Introducing Laurence Harvey

A few weeks ago I wrote about Anthony Mann’s last film A Dandy in Aspic, which features Laurence Harvey in one of his best roles. At the time I expressed how much I liked Harvey even though many critics are quick to dismiss him. His reputation has been badly tarnished over the years thanks to shoddy journalism that often focuses on his run-ins with other actors or his sex life. It’s a shame that the negative press surrounding Harvey often outweighs the good but he’s had some notable defenders. When Harvey befriended a costar such as Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra or John Wayne, those friendships often lasted a lifetime.

I’ve always thought Laurence Harvey was an interesting actor who was occasionally miscast in roles that he seemed ill-fitted for. He was born in Lithuania and raised in South Africa so when he arrived in Britain in 1946 to study acting he was the odd man out. Harvey also openly flaunted his bisexuality at times, which seemed to bother a lot of his colleagues. He was eager to be taken seriously as a British actor but he wasn’t British and many of his costars never let him forget it.

Harvey was occasionally prone to overacting and was considered to be a bit of a ham but I appreciate the way he seemed to wrestle with every role. Nothing ever came easy to Harvey and you can sense his personal as well as professional struggles when you watch him perform. There’s an urgency and desperation in his performances that makes me root for him even when he’s playing a villain. He’s also easy on the eyes and I appreciate his brooding good looks but I tend to be drawn to outsiders, malcontents and misfits and there was always something alien about Laurence Harvey.

My interest in Harvey recently prompted me to seek out the actor’s first movie, which happens to be a gothic British horror film called House of Darkness (1948). Over the years I’ve come across brief snippets of information about the film but nothing very substantial. The movie is usually compared unfavorably to other post-WW2 British horror films such as Dead of Night (1945) and The Queen Of Spades (1948) but if you’re a Laurence Harvey fan or just interested in early examples of British horror cinema, you might find the movie as rewarding as I did.

The film’s plot is rather simple and like many horror films made in the ’40s it uses humor to soften its scares. It’s also weighed down by a somewhat disjointed framing device involving a music composer who tells a ghostly tale about stumbling on an old English manor house one night and hearing strange music coming from inside. As the composer tells his tale the story comes to life and the film’s focus changes so that we’re now watching the events of the story unfold instead of just hearing about them. In the film Laurence Harvey plays a recently married pianist named Francis who lives with his older ailing brother John (Alexander Archdale). John lords over the family fortune and resents the way Francis frivolously spends their inheritance. John also plays the violin and habitually criticizes the way Francis plays the piano. Naturally this causes tension between the two brothers and as time passes it becomes clear that Francis is slowly becoming unhinged by his greed and personal resentment towards his family. In a fit of rage he kills his brother and although he’s never charged with John’s murder, Francis’ conscious begins to get the best of him. He is haunted by the ghost of his dead brother who makes his presence known in a wonderfully creepy scene towards the end of the movie.

House of Darkness is by no means a great film. Its brief 77-minute running time seems longer than needed. It tells the type of story that’s often better suited for an anthology film such as the previously mentioned Dead of Night. As a standalone film House of Darkness seems predictable and unimaginative. It was made by the British director Oswald Mitchell who has trouble evoking any sense of dread in the film. Except for John’s murder and the last few minutes of the movie, House of Darkness is utterly devoid of suspense. It’s almost saved by John Gilling’s script, which managed to keep me interested in the film even when the direction became increasingly mundane. John Gilling went on to become a writer and director of numerous British crime movies and some of his best work was done with Hammer Films including The Gorgon (1964), The Reptile (1966), The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Mummy’s Shroud (1967). Without John Gilling’s name in the credits House of Darkness would be a hard film to recommend, but the movie should also interest some Laurence Harvey fans.

As I mentioned previously, this was Laurence Harvey’s first film and that’s painfully obvious from the moment he opens his mouth. Harvey was only 20 years old at the time that he made House of Darkness and fresh out of RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). During the course of making the movie Laurence Harvey was forced to undergo a name change when the producers told him that his last name (Skikne) was unsuitable for an aspiring British actor. He had already changed his first name when he entered college but he agreed to change his last name in order to star in House of Darkness. According to various sources he decided to choose the name Harvey after walking past the historic Harvey Nichols store in London one evening. The young actor was also still undergoing voice coaching and you can occasionally hear an unusual mishmash of accents during his dialogue heavy scenes.

