coming fairground fighter hampered only by a misguided loyalty to his only friend. Lillian (Susan Shaw), a chorus girl they meet in a gambling club, is attracted to both though it’s clear to her that Racer is using Maguire. When Racer nearly kills his boss and steals his car, she’s had enough. Bratcher, a police detective who knows that Maguire is just a chump, then enlists Lillian’s help to both get to Racer and help sort out Maguire.

A somber morality tale of greed and betrayal, the film conjures up a particularly grim portrayal of post-war austerity in Britain and the tired sleaziness of provincial carnival life. Stylishly directed by Lewis Gilbert, best known for his stories of wartime heroism in films such as Reach for the Sky (1956); Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) ; and Sink the Bismarck! 1960), Wall of Death reflected early on Gilbert’s affinity for noirish narratives, later to include Cosh Boy (1952) and Cast a Dark Shadow (1955).

Especially good here is the beautiful and forthright Susan Shaw, the only English actress of the time to go blonde and not be written off as a tart. After her husband, American actor Bonar Colleano was killed in a car accident, Shaw fell to pieces and later died addicted and destitute.

Laurence Harvey is impressive in his first real starring part as the handsome, weak-willed hero, Maguire. He’s also not bad in the ring and looks like he might have trained to get there. More to him for that.”


A KILLER WALKS (1952)




Laurence Harvey in his first top-billed role plays Ned Harsten who, along with his younger brother Frankie, works his grandmother’s farm. Ned is fed up with everyone and everything except his girlfriend, Joan Gray (Susan Shaw) who unfortunately is fed up with him. Ned’s perpetually moody and hostile, going nowhere fast, and needs money. Susan is attractive, brassy and has her eye on a roadhouse pianist, Tony (John Ainsworth) and Ned knows it. He can’t see any way out but to do away his gran in order to get his hands on the farm and frame the emotionally vulnerable Frankie for the murder. However, Ned’s not as smart as he thinks; nor is he able to deal with the aftermath of the killing and the pressures of the investigation.

A penetrating psychological thriller, A Killer Walks is lushly photographed and orchestrated. The film’s claustrophobic setting, an old rural estate house, is gothic and the atmospherics, dark and oppressive. Much of the movie is shot in the fog-shrouded nighttime. There is a sense of dread and the anticipation of unspeakable evil, particularly around Frankie, a sleep walker obsessed with knives. Just as alarming is the selfish, narcissistic Ned whose own mental state deteriorates as the anger and resentment towards his overbearing grandmother grows. It’s enough that she holds his financial fortunes in balance but more than he can take when she tells him that Joanie, his hoped-to-be-bride, is “indecent.”

Susan Shaw, stunningly glammed-up in A Killer Walks, is actually an accidental femme fatale who really wants nothing of Ned other than a future. It’s Ned who takes it further. Laurence Harvey is terrific in the part, with all promise being fulfilled in this inspired little B noir. It’s a brilliant coming out.


TWILIGHT WOMEN (1952)



Laurence Harvey’s character, Jerry Nolan appears in only two scenes in Twilight Women but his presence hangs over the movie like a stench. Nolan is a louche lounge lizard and self-absorbed parasite who’s taken his pregnant girlfriend, Vivianne Bruce (Rene Ray) for everything he can get. When Jerry is arrested for murder of another woman, Vivianne, a fool in love but not in other ways, is forced to take shelter in a boarding house run by an unscrupulous Helen ‘Nellie’ Alistair (Freda Jackson) who takes in desperate unmarried mothers and single pregnant women thrown out by their families or ditched by their boyfriends. Alistair and her assistant, Jesse (Visa Hope) cash in by shorting the women on their rations, refusing them medical care because of the cost and forcing them to put their babies up for sale. As Vivianne becomes more involved with the boarders – an assortment of tough gals, tramps and frightened innocents – and more aware of the criminal exploitation, she confronts Alistair, who then and there decides that Vivianne must be gotten rid of.

Both a blistering social drama and horror-filled crime melodrama, Twilight Women is adapted from a 1951 play, recently restaged in London.  However, the film by no means feels stage-based and in no way a ‘weepie’. It cuts straight to the bone in its depiction of a world where there are no heroes or heroines, just those who survive and those who don’t.

Twilight Women was controversial when released, both in its subject matter and by the fact that that it was the first film to receive a newly-introduced ‘X’ rating by the British Board of Film Censors. However, what has never been in dispute is that Laurence Harvey is as hateful in Twilight Women as he would ever be in a movie. 
 

