Saturday, 30 April 2011

Vincent Price | Film+Television+Radio | Art in the Blood

"Someone called actors 'sculptors in snow'. Very apt. In the end, it's all nothing." - Vincent Price

What a voice! Never mind that tall wide frame and that diabolic brow, what a voice! Vinegary and pointed, loaded with promise, it's the sound of the Snake in Eden.

Earlier this week, Phil Brown wrote of Price's magnificent readings of Poe. I offer this piece as an addendum, a glimpse of the other Vincent, before Corman and before Tim Burton. My Price is the Price of the '40s and the '50s, the smooth operator so often on the verge of hysteria. Look at his vapid gigolo in Laura (1944), clinging onto Judith Anderson after Dana Andrews has gut-punched him. Or his Shakespearean ham in His Kind of Woman (1951), baffling Bob Mitchum by complaining, "Alas! Why must I be plagued by yammering magpies on the eve of battle?" And was there ever an actor more suited to playing Cardinal Richelieu (1948), sneering haughtily at Gene Kelly's D'Artagnan?

Physically, Price called the opening of The Maltese Falcon to mind: "Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curled back to make another smaller V. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down - from high flat temples - in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan."

Temperamentally, however, Price was more the heir to George Sanders than to Bogie. Both were cultured and sardonic, and both had played Leslie Charteris' gentlemen adventurer The Saint, Sanders onscreen for RKO, Price for NBC Radio. Price's broadcasts as Simon Templar are breezy and fun, and he handles tough-guy dialogue with just the right sense of self-mockery. And even in these pulpy programmers, we get a glimpse of the man within - each episode ends with a small message from Price the actor, often addressing social concerns of the day. Bob Glickstein draws attention to the coda to Author of Murder in which Price speaks out against the "venom of racial and religious hatred" in '50s America.

While onscreen Price often played vulgarians (see 1950's Champagne for Caesar, in which he menaces the eminently civilised Ronald Colman), offscreen he was that rarest of things, an intellectual film star. Like Edward G. Robinson, he was a great art collector and was passionate about the humanities. In 1951, he donated 90 pieces from his collection, setting up the first 'teaching art collection' in an American community college.

I'll close with two favourite moments of Price ephemera. The first is an unsuccessful pilot entitled Collector's Item (1958), that teamed him with Peter Lorre as crime-fighting antique dealers. Yes, long before Lovejoy, Price and Lorre were risking life and limb in the pursuit of objets d'art. It's a crime that the studio nixed further episodes. Thankfully, the pilot lives on via Youtube!

Lastly, a scene that makes use not just of Price's voice, but of his singing voice. His Professor Rattigan is vain, devious and terrifying. And, despite all that other great work, it's his contribution to Basil the Great Mouse Detective (1986) that most strongly rebuffs the rather despondent claim that "In the end, it's all nothing." As with George Sanders and Shere Khan, as long as children watch Disney films, that voice will survive in memory. And perhaps they'll seek out further works by Vincent Price. That's something.


  1. A wonderful tribute to Vincent Price, Nicolas. Price is one of the few actors I'd invite to a dinner party - were I having one in which I could invite anyone in history. I understand he was a wonderful story teller - can you imagine that voice around the dinner table?

  2. Thanks Yvette! I can imagine Price being a great raconteur and I've read he was a great cook too. I found this clip of Price on What's My Line, which is rather charming:

  3. I love Price even when he was doing movies like, The Abomidable Dr. Phibes and it's even sillier sequel.