Harvey’s performance in House of Darkness is fascinating to watch. It seems obvious to me that he was inspired by early horror film villains and at times he seems to be unabashedly channeling Bela Lugosi or Dwight Frye. In his portrayal of the murderous madman Francis, Harvey arches his eyebrows magnificently, grimaces whenever possible and bulges his eyes to express shock and disbelief. The rest of the cast seems to be making a Victorian melodrama and their low-key performances continually clash with Harvey’s over-the-top theatrics. Without much effort, Harvey manages to steal every scene he’s in but his on-camera antics seem ridiculously outdated in 1948. If House of Darkness had been made 10 or 20 years earlier Harvey’s performance would have been pitch perfect. Watching it today makes Harvey seem like a man lost in time and maybe that’s what he always was?

Laurence Harvey had grown up loving the movies and while he was living in South Africa he would often skip school and spend his lunch money on movie tickets. Harvey dreamed of becoming as famous as the suave and sophisticated cinema stars he loved such as Fred Astaire, Ronald Colman, George Sanders, Rex Harrison and Errol Flynn. He liked to mimic the way those actors talked and dressed even if it made him appear somewhat old fashioned. But Harvey didn’t just want to be an actor. He also wanted to produce and direct his own films. Throughout his career he tried to do all of that and he succeeded even though critics didn’t always appreciate his efforts. Harvey obviously had some interest in horror films and thrillers because during his lifetime he appeared in many suspenseful movies like the classic The Manchurian Candidate (1962) as well as Night Watch (1973) and a remake of Dial M for Murder (1967). He also starred in numerous spy films and episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. The last film that Harvey made was an interesting horror film about a war veteran with a taste for human flesh called Welcome to Arrow Beach (1974), which he also directed.

As a horror film fan I find it fascinating that Laurence Harvey decided to make his acting debut as well as his screen exit in horror films. It could just be a coincidence but Harvey was a very calculated actor and throughout his career he tried to control every aspect of his very public persona. He invented stories about his past for the press, lied to family and friends, and manufactured his carefully constructed image as a modern day dandy. While watching House of Darkness I couldn’t help but wonder if Laurence Harvey ever had any ambitions to become a horror icon in the same fashion as Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff. Harvey could have found some inspiration and personal kinship with the Hungarian born Bela Lugosi. Both actors started out on stage and Lugosi’s struggle to find his place in Hollywood might have reminded Harvey of his own personal struggles with identity as a British expat. Of course this could just be imaginary on my part but there’s something vaguely nostalgic about Harvey’s performance in House of Darkness that conjures up memories of watching Bela Lugosi in films like Dracula (1931), White Zombie (1932), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Black Cat (1934). Even though House of Darkness suffers from its low-budget, lackluster sets, dull direction and lumbering pace, I still found Laurence Harvey’s performance in the movie memorable and somewhat touching. In retrospect I think Harvey would have made an impressive Count Dracula. It’s a shame that he was never given the opportunity.

House of Darkness is an interesting first step in Laurence Harvey’s acting career and the film’s producers as well as Harvey’s family were sure that the role would make him a movie star. Unfortunately that didn’t happen right away. Much to Harvey’s dismay the critics were not very impressed with the film and it was easily forgotten by the public. To add insult to injury his name was even misspelled in the credits after the producers forced him to change it. But that didn’t hinder Harvey’s determination to become a star. For the next 10 years Laurence Harvey strove to get better stage and screen roles with help from his longtime friend, occasional lover and manager James Woolf. His acting greatly improved and in the ’60s he achieved his dream of becoming one of Britain’s most famous leading men. That’s quite an accomplishment for a Lithuanian born actor who was raised in South Africa. No matter what you may think of Harvey’s acting style, it’s hard not to be impressed with his determination and career accomplishments. Some of these accomplishments may have taken place on casting couches, but I admire the enthusiasm Harvey brought to every role. He obviously loved being in front of a camera and the camera loved him.

14 Responses Introducing Laurence Harvey
Posted By moirafinnie : May 27, 2010 10:44 pm

This was fascinating, Kim.

I love your use of parallel images of Harvey and Bela Lugosi, since he may have been self-consciously mimicking that actor at this stage of his career. I am honestly floored that he never played Dracula, since his sinister sophistication would have lent itself well to this character.

I must admit that my favorite Harvey performances may be as the opportunistic striver in Room at the Top and Life at the Top and his most haunting as the pawn in The Manchurian Candidate, though I haven’t seen any of these in several years.

