A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool
By Roderick Heath
Christopher Lee would say that turning down a role in an unknown director’s cheap horror film was the greatest mistake of his life. The part in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) went to Donald Pleasence instead, giving him the kind of heroic role he’d never managed to land before. Nobody could play a kinky little creep, shifty fella, or cracked genius like Pleasence. Over his 40-year film career, Pleasence was one of those actors who make standard definitions of stardom irrelevant. A short, bald Englishman, he outlasted generations of pretty boys and starlets in carving out a niche in the psyche of committed cinemagoers.
Early in their respective careers, in the 1958 Ealing Studio version of A Tale of Two Cities, both Lee and Pleasence can be seen playing the kinds of characters they would be typecast as. In this less well-produced but more dramatically intriguing adaptation than the 1935 version, Lee plays the Marquis St. Evrémonde, a splendidly nasty, aristocratic monster. Pleasence plays Barsad, his agent in nefarious schemes—a seedy turncoat who fakes his own death to escape the fallout of one such scheme only to turn up again as an official in the revolutionary government. Barsad establishes Pleasence’s ability to play mole-eyed little men of no character and fewer principles. Yet the film’s most splendid moment comes when Barsad, blackmailed by Carton (Dirk Bogarde) to gain access to his imprisoned romantic rival and double Charles Darnay (Stephen Murray), is so moved when he realises Carton plans to die on the guillotine in Darney’s place that with a quiver in his voice and awe in his eye, he offers to shake Carton’s hand. Carton won’t, but he does pat Barsad on the shoulder for reassurance.
Pleasence, born in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, in 1919, was the son of a stationmaster. He made his London debut in 1939 in a production of Twelfth Night. His World War II experiences were dramatic. Beginning as a conscientious objector, he later joined the Royal Air Force. He served as a radio operator in the 166 Squadron of Lancaster bombers, was shot down in September 1944 and held until the end of the war in a German POW camp. He passed the time by staging plays with his fellow prisoners, including a production of The Petrified Forest that saw the diminutive Donald playing romantic lead opposite a 6″1’ Canadian as the heroine. The atmosphere of psychological entrapment, sexual ambiguity, and blackly funny absurdity of this image also underpins so much of Pleasence’s best work. With his rubbery body and hairless head, Pleasence was fearless in evoking emotional retardation, sexual anxiety, and outright perversity.
Pleasence was therefore the only actor in The Great Escape (1961) to have been an Allied POW. Fittingly, Pleasence’s turn is the most affecting, portraying Flight Lt. Colin Blythe, known as “The Forger,” who covers counterfeiting operations as lectures in bird spotting, communicating the details of their colouring and songs as gimlet-eyed Germans patrol. The film is filled with symbiotic, crypto-romantic male relationships, like that of Danny (Charles Bronson) and Dickes (John Leyton) and Hilts (Steve McQueen) and Ives (Angus Lennie); the strongest is that between the gnomish nerd Blythe and the charming Yankee gopher Hendley (James Garner). In the course of his relentless work, Blythe strains his eyes to the point of going temporarily blind. Desperate to join the escape, his attempts to fool Hendley and his CO Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) into thinking he can still see with a cheery façade is painfully superb acting.
Pleasence made his cinema debut in The Beachcomber (1954), and gained profile playing Prince John in the Robin Hood TV series (1955-1960). Amongst his more noteworthy early roles was the grave robber William Hare in his first horror film, The Flesh and the Fiends (1960); a Labour Party faction leader who manipulates Peter Finch’s soft-headed MP into a back-bench revolt in No Love For Johnny (1961); and the most notorious of mild-mannered English murderers, Dr. Crippen (1962). His stage career was on fire at this point, originating as he did the role of the sinister derelict in The Caretaker (1962), the play that also made the name of its author, Harold Pinter. Pleasence recreated the role in a film version the following year, coinciding with The Great Escape, and making Pleasence a sought-after character actor. He played villains, religious fanatics, and other miscreants, including the ultimate—Satan—in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) taunting Max Von Sydow’s bloodless hippy Jesus.
