Monday, November 1, 2010

Take Three: David Warner

Craig here with Take Three.

Heads, brains and faces, skewed or distorted, are the prominent concerns with today’s Take Three supporting actor David Warner: the lopping off, the removal of, and the obsessively creepy staring, respectively, are what it's all about. In The OmenFrom Beyond the Grave and The Man with Two Brains Warner thrilled us in a delightful and devious manner. He's an ideal actor for Halloween season.

Take One: I'm starting with the Man in the Mirror

Double-dealing, in particular, was the name of the game in ‘The Gate Crasher’, the first segment of Kevin Connor’s 1973 Amicus portmanteau film From Beyond the Grave. Warner was Edward Charlton, who surely lived to regret the snagging of an ancient, dubiously prescient mirror from shopkeeper Peter Cushing at a cut-price cost. Warner plays Charlton as cocky and belligerent one minute, and fearfully seized up the next. He germanely conveys the icky terror of Charlton’s unique-antique situation. His slight and consistent facial twitches betraying his discomfort. You can practically feel the (assumed) beads of sweat snaking down his back whenever the séance-induced, Ripper-like spirit appears on "the other side". He’s the best filmic embodiment of why séances can be bad luck for all concerned.

Warner ensures that Charlton’s inherent nature is suspect; he takes duplicity and makes it his bitch. But really he was ultimately an unlucky chancer who simply picked the wrong shopkeep to fleece. All that’s left dangling at the end – the question suspiciously hanging over the film’s cycle of reflection-based entrapment – is: who did Charlton con next? Reproductions, replacements...ah, they can cost dearly.

The moral of the story: don’t be a selfish git. Or, to put it another way: never, ever mess with a Yorkshire-accented Peter Cushing.

Take Two:  Dial 666 for Warner

In 1971 Warner gave one of his best and most involving early performances as local “simpleton” Henry Niles in Straw Dogs. He was nailing scenes a year earlier than that, too, as Joshua in The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Warner was, to put it simply, one of the exemplary supporting/character actors of the 1970s. Seeing his name appear in a film’s opening titles was like a stamp denoting quality assurance. One of his most memorable ‘70s parts was as the unfortunate victim of Beelzebub’s window-based rage. It wasn’t just Gregory Peck and Lee Remick who had to contend with that little devil Damien in The Omen (1976), Warner had his fair share of supernatural strife, too, and ended up getting it in the neck. Quite literally.

As photographer Keith Jennings, he got embroiled with the powerful-in-more-ways-than-one family and attempted to help them ward off the most evil of all evils. Bad idea. In one of the film’s greatest moments (and one of cinema’s most rewatchable movie deaths) Warner drops his guard and loses his head. His ‘pane of glass to the neck’ death was one of The Omen’s many inventive ways to off the horned one’s opposition. It was less a coup de grâce and more a coup de double-glaze.

Yet before that infamous beheading, Warner added both gritty class and a funky zeal to the film in his earlier scenes, holding his own alongside more established thespian stalwarts like Peck and Remick, or being nearly mauled by a hound of death. It was a purely functional role, sure, but the kind that suits an actor of Warner’s range and ragged style. He played it with panache, and in the process became a part of The Omen’s heritage. I think the devil killed Warner off halfway through because he was tired of being upstaged by him.

Take Three: The Doctor with Two Brains and a gorilla

In Carl Reiner’s The Man with Two Brains (1983) he's the doolally, single-minded scientist Dr. Alfred Necessiter. He’s daft, bordering on insane, but Warner plays him with an immovably staunch, straight face. Though Warner is third wheel to the brilliant comic compatibility of Steve Martin and Kathleen Turner, he's no less an integral part of the film’s crazy comedy.

In his castle apartment complex with paper-thin walls he carries out his life’s work: a revolutionary non-surgical technique for removing human brains and storing them in jars. (Well, it makes sense to him.) When Martin’s lovestruck Dr. Hfuhruhurr ("H-f-u-h-r-u-h-u-r-r: Hfuhruhuuuurrrrr"), falls for one of Dr. Necessiter’s (talking) brain specimens, Anne Uumellmahaye, things get barmier: gorilla transplants and the borrowing of battering rams are only the start. The Man With Two Brains is essentially old b-movie horror given an ‘80s clown-faced makeover.

Warner’s a tweedy, geeky foil for Steve Martin’s madcap mentality and he knows exactly how to overplay mannerisms and underplay lines for maximum comic effect. His very best moment is when he claps his hands and blows a raspberry in a demonstration of what kind of being his “research” might lead to. I love him for lines like this: “Nonsense. If the murder of twelve innocent people can help save one human life, it will have been worth it.” And I love him in general for doing this movie.

Three more key films for the taking: Straw Dogs (1971), Time After Time (1977), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

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