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Take Three: Burgess Meredith

Craig here with Take Three. Today: Burgess Meredith

Take One: The Sentinel (1977)
Watching Michael Winner’s high-pitched horror The Sentinel has two great side effects: one, you get some great ‘70s New York apartment porn (with the bonus of having Ava Gardner as your guide); two, you’re treated to one of Meredith’s most under seen and relishable performances. It came a year after his Supporting Actor Oscar nod for his signature role as Mickey in Rocky. He plays Cristina Raines favourite new neighbour Charles Chazen, a dotty, slightly effete, amiable and – oh yeah – imaginary elderly resident in the suspiciously cheap waterside Brooklyn Brownstone.

He lives happily with his parakeet, Mortimer (also imaginary), his cat Jezebel (the meows sound real), and a blind priest sentry guarding the apartment block from all the demons of hell. So, yes: he leads a simple, gentle life.

The Sentinel sits very much in Rosemary’s Baby’s shadow; it’s the Xmas cracker version of Polanski’s tenant-terror movie but it has charms to recommend it. But dismay occurs halfway in: Meredith disappears from the film for a considerably baffling amount of time.

There are many other notable on-the-way-up and on-the-way-out actors in the movie. Deep breath now: Chris Sarandon, José Ferrer, John Carradine, Ava Gardner, Eli Wallach, Sylvia Miles, Arthur Kennedy, Christopher Walken, Beverly D’Angelo, Jeff Goldblum, Martin Balsam, Jerry Orbach and Tom Berenger. It may well be the best ‘70s cast outside of a Poseidon Adventure or a Towering Inferno. But Meredith is the one you miss when he's gone. His part is slightly more prominent due to the role Chazen plays in the grandly dark scheme of things. He pops up, when we least expect but most want him to, to summon forth a legion of misshapen hotel guests of the dead, and then exits the film in style. Meredith invests The Sentinel, mad as it already is, with just a touch more senior tomfoolery; he also gives it its gaga ambience. Much of the film’s silly brilliance comes from him.

Take Two: Batman (1966)

Out of the four actors who played masked arch foes in the 1966 big screen adaptation of the Batman TV series, Meredith ended up with the longest career after. [The Penguin awaits after the jump]

Cesar Romero (The Joker), Lee Meriwether (Catwoman) and Frank Gorshin (The Riddler) all continued in solid careers post-Batman, but Meredith surpassed them as a much-loved character actor and two-time Oscar nominee of some range.  He’d already made a mark in over 30-years’ worth of films (his debut was an uncredited part in 1932’s Freaks), which included Of Mice and Men (1939) and The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), among others. But the television series and then film of Batman allowed him a more universal appeal and made him synonymous with the world of comic-book villainy. His bird-brained Bat-botherer was immediately iconic.

Penguin would leave ‘umbrella clues’ as to his imminent crimes and would go on to cause brolly-based havoc. The film's typically ridiculously plotinvolved dehydrated people, exploding sharks, sonic charges and pre-atomic submarines. All this aqua-activity pointed to The Penguin as the mastermind with the most heft in the film. Meredith indeed seemed to snag most of the screen time, signalling just how good and how game he was as an actor. But it wasn’t so much what writer Lorenzo Semple, Jr. scribbled up for Meredith to do, but how he did it, how he delivered the campy lines and carried out the evil deeds. Meredith's charmingly humorous actorly tics and mannerisms made his Penguin so memorable; the qwa-qwa-qwa quack, the short-stepped waddle, the wicked gurning with a cigarette holder permanently glued in his mouth – all topped off with the trademark purple top hat – made him Bruce Wayne’s most cherishable adversary. In the TV series, didn’t you always looked forward to his episodes most?

Take Three: Torture Garden (1967)

You’d prefer I say ‘the primordial monstrosities that lurk beneath the surface of the mind. But I prefer evil.”

That's Meredith in Torture Garden, Freddie Francis’ 1967 Amicus portmanteau movie. He’s staring deep into the camera, as he says it, giving us one of his best sweat-faced squints. And with a character name like "Dr. Diablo" you expect he does prefer doing the devil’s business. In fact, he is the devil – or maybe an earthly representation of him. He runs the titular horror show in a circus tent, with his star attraction being the female deity Atropos, in the form of an ominously stationary woman holding aloft a pair of shears. Diablo talks his circus clientele into their fateful story segments. We return to the tent at the end of each tale for Meredith’s mischievous wraparound magician to wax lyrical on the misfortunes of bad behaviour.

As with Batman he’s laying on the broad strokes, and similarly puffing on a cigarette in a holder, in gleeful villainous mode. It’s likely that the role came about via his Penguin antics. But Meredith excelled at quick-fire comebacks and snappy retorts, conveyed energetically with plenty of grimace and spittle. Here he did it best. