Six Damn Fine Degrees #106: The doubtless pleasure of Donald Pleasance

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

It’s amazing that it took us one hundred and five installments to finally connect to Donald Pleasance (whom Matt mentioned in last week’s post)! After all, Pleasance (according to IMDb’s statistics) is the actor with the second-most closeness centrality in movie history, connecting most directly to almost everyone in the acting business (second only to Christopher Lee)! And isn’t that what our Six Damn Fine Degrees are all about: connecting our movie interests in seemingly random ways, creating a massive network of connections?

To me, Pleasance is first and foremost one of the few actors who save the worst kind of movies – and he’s been in more than a few of them! The bald-headed mix of sophistication, villainy, a piercing stare and pitiful likeability he brings to every single role, has made him a stand-out over his long career in TV and film between the 1940s and 1990s, almost to the point where I don’t care about much else than Pleasance’s mesmerizing performance. That makes almost all of his eclectic filmography terribly watchable.

He played widely in his early career, from Parsons in Orwell’s 1984 (1954), Hurst in Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1959) and Satan himself in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), but he’s probably best remembered initially as Jenkins in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, Dr Crippen in the movie of the same name (both 1963) and ‘The Forger” Lieutenant in The Great Escape (1963). His broad range allowed him to be both mesmerizingly evil Nazi villains or touchingly soft-spoken buffoons, adding to every character his recognisably malleable voice and lightly tempered Yorkshire accent.

It’s the roles in his later career, however, that I’m more familiar with and which made him such a favourite among the underestimated greats. In the following I’ve chosen five roles that I think have graced both the movies they were part of and also give us an excellent insight into the doubtless pleasure of watching Donald Pleasance.

#1 The cuckold in Cul-de-Sac (1966)

This definitely Pinteresque chamber piece was one of Roman Polanski‘s first international productiona before his big break in the late 1960s. Pleasance is George, who lives in a castle on an island with his wife, who cheats on him with a young villager. The cuckolded husband is additionally stirred up by the arrival of two gangsters, who find themselves near the castle and who intrude the couple’s already troubled life. Pleasance comes wonderfully alive in this role and makes us feel his pain, anger and increasing mental breakdown at the desolation of his life. When the film was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and set its director on a rollercoaster ride of success, scandal and tragedy, it was in no small part due to an excellent cast featuring Françoise Dorleac, Lionel Stander, Jack McGowran alongside Pleasance.

#2 The most iconic Bond villain (You Only Live Twice, 1967)

When recasting the role of Bond’s arch enemy after a failed start with Czech actor Jan Werich, Pleasance proved to be an inspired replacement. It’s not necessarily the scar on his face or his incessant petting of the infamous white cat, but rather the actor’s quietly menacing presence that made Pleasance instantly iconic. Scheming World War III deep down in his volcano lair and getting rid of enemies in piranha pools certainly had a profound effect on how we have imagined Bond villains or spoofs thereof ever since (Dr Evil, anyone?). Telly Savalas might have been more physical in the role, Charles Gray more camp, and Christoph Waltz…oh well. After all these instalments, however, there was never anyone quite as iconic as Pleasance in the role.

#3 The ultimate Columbo murderer (season 3: “Any Old Port in a Storm”, 1973)

Peter Falk was already in his third season as legendary Lieutenant Columbo when he faced his most formidable foe in the shape of winemaker Adriano Carsini, played by Pleasance at the top of his game. Carsini brutally slays his do-no-good brother to save his winemaking emporium, whereupon Columbo steps in to investigate. Whereas we see the murderer as sly and conniving in covering up the killing at the outset, we do sense the passion and despair he feels when his life’s work seems threatened. Pleasance does the impossible by making us root for him more and more as the episode progresses. Columbo, however, does his homework as usual and confronts Carsini with his guilt, but the ending has a few surprises in store. The episode still tops most Best of Columbo episodes, and just last year, Carsini was elected best murderer of the entire series in an extensive Instagram fan poll. No small feat, considering there are 69 of them!

#4 The sum of all fear in Halloween (1978)

Certainly his most popular role came to Pleasance in 1978, when he was cast alongside Jamie Lee Curtis in the most successful independent movie back then: John Carpenter’s Halloween. We might think initially, of course, of maniacal serial killer Michael Myers and the ultimate victim heroine Laurie Strode, but it was in no small part due to the dry bone gravitas of Dr Sam Loomis (not the only connection to Psycho) that made the backstory of Myers and the mission to stop him so compelling. Pleasance was back for four atrocious sequels and even had unused footage as well as his voice inserted even into the latest Halloween reboots, so statistics clearly put him ahead of Lee Curtis and just slightly behind Myers as the second-most important character in the franchise. Carpenter certainly thought highly of him, also casting Pleasance as the US president in Escape From New York and a priest in Prince of Darkness.

#5 The monkey professor in Argento’s Phenomena (1985)

The curse of Dr Loomis was constantly with him during the 1980s, but Pleasance was not someone to turn down any script he was offered even if there were probably more misses than hits among them. Another moment to shine came in 1985, when Pleasance was able to act under the director of another iconic horror master: Dario Argento. In Phenomena, likely Argento’s last truly good film, Pleasance plays Professor McGregor, an animal specialist, who helps Jennifer Connelly (in only her second starring role) in finding the identity of strange maggots and insects she encounters at the definitely creepy Zurich boarding school she studies at. Pleasance gives Argento’s usual brutal absurdities his revered deadpan delivery and emotional weight. Not many actors can pull that off while acting alongside a monkey for most of the scenes.

The list, of course, could go on: We haven’t even talked about Fantastic Voyage, THX 1138, Woody Allen’s Shadow and Fog, or his Dr Seward in the 1979 version of Dracula, in which he was finally able to play alongside his own screen icon, Sir Laurence Olivier. There are also his countless appearances on TV, from The Twilight Zone, Mrs Columbo, The Fugitive, to even Saturday Night Live, spoofing his own Dr Loomis when hosting a 1980 edition.

No matter how you approach Donald Pleasance’s career, it seems, you are sure to enjoy his doubtless pleasure in partaking in even the most absurd flick. For that, I’ll always stay tuned when his name appears in the credits… After all, not one but two Halloween end title crawls (1995, 1998) were dedicated to his memory. For once, he’s the only one with that to his credit.

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