THE GOOD DIE YOUNG (1954)



Harvey moves up the ranks in The Good Die Young, sharing the marquee with Richard Basehart as Joe Halsey, a American war vet hoping to rescue his wife Mary (Joan Collins) from the emotional clutches of her mother; John Ireland as Eddie Blaine, a US Air Force officer who goes AWOL when he suspects his wife Denise (Gloria Grahame) is having an affair; and Stanley Baker as Mike Morgan, a boxer who’s fought his last bout and whose wife Rene Ray) has spent their nest egg to bail out her no-good brother. Harvey stars as Miles ‘Rave’ Ravenscourt, a callous lay-about whose wealthy wife (Margaret Leighton) has cut him off, weary of his gambling and extravagant living (art imitating life?). The four men, having met up in a pub, become friends and find solace in their shared despair. Rave suggests they pull a job, a Royal Mail van heist. The film opens with them driving on their way to the robbery, then flashes back to how each got to be there.

The movie is mostly concerned with what has led each man to desperation, leaving the heist itself – even though sharply constructed – to be done and over with in a hurry. However, the denouement where things get messy leads to some high noir drama, much of it due to the strikingly textured black-and-white cinematography of Jack Asher. 

Most everyone is good in The Good Die Young, especially Stanley Baker in a emotionally demanding performance; also, Harvey, who relishes his signature role as a monstrous cad whom his father, played by Robert Morley professes, to “loath and detest”. Rene Ray is moving as Baker’s fraught wife and Margaret Leighton gives a polished, realistic portrayal. The one off-note is Gloria Grahame who looks to be winging it as the lascivious starlet and her coy off-handedness is uncomfortable and irritating. However, as the film's director Lewis Gilbert later said of her (arguably), “It wasn’t that Gloria was a great star or actress. She’s remembered in films because she had extraordinary style. Most actresses fade into the distant past but somehow or other, one always remembers her”.


THE SILENT ENEMY (1958)



A rousing true-life adventure, The Silent Enemy is the story of Lieutenant Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb, a British naval bomb disposal officer assigned to Gibraltar to destroy an Italian command center carrying out the deadly placing of limpet mines on the hulls of allied ships. The Italians, operating out of neutral Spain, appear to be using underwater chariots to conduct their stealth missions.

Though Crabb (Laurence Harvey) has no diving experience, he takes to it readily under the guidance of a plucky NCO Sidney Knowles (Michael Craig). Much of the film centers around operations and preparation for the underwater assault to come on the Italian base station and is is organized like a heist movie in which Crabb first assembles his feisty crew, among them stand-up character actors Sid James and Alex McCowan. Then comes the serious business of training and hands-on defusing the explosives that night after night are being set by the Italian frogmen.

The film includes some remarkable underwater action scenes including a to-the-death encounter between the British and Italian divers. Though the movie is based in fact, The Silent Enemy is an enormously entertaining film – atmospheric, filled with action and drama and a sense of men going about a dangerous, arduous and thankless job with a quiet sense of duty.

Lionel Crabb had no time for nonsense and was a leader that anyone would want to follow. He was a courageous officer and a true independent spirit in a naval service that tolerated individuality and independence and Harvey does a terrific job of capturing that spirit. Crabb had a dazzling wartime and subsequent service career; however, in 1956 he disappeared while making an underwater reconnaissance of a Russian cruiser moored in Portsmouth harbor.  The circumstances of the disappearance are still a mystery.

The Silent Enemy is Laurence Harvey’s finest hour before taking on the role as Joe Lampton. With a blonde crewcut and naval beard, Harvey for the first time was able to step out of what would remain his character forever, though at least the haircut went with him to Room at the Top.

Gary Deane

8 comments:

  1. Thank you for publishing this. I've been fascinated by Laurence Harvey since I discovered he was a Lithuanian Jew whose family emigrated to South Africa, and then he re-invented him self as what I imagine to be a stiff upper lipped, icily cold British upper cruster. I find his acting so inconsistent; he can bring depth to a character in one film and then bring a boring nothingness to another.

    I've seen all the films you listed except HOUSE OF DARKNESS and SCARLET THREAD. Any idea where I can find them on VHS or DVD (any format or region).

    Thanks.
    Steve Press

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. HOUSE OF DARKNESS is available on DVD from amazon.co.uk.

      I'll message you on Facebook as regards SCARLET THREAD.

      Cheers

      Delete
  2. I admired Harvey for his acting ability and was not aware of the background on his personal life. Difficult to imagine that there weren't many like him, also taking the low road. Your article reflects a lot of research. Always much to be learned from them.
    Thanks,
    Walter

    ReplyDelete
  3. Many English actors of the period were larger-than-life rogues and ended up in Hollywood because England was just too small for them. It's unfortunate that his career in the US didn't work out better for him in the short time he had left.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Excellent stuff my good man. Keep it coming!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks so much for this richly insightful article. Harvey's one of my guilty pleasures (he acts out all of my nastier impulses, so that I don't have to). Many of these are films I never knew about. It'll be a joy to look for them.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I always adored Mr.Harvey while I was a teenager.Of course my favorite was "The Manchurian Candidate. WOULD love to get a copy of "Women of Twilight"

    ReplyDelete

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