© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists
Today is October 5th, 2019. Donald Pleasence, one of my all-time favourite actors, was born on this day exactly 100 years ago
The distinctive Pleasence, with his domed and usually hairless head, his popping eyes and unsettling stare, and his alternatively smooth and sepulchral voice, was a peerless character actor. Though he’s mainly remembered for his sinister roles, he could effortlessly inhabit a range of personas – characters who were pathetic, tragic, eccentric, obsequious and, occasionally, virtuous.
In celebration of the great man’s 100th birthday, here are 15 of the performances that for me most memorably capture the essence of Pleasence.
Controversial in its day, with questions raised about it in Parliament, the BBC’s mid-1950s version of George Orwell’s 1984 still has impact. That’s largely due to its performances, most notably that of Peter Cushing playing Winston Smith. But Pleasence is good too as Syme, the lexicographer enthusiastically working on Newspeak. (“I’ve reached the adjectives at last!”) Despite – or perhaps because of – his zeal for the Party, Syme ends up becoming an ‘unperson’.
The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)
John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends is the cinema’s best take on the notorious Edinburgh duo of Burke and Hare, who in the early 19th century started selling cadavers to the dissection rooms of Edinburgh Medical School. The problem was, Burke and Hare’s cadavers had had some assistance in dying. Pleasence is loathsome as Hare, with atypically long, lank tresses, a battered stovepipe hat, a smirk and a maniacal gleam that shows he gets a perverse thrill out of murdering people. As with the real-life Hare, following his arrest, he turns King’s evidence against his partner and gets released, though director Gilling adds an apocryphal scene where he’s blinded by torch-wielding vigilantes the moment he leaves the jail.
© Triad Productions
Hell is a City (1960)
For someone who made a lot of horror movies, Pleasence had surprisingly little to do with Britain’s Hammer Films, the studio most associated with the horror genre at the time. Hell is a City is a Hammer movie, but ironically isn’t a horror one but a crime one – and by the standards of British cinema then, is surprisingly gritty. Pleasence plays Gus Hawkins, a shady but sympathetic bookmaker whose wife gives him the run-around while she attends to the spiritual and physical needs of the film’s villain, a murderous criminal fleeing the law. In the role of the duplicitous Mrs Hawkins is Billie Whitelaw, whom Pleasence killed in The Flesh and the Fiends, so I suppose there’s justice in that.
The Great Escape (1963)
Pleasence’s performance in The Great Escape culminates in one of the saddest scenes in cinema history. He plays Colin Blythe, a genteel but unfortunate prisoner-of-war in the high-security Stalag Luft III who goes blind just before the inmates stage the mass break-out of the title. However, Blythe has been befriended by an American pilot called Hendley, played by James Garner, who agrees to take him along when it’s his turn to escape from the camp. All goes well and Hendley and Blythe manage to steal a German airplane and fly it towards Switzerland and freedom. They get to within yards of the Swiss border when the plane suffers engine trouble and crashes. Then, while the bloodied Hendley tries to gather his wits amid the plane wreckage, the sightless and disorientated Blythe stumbles off in the direction of an approaching German patrol. One of the German soldiers raises his rifle… I get a tear in my eye even thinking about what happens next.
The Roman Polanski-directed Cul-de-sac has a surprisingly svelte Pleasance playing an artist shacked up with his gorgeous young wife (Francoise Dorleac, who was the sister of Catherine Deneuve and who died in a car accident in 1967) on an island off the English coast, which is actually Lindisfarne off Northumbria. Their idyll ends one day when two criminals-on-the-run (Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran) show up. Things then become positively Beckettian as the villains wait, futilely, for their superiors to appear and rescue them. Cul-de-sac is overlong, but is a haunting experience thanks to the gorgeous bleakness of its location and its black-and-white photography. It also contains the bloodcurdling sight of Pleasence, whilst involved in some kinky horseplay with Dorleac, hurtling around in lipstick and a frock.
© Compton Films / Tekli British Productions
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
Your IQ must be lower than your shoe-size if you haven’t worked out within ten minutes that Pleasence is the foreign-agent saboteur among the crew in this colourful sci-fi epic about a submarine of medical experts being miniaturised and injected into the body of a dying scientist so that they can perform internal surgery on him. Still it features a delightful scene near the end where Pleasence is devoured by a hungry white blood cell. (Other great Donald death-scenes: getting mauled to death by a bear that’s obviously a stuntman wrapped up in a shaggy rug in 1960’s Circus of Horrors, and being ingested by a monster that’s half-human and half-Venus flytrap in 1974’s startlingly tacky The Mutations.)
You Only Live Twice (1967)
The James Bond film where we get to see Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the first time, You Only Live Twice has Pleasence playing him with all the accoutrements that popular culture associates with Blofeld – bald head, white jumpsuit, white cat, pool of piranhas for dropping incompetent minions into. Mind you, the filmmakers immediately abandoned the template and cast two actors with very different appearances and personas, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray, as Blofeld in the next two Bond movies. That, of course, didn’t stop Mike Myers from using the original Pleasence / Blofeld blueprint for his Dr Evil character in the later Austen Powers movies (1997-2002).
