Most of us, in our working life, may be unfortunate to encounter a subordinate, whose incompetence is boundless and and exasperating beyond measure, but despite their bumbling and usually destructive approach, end up successful. This actor however made a career of playing such a hapless and increasingly vexed boss with flair and panache.
In a career spanning from before the Second World War to the 21st century, he had a number of acclaimed performances including twice portraying Napoleon, but the role of Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus in the “Pink Panther” series is what Czech-born British actor Herbert Lom is most famous for.
Lom, whose 100th birth anniversary is on Monday, played the long-suffering boss of bungling and clumsy Inspector Jacques Closeau (Peter Sellers) in seven of the series’ nine films from “A Shot in the Dark” (1964) to “Son of the Pink Panther” (1993) – two more than Sellers himself. (Sellers’ sixth, posthumous appearance was made possible by using unused material from an earlier film and scenes from others).
So popular was Lom that he returns regularly despite his sordid fate at the end of most installments – going a murderous rampage in “A Shot in the Dark” as he tries to kill Closeau, strait-jacketed in a padded cell in the end of “The Return of the Pink Panther” (1975) as his hate of Closeau has reached manic levels, or disintegrating at the climax of “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” where he has become a criminal mastermind who uses a ‘doomsday’ machine to blackmail the world powers to kill Closeau. But then he is miraculously back in his position in subsequent installments though still itching to kill Closeau.
And such as Lom’s craft that he managed to steal almost every scene he and Sellers are both in, despite Sellers’ expertise in this regard. While Sellers’ zany and straight-faced performance is unparallelled, it is Dreyfus’ growing exasperation, manifested in tics and rising blood pressure, in his oblivious subordinate that strikes a chord.
Take “The Return of the Pink Panther”. Be it the scene in the opening where Closeau, demoted to a beat cop, is being roasted for not preventing a bank robbery and asks how can a blind man be a lookout, Dreyfus, imitating him, responds “How can an idiot be a policeman? Answer me that!” or when Closeau complaining after his flat is blown up, says: “I tell you, infamous powers are at work! The instant you assign me to a case, the Underworld hears about it and I am set upon! It is amazing that I am still alive!”, and Dreyfus, trying to stifle a giggle, responds: “‘Amazing'” is not the word.”
Or in “Revenge of the Pink Panther” (1978), after firing at Closeau and asking him if he is wounded, Dreyfus, on being told that he was saved by the darkness, quips: “So what we need is more light.”
Even in scenes where Closeau is not present, Lom leaves his mark with some masterful acting – the way he stifles giggles as emotional reactions while reading an eulogy in church for Closeau or tells another subordinate that he is worried that one day, he will open his closet or car trunk, and find Closeau in it, and imitates his catchword “Peak-Boo” with rolling eyes or the one where he nearly shoots himself after confusing his real pistol with one which is a lighter.
But there was much more to Lom, who was born Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevic ze Schluderpacheru in Prague in 1917 and began acting in Czech films from 1937, having changed his surname to Lom “as it was the shortest name found in the telephone directory”. Ahead of Nazi Germany’s aggression, he moved to London in January 1939 and began appearing in films there, especially as Napoleon in “The Young Mr Pitt” (1942) (he would reprise the role in a 1956 version of “War and Peace”).
With his rich authoritative voice, intense eyes and penchant for playing arrogant, menacing villains, he was notable as one of the criminals in Ealing black comedy “The Ladykillers”, a mysterious journalist in Raj thriller “North West Frontier”, a noble Moorish warrior in “El Cid”, a pirate chief in “Spartacus”, Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing in the non-Hammer “Count Dracula”, and more till his last appearance in a TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series.
He died on September 27, 2012 aged 95.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])