Thanks for reminding me of this unique actor.

Posted By moirafinnie : May 27, 2010 10:44 pm

This was fascinating, Kim.

I love your use of parallel images of Harvey and Bela Lugosi, since he may have been self-consciously mimicking that actor at this stage of his career. I am honestly floored that he never played Dracula, since his sinister sophistication would have lent itself well to this character.

I must admit that my favorite Harvey performances may be as the opportunistic striver in Room at the Top and Life at the Top and his most haunting as the pawn in The Manchurian Candidate, though I haven’t seen any of these in several years.

Thanks for reminding me of this unique actor.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 28, 2010 1:41 pm

Thank you, Moira! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s fun to look at the juxtaposition of Harvey/Lugosi images. I have no idea if he was a fan but I suspect that Harvey was influenced by classic horror film villains while making his first film.

Harvey is great in Room at the Top and The Manchurian Candidate! They’re two of my favorite Harvey films as well. I also like a lot of the spy movies he made. Some of my other favorites are I Am a Camera, Summer & Smoke, Darling, Walk on the Wild Side, Expresso Bongo, Of Human Bondage, etc. I also like BUtterfield 8 a lot even though I seem to be in the minority on that one. The first Harvey movies I remember seeing were The Alamo and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grim so I have a soft spot for those too.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 28, 2010 1:41 pm

Thank you, Moira! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s fun to look at the juxtaposition of Harvey/Lugosi images. I have no idea if he was a fan but I suspect that Harvey was influenced by classic horror film villains while making his first film.

Harvey is great in Room at the Top and The Manchurian Candidate! They’re two of my favorite Harvey films as well. I also like a lot of the spy movies he made. Some of my other favorites are I Am a Camera, Summer & Smoke, Darling, Walk on the Wild Side, Expresso Bongo, Of Human Bondage, etc. I also like BUtterfield 8 a lot even though I seem to be in the minority on that one. The first Harvey movies I remember seeing were The Alamo and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grim so I have a soft spot for those too.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : May 28, 2010 9:13 pm

Yeah, the photo comparisons are brilliant. I think Kimberly is officially out of her probation period as a Morlock… no more beanie! The second pic of Harvey from House of Darkness reminds me of the young Clive Owen.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : May 28, 2010 9:13 pm

Yeah, the photo comparisons are brilliant. I think Kimberly is officially out of her probation period as a Morlock… no more beanie! The second pic of Harvey from House of Darkness reminds me of the young Clive Owen.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 29, 2010 12:35 pm

Aww shucks, thanks, Richard!

“We accept her, one of us! Gooble gobble, gooble gobble!”

Glad you liked it. I was taken aback by how much young Harvey reminded me of Lugosi in House of Darkness. And I can see the Clive Owen comparison in that one photo as well.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 29, 2010 12:35 pm

Aww shucks, thanks, Richard!

“We accept her, one of us! Gooble gobble, gooble gobble!”

Glad you liked it. I was taken aback by how much young Harvey reminded me of Lugosi in House of Darkness. And I can see the Clive Owen comparison in that one photo as well.

Posted By David Ehrenstein : May 31, 2010 9:28 am

Nice catch!

The mix and match with Bela is quite nice but more than anyone else he reminds me here of Louis Hayward — that greatest of all B actors who never made it to the A’s. (Not that Ulmer’s “Ruthless” and Lang’s “House By the River” are chopped liver — far from it.) Perhaps the fact that Hayward was, like Harvey sexual ambidextrous forestalled his career.

You don’t mention my fave Harvey performance, “Darling.” As a big busienss “fixer” (a suaver and incredibly sexual (especially when not having sex) version of the guy George Clooney played in “Michael Clayton”) he’s more than “in his element.” I especially love the scene where he takes the Beyond Sublime Julie Christie back to his office at night.

Julie: How does one get in?

Laurence: One has a key.

Julie: One would.

Posted By David Ehrenstein : May 31, 2010 9:28 am

Nice catch!

The mix and match with Bela is quite nice but more than anyone else he reminds me here of Louis Hayward — that greatest of all B actors who never made it to the A’s. (Not that Ulmer’s “Ruthless” and Lang’s “House By the River” are chopped liver — far from it.) Perhaps the fact that Hayward was, like Harvey sexual ambidextrous forestalled his career.

