Monday, December 7, 2009

Six reasons to be grateful for Richard Todd

Richard Todd, the great British actor who for some reason tends to get left out of the shuffle whenever the talk drifts to great British actors, died this week at the age of ninety.
Here are six great reasons for remembering him - starting with the one we're all agreed on.
1. He was Guy Gibson in The Dam Busters (1955).
Todd is most remembered for his stoic heroes in British war films, and this one remains among the most popular as well as famous of its breed, in part because of the manner in which it celebrates both sides of the British war effort: invention, represented by Michael Redgrave’s eccentric inventor Barnes Wallis who devised the revolutionary bouncing bomb, and bravery, represented by Todd’s Wing Commander Gibson who, together with the men of 617 Squadron, was entrusted with the task of using it to flood the Ruhr dams and destroy the adjoining Nazi industrial complexes.
Viewed dispassionately today, the dramatic sweep of the film is perhaps fatally compromised by the transparency of its climactic special effects, but the final scene in which Redgrave and Todd meet after the mission - the former confessing that had he known how many pilots would not return he would never have instigated it, and the latter assuring him that not one of the lost men would have turned it down had they known the outcome - remains quietly moving in the best British manner, and is an acting triumph for Todd every bit as much as Redgrave.
And speaking of the war...
2. Like my grandfather, he served in the British 6th Airborne Division during World War 2, and was one of the first British officers to land in Normandy on D-Day.
Interestingly, in the film The Longest Day he played the officer in charge of my grandfather's mission: the taking and securing of Pegasus Bridge, a vital arterial link between the coast and Normandy proper. In reality, he was the officer from his battalion who made contact with the character he plays in the film. As historian Stephen Ambrose puts it in his book on the events of that day: if the Pegasus Bridge mission had failed, D-Day would have failed. So thanks, grandad; thanks, Richard.
3. He's brilliant in Never Let Go (1958).
.Anyone who doubts his range should seek out this sleeping gem among sleazy British crime films. Todd, with Morrissey quiff and glasses, plays a meek and wimpy perfume rep, kicked out by his smug boss after he misses too many appointments with clients. In order to be more reliable he pours all the money he has into a Ford Anglia, only to have it stolen by a teen gang under orders from a sadistic minor gangster played, equally well and against type, by Peter Sellers. After the police prove useless, he slowly finds the courage to take the matter into his own hands, and the surprisingly brutal film ends with a massive fist fight between the two main characters that leaves Todd looking like a crushed grape, but the victor. It's incredibly stirring and compelling stuff that failed at the time simply because it was ahead of its time. It not only anticipates Straw Dogs, but pretty comprehensively cocks its leg over it too.
4. He worked with Bette Davis, Dietrich, Hitchcock, Michael Winner and Pete Walker.
He was Sir Walter to Bette's Virgin Queen, and co-star with Dietrich in Stage Fright, perhaps Hitchcock's least-seen film of all. Winner cast him in his fascinating Big Sleep remake, and the best of his two jobs for Walker is as the wily publisher in House of the Long Shadows, the maestro's delightful take on Biggers's Seven Keys to Baldpate. Though remembered almost solely for its historic teaming of Lee, Price, Cushing and Carradine, Todd is just as important an ingredient, and he carries the film in its opening scenes, before the horror boys show up.
5. He did odd stuff, too.
However associated he may be with berets and stiff upper lips, there's no getting around the fact that he was happy to report for duty in some very strange places. Pete Walker is far from the most disreputable name he worked for.
He's Sir Basil in Harry Alan Towers's weirdsville remake of Dorian Gray, takes a small part in that strange Dennis Hopper film among strange Dennis Hopper films Bloodbath, and an unbilled cameo in Blood Bath, this time the 1966 Jack Hill and Stephanie Rothman horror film. He's also in Number One of the Secret Service, one of Lindsay Shonteff's excruciating James Bond spoofs, and the man who chops his wife up and wraps up the bits in brown paper, only to be killed by them when they come supernaturally back to life, in Asylum.
And one perhaps better forgotten:
6. He was the original choice for James Bond, but had to turn the role down due to other commitments.
The thought of this great, ideally suited star in Dr No, in place of that oaf Connery, is almost too heartbreaking to contemplate.
.Richard Todd, 1919 - 2009