Actor, producer, director, and living chronicle of Hollywood history, Norman Lloyd turned 106 today. If I had to name the most charming man on the planet, he’d be the first person to come to mind. Back in 2014, I listened to him give a 1-hour interview at the TCM Classic Film Festival. A packed theater sat spellbound as he wove confidently in and out of stories and stories within stories. His eloquence and joie-de-vivre were inspirational.
In Golden Age Hollywood, Lloyd’s lanky physique, hawkish profile, and curly hair made him look a bit like Leslie Howard’s punk kid brother. The character actor shined in quirky supporting roles, such as the comic relief minstrel in Technicolor swashbuckler The Flame and the Arrow and Chaplin’s Limelight. But shady or unhinged roles suited Lloyd best in his youth, before he acquired the genteel, benevolent aura of a beloved emeritus professor with a salty wisecrack up his sleeve.
He made his film debut for Hitchcock in Saboteur (1942) as the titular villain. Everybody remembers his spectacular death plunge from the Statue of Liberty’s torch. But his quiet moments impress me more: his satisfied glance out a taxi window at the sunken ship; his sour flirting technique with pert Priscilla Lane; the way he drawls, “I don’t like autumn.” Poster boy for the banality of evil, his smug, vaguely sleazy Axis agent blends into a crowd of normal people, like a traveling salesman but for catastrophe.
Since Lloyd’s birthday falls in Noirvember, I figured that I would mark his birthday by recommending three of the best noirs in which he appeared. I’d consider all of these somewhat underseen. His small but wryly intriguing contributions to their ensembles hint at the charisma and wit of the man himself.
All three films relate to the rise of McCarthyism that would jeopardize Lloyd’s career, since he was an active member in left-leaning artistic circles. Reign of Terror parallels the fear and tension of the blacklist era; the original title was even The Black Book. M and He Ran All the Way show the incisive talent of two directors who would soon have to flee the country to find work. Norman is a survivor of those dark days, reflected in the darkness of these films.
Reign of Terror (Anthony Mann, 1949)
Truly one of a kind, this period thriller is essentially noir in powdered wigs. You’ve got all the laconic jabs, elaborate shadows, amorality, and dread of a 20th century crime drama, only unfolding during the French Revolution.
However, the fusion of John Alton’s virtuosic noir lighting with the cloaks and muskets of 1794 endows this film with a disorienting, foreboding grandeur—no small feat, considering its low budget and short shooting schedule. The history-book-meets-comic-book fantasia of this film never fails to stun me, no matter how many times I watch it. Whenever I recommend this movie to someone who hasn’t seen it, the reaction is always, “How the hell hadn’t I heard of this before?”
At TCMFF I saw Norman Lloyd introduce the film, and he explained that the producers wanted to recycle a costly set built for the Ingrid Bergman Joan of Arc. It takes a special plot to repurpose a period French city set. “So it was decided to chop someone’s head off,” Lloyd joked.
As in his gritty Westerns, Mann packs Reign of Terror with some graphic violence for the era, including not one, but two men taking bloody pistol shots to the face right in the camera. The gallows humor—or guillotine humor—and abundant innuendo would make a late 18th century caricaturist smirk.
Where to watch for Norman: Lloyd plays Tallien, a real historical figure who helped end Robespierre’s dictatorship. As he savors brandy-soaked cherries in a tavern, his louche nonchalance adds to the ambiance of paranoia. Can the hero really trust him? Later, Tallien supervises as his men attack Charles and rough him up as a possible Robespierre spy. Finally, he makes the most of a big fulminating close-up in the National Assembly, shaking his fist and rising to topple the demagogue.
M (Joseph Losey, 1951)
Remaking Fritz Lang’s masterpiece was a ballsy move, to say the least, but Losey’s version justifies the decision. While I recognize the innovative early-talkie brilliance of the first, all said and done, I probably prefer the later one. In any case, rather than try to reproduce Lang’s chilly, expressionist approach, Losey turned the story loose in the streets with engrossing location footage of a now-bygone L.A. The documentary realness of the backdrop makes the events all the more disturbing.
David Wayne’s whimpering, deranged child killer is as pathetic as an animal in the last stages of rabies. During the climactic underworld trial, a drunk, debased mob lawyer redeems himself with a speech that fiercely challenges the morality of capital punishment. The surprising warmth and big-hearted empathy of this M heightens its tragedy.
Where to watch for Norman: Manager of a floating craps game, Lloyd’s crook loafs around the head mobster’s boardroom with the other grotesque underlings, including Raymond Burr and Glenn Anders.
He Ran All the Way (John Berry, 1951)
John Garfield’s last film knocked the wind out of me when I first saw it at the Egyptian Theater. And Norman Lloyd was in the house too, waving dapperly at the hoards of admiring TCMFF attendees!
In this bleak home invasion noir, a robber on the lam manages to smooth-talk his way into a happy family’s apartment to hide out after a botched robbery. James Wong Howe’s cinematography captures the textures of New York City and the claustrophobia of the apartment.
Garfield’s thuggish criminal on the lam manages to be both achingly poignant and frighteningly brutal. While we pray for the family to get through this, we’re also forced to confront the unfairness of life, to see familial love and comfort as privileges bestowed on some and not others. Soon-to-be-blacklisted director John Berry exposes how social inequality breeds violence, begetting a cycle of abuse and trauma. In some cases, when all you know is pain, all you can do is hurt others.
Where to watch for Norman: Lloyd’s small-time crook only appears in the first part of the movie, but his pivotal role catalyzes all that follows. His brains convince Garfield’s brawn to attempt the crime that goes horribly wrong.