You don’t mention my fave Harvey performance, “Darling.” As a big busienss “fixer” (a suaver and incredibly sexual (especially when not having sex) version of the guy George Clooney played in “Michael Clayton”) he’s more than “in his element.” I especially love the scene where he takes the Beyond Sublime Julie Christie back to his office at night.

Julie: How does one get in?

Laurence: One has a key.

Julie: One would.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 31, 2010 12:55 pm

Thanks! If you get the chance to see the film you might also see the similarities with Harvey and young Bela or other ’30s horror icons. I didn’t personally spot any similarities with Harvey & Louis Hayward in House of Darkness but I can understand what you’re saying. Some people were obviously bothered by Harvey’s sexuality during his lifetime so I’m sure it must have affected his career as well.

I love Darling too! And I mentioned it in an earlier comment but I didn’t feel the need to mention the movie in my piece since it was about House of Darkness. I only bothered listing some of the other thrillers and horror films he made for context. I hope people won’t read this expecting to get a listing of all Harvey’s films. But if anyone wants to see more of his work, the Academy Award winning Darling is an absolute must!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 31, 2010 12:55 pm

Thanks! If you get the chance to see the film you might also see the similarities with Harvey and young Bela or other ’30s horror icons. I didn’t personally spot any similarities with Harvey & Louis Hayward in House of Darkness but I can understand what you’re saying. Some people were obviously bothered by Harvey’s sexuality during his lifetime so I’m sure it must have affected his career as well.

I love Darling too! And I mentioned it in an earlier comment but I didn’t feel the need to mention the movie in my piece since it was about House of Darkness. I only bothered listing some of the other thrillers and horror films he made for context. I hope people won’t read this expecting to get a listing of all Harvey’s films. But if anyone wants to see more of his work, the Academy Award winning Darling is an absolute must!

Posted By Els : May 17, 2011 7:19 am

Hi Kimberly,
I really very much enjoyed reading your piece here! :-)
15 years ago I first saw Laurence Harvey on Belgian television in “Room at the Top” and I remember being fascinated by him and impressed by his acting, as well as loving the movie very much. Now 15 years later, I saw the movie again (I bought the special edition dvd) and it still is one of my all-time favourite movies and I still think LH is spellbinding – like Alice said to Joe: “Nothing has changed” :-) Having internet now, I began to search for his other movies and information about him. I discovered that he died in the year I was born. I felt sad reading that he died quite young…
When I read your piece here, I felt a bit “connected” to you, you seem to feel exactly the same way about him as I do.
It’s sad and frustrating that he often didn’t get the praise and respect he so much deserved (and yearned for)!
Meanwhile, I have seen (and own) lots of his movies (over 30), including his first and his last (I am the proud owner of the uncut version of “Welcome to Arrow Beach”! :-) ) You have made a very interesting remark about both movies being horror movies – coincidence… or not.
Reading Paulene Stone’s book (his third wife) “One Tear is Enough – My Life with Laurence Harvey” has made me respect and like him even more than I already did.
I love him very much in all his movies (the ones I’ve seen). He was just as extraordinary in dramatic roles as in comic roles, he really was a brilliant -much underrated!- actor imo!
Greetings from Belgium,
Els

Posted By Els : May 17, 2011 7:19 am

Hi Kimberly,
I really very much enjoyed reading your piece here! :-)
15 years ago I first saw Laurence Harvey on Belgian television in “Room at the Top” and I remember being fascinated by him and impressed by his acting, as well as loving the movie very much. Now 15 years later, I saw the movie again (I bought the special edition dvd) and it still is one of my all-time favourite movies and I still think LH is spellbinding – like Alice said to Joe: “Nothing has changed” :-) Having internet now, I began to search for his other movies and information about him. I discovered that he died in the year I was born. I felt sad reading that he died quite young…
When I read your piece here, I felt a bit “connected” to you, you seem to feel exactly the same way about him as I do.
It’s sad and frustrating that he often didn’t get the praise and respect he so much deserved (and yearned for)!
Meanwhile, I have seen (and own) lots of his movies (over 30), including his first and his last (I am the proud owner of the uncut version of “Welcome to Arrow Beach”! :-) ) You have made a very interesting remark about both movies being horror movies – coincidence… or not.
Reading Paulene Stone’s book (his third wife) “One Tear is Enough – My Life with Laurence Harvey” has made me respect and like him even more than I already did.
I love him very much in all his movies (the ones I’ve seen). He was just as extraordinary in dramatic roles as in comic roles, he really was a brilliant -much underrated!- actor imo!
Greetings from Belgium,
Els

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