I’m a dying man with no money.
Somebody wants to kill me?
Few actors could press such a bleak query — delivered early on in Orson Welles’ masterful 1955 drama Mr. Arkadin — with the sheer physical conviction of our star of the week, Akim Tamiroff.
Russian born (in 1899 of Armenian descent), Moscow Art Theater trained, he was a short (5-feet-5-inches), squat, sweaty blend of roguishness and outright evil. Once seen, he is hard to forget, one of Hollywood’s premier character actors.
As British critic David Thomson writes: He was like a confidence trickster whose nerve has gone. And yet, he managed to be one of the most beguiling men in movies.
After touring in the U.S. in 1923 with the Moscow troupe, Tamiroff five years out of his teens decided to stay put and try his luck on the New York stage. A decade later, he landed in Hollywood with an initial movie credit under his belt (1932’s Okay America starring Lew Ayres as a Walter-Winchell-type newspaper columnist.)
Tamiroff fully exploited a lusty baritone voice spiced with a pronounced but hard-to-place accent permitting him to play a wide range of foreign nasties. He created what critic Thomson calls a uniquely cowardly villain, so inefficient a liar and cheat that raw helplessness shone through: a dumpy little man with an insecure scowl and an anxious snarl.
What’s especially impressive about Tamiroff’s career is its length and variety. He has more than 150 movie and tv titles (mostly features) to his credit, amassed over his lifetime (he died in 1972).
There are comedies (Preston Sturge’ The Great McGinty, 1940); prestige studio dramas (For Whom The Bell Tolls, 1943); show bizzy flourishes (with Frank Sinatra and The Rat Pack in Ocean’s 11, 1960); middle-brow uplift (The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1944); European intrigue (as George Sanders’ second banana in Douglas Sirk’s A Scandal in Paris, 1946); foreign adventure (Outpost in Morocco, 1949, and Billy Wilder’s vastly entertaining Five Graves to Cairo, 1943).
And that’s just scratching the surface.
To see Tamiroff at his best, be sure to check out the movies he made that are directed by Welles (pictured above right with Tamiroff). In Mr. Arkadin, he as one Jakob Zouk manages to make an ex-con dope dealer dying in wintry Munich a figure of sympathy before being knifed by Welles as the evil title character.
In 1958’s Touch of Evil, he is the malevolently buffoonish “Uncle Joe Grandi” losing his hairpiece and his life at the hands of Welles as a corrupt border-town sheriff.
In Welles’ adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1963), Tamiroff is the hapless and hopelessly lost legal client of Welles as “The Advocate.”
From time to time, production finances permitting, Tamiroff as Sancho Panza had been shooting scenes in Don Quixote of Orson Welles. A completed version of the movie was more or less stitched together from available footage, and was released in 1992, two decades after Tamiroff’s death. (Skip it. It’s a mess.)
In the 1960’s Tamiroff worked a lot in Europe, appearing in films made by Italian directors Vittoria DeSica (Il Guidizio Universale, 1961) and Mauro Bolognini (La Bambole as a rattled monsignor coping with Gina Lollobrigida). Also, he appears in Jules Dassin’s Topkapi (1964); and very affectingly as an over-the-hill private eye expiring in a cheap hotel room in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965).
As Thomson summarizes Tamiroff’s films: There is barely a dull one among them, or one that does not come to life for the twenty minutes in which he flourishes.