Fantastic Voyage (1966) he described thus: “…My funniest moment was when I was eaten up by the antibodies at the end of film because, predictably, I turned out to be the Russian agent who was trying to run them down in some attempt in the miniscule microscopic-sized submarine when they were trying to rescue the great scientist by burning out his blood clot with a miniscule laser beam. And, of course, the submarine, I think, began to leak and the antibodies began to creep in, and I was swallowed and eaten up by them and thus they came out by the eyeball, which is as good a way to get out as any, I suppose…we spent two days trying to work out what it would be like, cinematographically, to be eaten up by antibodies, and we tried all kind of things, y’know like porridge and polycell and anything, blancmange, custard, I forget what we finally settled for, haggis or something, anyway every time we tried this and the goo poured over my head, I was in this body-molded rubber suit and sitting there looking mad and Communist and wicked….”
1967 gave him two indelible roles, one of which became a pop-culture icon. He landed the part of Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice when the actor who provided the voice for the hitherto unseen supervillain, became ill. Pleasence’s incarnation was indelible shorthand for exotic evil—bald, with a scarred eye, alien accent, and taste for sadism explored with a pool of piranhas whilst stroking a snow-white Persian cat—the direct model for Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil. The other role was Major-Gen. Kahlenberg in Anatole Litvak’s The Night of the Generals. Kahlenberg is one of three German generals in Warsaw during WWII suspected of brutally slaying of a prostitute. The casting plays on Pleasence’s evil image, covering the fact that Kahlenberg is a hero, albeit and anxious and alcoholic one. His mysterious absences are caused by his involvement with conspiracies against Hitler that culminate in the ill-fated July Plot. He also gets the best lines, delivered with caustic style, as Kahlenberg assiduously mocks the pomposity and savagery of his Waffen-SS superior, Gen. Tanz (Peter O’Toole): “What constitutes resistance? A rock thrown at his golden head?” He teases phony war hero Cpl. Hartmann (Tom Courtenay) by reading out his press clippings: “I see that you are the reincarnation of Siegfried, a German hero from the Golden Age.” Later, he gives Hartmann the job of being Tanz’s driver, informing the corporal of his duties in catering to the general’s taste: “Let us hope that whatever it is, that it is not you, Corporal. However, if it should be, remember that you are serving the Fatherland.”
At the end of the ’60s, roles in major movies became scarcer for Pleasence, and he joined British horror cinema in its waning years, in films like like Tales that Witness Madness and The Mutations (both 1973). One good part came in an episode of the anthology film From Beyond the Grave (1973), “An Act Of Kindness,” in which he plays a shabby WWII veteran who encounters his superior officer (Ian Bannen), himself maintaining a façade of petty respectability with methods barely above criminality. Pleasence presents a pathetic eagerness to please his former CO, and, to top it off, his own daughter Angela plays Pleasence’s daughter who soon bewitches the CO into marriage. The payoff comes when father and daughter, Satanists both, celebrate with wedding cake over the corpse of the dead officer, sacrificed to the dark gods. Though blunt as a ghoulish yarn, as a satire on the social wake of the war’s official heroism, it’s almost without equal.
Pleasence also gained his first role from one of the up-and-coming Movie Brats, in THX-1138 (1971), George Lucas’ directorial debut, playing a semi-crazed inhabitant of a futuristic, repressive regime’s apparently boundless prison of white. He aided the budding Australian film industry by coming out to appear in Wake in Fright (known internationally as Outback, 1971). Pleasence also made a great contribution to an early episode of Colombo, “Any Old Port in a Storm,” portraying Adrian Carsini, a winemaker who murders his spendthrift brother to maintain control of their vineyard. With Pleasence’s peerless ability, he evokes a figure both fatuous and despicable, but also sympathetic and vaguely tragic.
And at the end of the decade, Pleasence played Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween, the haunted psychiatrist driven by guilt and fear to track down an escaped patient, the now-grown child murderer whom he realised possessed no soul. Over the hill and faintly unstable, Loomis is both hero and comic relief. This, along with Pleasence’s delivery of his portentous dialogue with the utmost seriousness, gave the balance needed for the cat-and-mouse game of the unstoppable Michael Myers and virginal victim Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). Halloween became the biggest independent film in history, making $50 million back from a $500,000 budget. The pleasures and ambiguities of Halloween were killed by lousy sequels in which Pleasence appeared gamely, feathering his retirement nest. Asked by producer Moustapha Akkad how long he’d stick with it, Pleasence replied “I stop at 22.”
