American-accented British characters have been sending shivers down right-thinking fans’ spines for decades.
The disastrously infantile studio logic that ‘international (i.e. American) audiences’ will run screaming from proper pronunciation has spawned Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, Uma Thurman’s Mrs. Emma Peel, Val Kilmer’s The Saint, Keanu Reeves’ Jonathan Harker and John Constantine—choosing between Yankee pronunciation and a ham-fisted mockery of the Queen’s English, sometimes in the same film. In 1999 there was some horror that Denzel Washington might play Doctor Who (in that movie that was “imminently approaching production” since 1987), and Cubby Broccoli toyed with American James Bonds on and off (John Gavin and James Brolin were actually contracted, thus notching them above Adam West and Burt Reynolds).
But all these errors of trans-Atlantic compromise (seriously, if you were going for an African-American Doctor, it should obviously be Samuel L. Jackson) seem comparatively mild. For in the 1950s, Brian Donlevy played British rocket scientist (and godfather of science fiction, as you’ll know from my previous article “Quatermass Keeping Calm”) Professor Bernard Quatermass.
Brian Donlevy (1901-1972) was an Irish-born, American-raised actor. He led a colourful life (reportedly lying about his age to join the army, where he pursued Pancho Villa before serving with the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I). A career that encompassed Broadway and silent films led to typecasting as a tough guy, though he played a variety of roles and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1939 for Beau Geste. His acclaim was as the eponym of Preston Sturges’ classic The Great McGinty (1940), a role he reprised on radio and for Sturges’ sequel The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). But that was all ancient history when Hammer Films signed him for 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment. Before their golden age of horror films (which began in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein), Hammer required a complicated lattice of negotiation to ensure their films received US distribution—among them an American star.
Now a very common way to make movies, in the 1950s it was a dark art for a small studio punching above its weight. Hammer’s shoestring budgets (in the £50,000- £90,000 range) limited the kind of stars they could get—fading ones such as George Brent, Dean Jagger… and Donlevy. Always shrewd businessmen, Hammer ensured the Americans paid for their preference—reportedly United Artists covered Donlevy’s fee and flew him to England.
You may need to remind yourself of this several times when re-watching Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957), both directed by Val Guest—that the star is in fact an add-on to the film. It explains why these two brilliant films—still among the greatest British science fiction films—can succeed so amply around such a monumentally awful central performance. Think of the standard values an American star might be expected to bring to a film—sex appeal, glamour, charisma—and try to find them anywhere in Donlevy’s depiction.
But let’s get down to definitions. Though I had some fun with the likes of Costner at the top of this, the fact that Donlevy is American doesn’t explain why he’s so wrong for the role. For example, Dean Jagger was admirable as the non-copyright Quatermass in Hammer’s 1956 film X The Unknown (1956)—playing up a subtle mixture of brittle gravitas and quirky charm. Simply put, by any yardstick Donlevy gives a poor performance. He lumbers through scenes perpetually clutching a fedora, his furrowed brow and gruff impatience evoking a constipated gangster. But it’s against Nigel Kneale’s clearly defined, sophisticated character that Donlevy’s utter lack of conviction and subtlety hurt so much.
In my previous article, I argued Quatermass’ humility were what made him a great character. Here was a mature man whose wisdom was gained in the face of monumental doubts. This, coupled with his bad temper, made him a compelling and well-rounded character even when he wasn’t likeable. That may be the most fundamental reason why Donlevy seems so wrong. Donlevy leavens Quatermass’s scepticism into stubborn idiocy, his detachment into priggishness. His bullying of friends and colleagues seems cruel and hypocritical, considering they tolerate his lack of humanity. His dedication to his space mission has a menacing ring, most troublingly of George W. Bush, such as when Quatermass brushes aside the astronauts’ sacrifice by declaring “They’ll be decorated as heroes”.
Some have tried to argue that Donlevy’s interpretation is a breath of fresh air, a more ambiguous protagonist that would pave the way for Hammer’s taboo-breaking hero/villains, and a weird fantastical analogue for the approaching ‘angry young men’ or the counter-culture of the ‘60s. Such a reading would place him halfway between Peter Cushing’s dandified Baron Frankenstein and Sean Connery’s coldly professional James Bond 007. Looked at in this light, the end of Xperiment, with Quatermass’ terse declaration that he’ll start another mission, could be a forerunner of Connery’s brutal assassination of Professor Dent in Dr. No (1962).
In the main, though, Donlevy is too charmless to warrant such a defence. Compared to Cushing’s nervy, animated Frankenstein, Quatermass seems listless. There are possible moments of intensity, but most of the time he can barely pronounce his name (it’s rumbled out as “Qutrmss”, as though he’s taking all the vowel sounds out).
But as I said above, don’t for a moment let that dissuade you from seeing his two Quatermass films, as their triumph in the face of this almighty handicap is all the more awe-inspiring. The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass 2 retain Nigel Kneale’s original power due to an almost heroic effort on every single other person to pull the films together around their sagging star. Val Guest (director, and, with Richard Landau and Kneale, writer) imbues every scene with powerful, almost verite realism—coupled with equally well-done touches of oddness that encapsulate the stories’ fundamental concerns with the uncomfortable contact between mundane and odd.
Considering Hammer’s reputation for flamboyant period settings and vivid colour palettes, it’s all the more surprising to see these films’ verisimilitude. And while they inevitably exchange Kneale’s more thoughtful conclusions for pyrotechnics, they remain largely thoughtful excursions into the unknown—and then something nasty happens! And Guest’s vivid style has left their ability to shock and unnerve intact, through the decades. The novel and symbolic use of Westminster Abbey and the Shell refinery matches Rudolph Cartier’s work on the BBC serials, and to this day carries far eerier charge than the London landmarks over-used in, say, David Tennant-era Doctor Who episodes.
The supporting casts are uniformly strong—Thora Hird, Sid James, etc.—but two performances stand out. Richard Wordsworth’s pitiful transformation from Victor Carroon into alien has been compared with Boris Karloff’s Monster in Frankenstein (1931) (and the film pretty overtly nabs a couple of beats from James Whale’s film). Jack Warner’s affable Inspector Lomax gets less kudos, probably because it’s almost the same patrician, common-sense copper that Warner honed to perfection in Dixon of Dock Green. This tends to obscure the fact that it is his humanity, and decency, that most clearly stand in for Kneale’s absent Quatermass. And Warner’s comic timing is so excellent he succeeds in convincing the viewer that in spite of Donlevy’s unwavering scowl, he and Quatermass are getting chummy… then sets up some jokes that create the illusion that Donlevy’s Quatermass has a sense of humour.
That the films are classics of their genre, then, cannot be argued. Don’t believe me? No less a source than Susan Sontag cited Xperiment (under its insipid American title The Creeping Unknown) in her seminal essay, “The Imagination of Disaster” (collected in Against Interpretation). Its effect on horror director John Carpenter was so profound that he hired Nigel Kneale to work on his Halloween III: Season of the Witch (and reportedly endured his hero’s incessant bullying, ending with Kneale asking for his name to be removed from the credits). Steven Spielberg nominated Quatermass 2 (under its insipid American title—oh, you’ll love this one—Enemy From Space) as one of his favourites growing up.
Hang about—now that I think about it, Spielberg made a movie about a scowling scholar with a prominent fedora, didn’t he? Could, then, the Donlevy Quatermass’s greatest legacy be as a kind of great-uncle to … Indiana Jones? Suddenly the British Rocket Group doesn’t seem so implausible …