He was relatively short — standing 5-feet 9 1/2-inches — and blocky but with his strong sonorous voice and manner, he exuded full authority onscreen. When Herbert Lom entered a scene, he grabbed your attention. You watched him carefully.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to pay our respects to one of international moviemaking’s hardest working actors — appearing in more than 110 titles across the span of nearly seven decades. Lom, who died in his sleep last year at 95, worked right into his 80s.
He’s probably best known on this side of the pond for his roles as Commissioner Charles Dreyfuss in the Pink Panther comedies with Peter Sellers. Lom was an adept screen comedian, mostly delivering his lines absolutely straight. (Check him out in the British classic, 1955’s The Ladykillers with Alec Guinness and Sellers.)
Such was the authority of his acting style that Lom was called upon to play Napoleon TWICE in two major productions. The first was director Carol Reed’s 1942 biopic, The Young Mr. Pitt about Britain’s youngest prime minister; and 14 years later, in Paramount’s shot-in-Italy epic, War and Peace, costarring Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer.
All well and good. But what makes Lom a favorite of ours are his nastier roles. As the British movie journal, Sight & Sound, wrote in its 2012 necrology, Herbert Lom was one of the finest purveyors of villainy in the shady world of British film noir. Savor, for example, his icy mob boss’ casual observance of a brutal Richard Widmark assault at the conclusion of director Jules Dassin’s 1950, shot-in-Britain thriller, Night and the City.
Although he made his mark as a screen actor largely in Great Britain, Lom was a foreigner, born in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). At the age of 20, he appeared in his first movie there before seeking refuge in England just prior to the German invasion of his home country. He used his sonorous voice during World War II as an announcer for the BBC Overseas Service, and then made his British film debut in his first Napoleon role.
Lom portrayed a large roster of foreign types in movies both British and American, often characters of the sleazier variety. In Hollywood, he appeared with Robert Mitchum, Jack Lemmon and Rita Hayworth in 1957’s Caribbean adventure Fire Down Below, and turned up as a pirate chieftain in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 Kirk Douglas vehicle, Spartacus. In 1980, he appeared in Hopscotch, a CIA comedy costarring Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson.
Lom no doubt enjoyed playing supporting parts involving various unsavory characters, but he also had larger ambitions — in 1962 he took the lead role in Hammer studios’ production of The Phantom of the Opera. Alas, in the end he observed with some regret: in English eyes, all foreigners are villains.
As Sight & Sound notes, few could have transcended type-casting with such verve.