Favourite dead not-American actors: an Advent Calendar
Day 10: Sydney Greenstreet
Let’s hear it for character actors, because without them, our film lives would be a much poorer place. And our lead actors would be pretty damn lonely. Quite often the thing that elevates a film from good to great is the quality and depth of the supporting cast. A lot of my favourite actors are ones who get turned into character actors/supporting cast/cameos because of the vagaries of the film world, which often leaves me saddened, so it is a joy to watch the kings of the role like Sydney, happily owning their bit of the screen every time.
No-one does amused menace quite like Sydney, who has a lightness of touch that contrasts so beautifully with his physical presence. He can portray moral ambivalence without a qualm, unlike his partner-in-crime off and on screen, Peter Lorre, who always shows his qualms even as he is doing something despicable. It’s one of the reasons they work so well together; Peter puts you on your guard, whereas Sydney is a gentlemanly, soothing presence, even as he is spiking your drink.
But he’s not just a cultured villain, of course. He has a wide range, even as he is constrained by his appearance and the somewhat restrictive studio system. He is one of those actors who is almost as well known for being himself, so it’s a real delight to investigate his other film roles and discover that he’s not just the smiling fat man, plotting your comfortable demise.
Favourite Role: Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon (1941).Would that every film debut were quite as delicious as this. In a flawless film, with a perfect cast, his performance is a delight every time; dominating scenes without unbalancing them, which is a true art.
Another good place to start: Alexander Yardley in Christmas In Connecticut (1945) where he is for once not at all villainous. It’s a breezy joy of a film, with the bonus of the always terrific Barbara Stanwyck and the delightful film-stealing (yes, even from Sydney) S. Z. Sakall as Felix.