Carpenter would use Pleasence again in Escape from New York (1981) and Prince of Darkness (1987). The former film sees Pleasence playing a weak, media-inflated, Texan-accented President of the United States who is forced to crash-land in an alternate-reality Manhattan that is used as a walled prison—typically barbed sociopolitical subtext from Carpenter. The overwhelmed POTUS is held by gang leader The Duke (Isaac Hayes), who ties him to a wall and uses him for target practice, before he is rescued by Kurt Russell’s asocial renegade Snake Plissken. The presidential worm only shows his teeth right at the end when he lets man’s man Snake dangle on a rope helplessly whilst he shoots The Duke, giggling and mocking his enemy with the hysterical bravado of a nerd dropping a water bomb on a jock’s head. On the other side of the ledger, Pleasance also starred around this time in the limp Anglo-Italian superhero flick Puma Man, the film he personally described as the worst he ever made, and although it did make for a cracking Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, it does seem a career nadir.
Woody Allen gave Pleasence a cameo that serves as a fine, if grisly, career send-off, in the horror satire Shadows and Fog (1992). Pleasence plays a doctor who performs autopsies on the victims of a mysterious pathological killer, in a surgery filled with perverse curios and morbid paraphernalia. As an intellectual and rationalist, the doctor expects evil can be analysed and understood, theorising on the biomedical nature of madness and desiring to get hold of the killer’s brain. But the killer comes instead for the doctor, who tries to meet his face with cool, but ends up being strangled as scared and trapped as anyone else.
Pleasence died at the age of 75 in 1995 following heart surgery. I’d seen him shortly before that interviewed on television, bags under his eyes so thick they could be pillows, a kind of sad, weary, good humour about his life, which had seen him through four marriages, five daughters, and many bottles of booze. He had been set to play Lear on stage with three of those daughters. If Pleasence’s career had been littered with trash, unworthy and facile parts, he had at least once, on screen, risen to the heights of his ability. Cul-de-sac (1966), my favourite of Roman Polanski’s films, was also the summit of Pleasence’s.
Polanski’s stark, neurotic modern drama cast Pleasence alongside Lionel Stander, the great, exiled American. Pleasence plays George, a retired industrialist who’s obviously previously dedicated himself to ledger books and production quotas and is now playing at arty bohemian. He’s bought the island castle where Walter Scott wrote Rob Roy, and retreated from the world with his young trophy wife, Teresa (Françoise Dorleac). Their marriage is tense and odd, as he submits to her humour in dressing him and making him up as a woman. It’s clear she thinks he’s a joke, and is having an affair with a pretty boy. Stander plays Dickie, a gangster who hides out in the castle, not even really needing violence to browbeat George into submitting to his authority. Dickie alternates between gentlemanly presentation and tough guy authority, between complimenting his “classy” home and labelling him a fairy. George won’t even drink because of his ulcer until Dickie forces him to. The centrepiece of the film is an astonishing 10-minute take in which George confesses his misery and frustration to Dickie, and the pair strike a mutual, if far from equal, amicability.
It’s a part that brings together almost all the aspects of Pleasence’s screen personae, as well as his gifts both as a comic and a tragedian. George is silly, weak, foolish, intelligent, sexually and emotionally confused, friendly, frustrated, intense, determined, weird, curiously upright and honourable, and lost. George grows up a little and empowers himself, telling off friends for helping ruin his last marriage to his long-time companion Agnes. But instead of making him happy, George, with the manipulation of the passively malevolent Teresa, is driven to destroy his friend Dickie, and then shed everything he possesses—wife, castle, and veneer of giving a damn—exiling himself on a rock to moan for his dear, lost Agnes. It’s possibly the cinema’s greatest-ever ode to a man who realises too late what he’s thrown away. l