Wake in Fright (1971)
Nick Cave reckons Wake in Fright is the greatest Australian movie ever and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s the tale of a young, bright and ambitious teacher (Gary Bond) who becomes increasingly desensitised and degenerate the longer he’s stranded in the macho outback town of Bundanyabba. Pleasence plays Doc Tydon, an educated man who’s already plumbed the depths of ‘the Yabba’ and who becomes Virgil to Bond’s Dante, guiding him through the town’s various levels of hell. The scene where a drunken Tydon sits on the porch of an outback pub and raves about “Socrates, affectability, progress” being “vanities spawned by fear”, before going berserk and smashing up the place, shows the mighty Donald at his most unhinged.
© American International Pictures
Gary Sherman’s grisly and ahead-of-its-time horror movie Deathline has Pleasence playing Inspector Calhoun, a working-class copper investigating the disappearances of late-night travellers on the London Underground. (Clue: it’s something to do with the last-surviving, cannibalistic descendent of a group of workers who were entombed by a cave-in while the Underground was being built in the 19th century.) Calhoun isn’t really a nice character. He’s sly, cynical, irascible and, as a boozy scene involving his only friend (Norman Rossington) shows, a nightmare to get out of the pub at closing time. However, when he finally discovers the cannibal’s hideous subterranean lair, his exclamation – “What a way to live!” – suggests a feeling of empathy, even of kinship with the lonely creature.
The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973)
1970s children’s television in Britain featured many short public-information films that used harrowing and graphic images to convince kids that it was not a good idea to play on railway tracks, inside electrical sub-stations, next to farm slurry pits, etc. Pleasence lent his doomy tones to The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, which warns the little ‘uns to keep away from rivers, canals and ponds and is the most harrowing film of the lot. He voices the titular spirit, a black, cowled figure who lurks in the misty background while a succession of stupid children – “the unwary, the show-off, the fool” – are lured to watery graves. So memorably ghoulish is Pleasence’s narration that, 45 years on, I can still recite every word of it. (“Sensible children!” he spits. “I have no power over them!”) And to make it even creepier, when he dematerialises at the end and leaves his cowl floating on some murky water, we hear his voice echoing out of the cowl: “I’ll be back… back… back!”
© Amicus Productions / Warner Bros.
From Beyond the Grave (1974)
The best of the horror anthology movies produced by Amicus Films, Hammer’s biggest rival during the 1960s and 1970s, this features Pleasence in one story as an old soldier called Underwood, reduced to selling matchsticks and shoelaces on the street. Underwood is adopted by a mediocre, frustrated man called Lowe (Ian Bannon), who’s trying to win respect for himself by lying about imaginary heroics he performed during the war. Despite having a wife and child, Lowe gradually becomes enamoured with Underwood’s weird daughter – and we realise that it’s Underwood, not Lowe, who’s doing the manipulating. In a neat piece of stunt casting, the daughter is played by Pleasence’s real-life daughter, Angela. Meanwhile, wonderfully, in the role of Lowe’s ten-year-old son is the future comic writer and Labour Party activist John O’Farrell.
Pleasence plays a Soviet scientist who, during the darkest days of the Cold War, helped to ‘seed’ the USA with deep-cover Soviet agents. These brainwashed agents don’t know they’re agents, but when they hear a ‘trigger’, which is a stanza by poet Robert Frost, they become zombie-like, grab some explosives and carry out kamikaze-style attacks on nearby military installations. Pleasence goes rogue and travels to America, where he tries to start World War III singlehandedly by activating the brainwashed agents. Thereafter, there are many explosions and much reciting of poetry by Pleasance: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep…”
© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / United Artists
In 1978, planning a horror movie called Halloween about a murderous psychopath on the loose on October 31st, director John Carpenter decided he wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Dr Sam Loomis, head of the psychiatric hospital from which the psychopath escapes. After offering the part of Loomis to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, without success, Carpenter approached Pleasence and the great man bagged his second most-famous role (after Blofeld). I have mixed feelings about the massively influential Halloween. It has a hackneyed script, but benefits from Carpenter’s masterly direction, an endearing turn by Jamie Lee Curtis as the resourceful ‘last girl’ and, obviously, Pleasence’s gravitas. That said, I’m sure when Pleasence signed up for this, he didn’t expect to appear in four of the film’s five, increasingly ropy, direct sequels.
Blade on the Feather (1980)
A TV movie written by the brilliant Dennis Potter, Blade on the Feather has Pleasance playing a wealthy and stuck-up novelist who’s discombobulated when a young stranger, played by Tom Conti, arrives one day, ingratiates himself into his household and starts asking awkward questions – questions to do with some long-ago espionage skulduggery, which resulted in the death of Conti’s secret-agent father. Stylishly directed by Richard Loncraine and excellently acted by Pleasence, Conti and Denholm Elliot, Blade on the Feather was no doubt Potter’s disgruntled response to events of the previous year – when Anthony Blunt had finally been unmasked as the ‘fourth man’ in the Guy Burgess / Donald Maclean / Kim Philby spy scandal that rocked Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite confessing to treason in 1964, Blunt’s crime was kept secret for the next 15 years and he was allowed to enjoy a respectable and privileged life at the heart of the British establishment, working as curator of the Queen’s art collection.
Escape from New York (1981)
Working again with director John Carpenter, Pleasence plays in Escape from New York a future US president who’s trapped in a hellish version of New York after his plane crashes there. The city has become so anarchically crime-ridden that the authorities have simply sealed it off, left it to its own devices and turned it into a huge, unstaffed prison into which they dump all their felons. An ultra-violent, dystopian United States with a president called Donald? Thank heavens that prediction didn’t come true.
Anyway, a century on… Happy birthday, Mr P.
© Central Office of Information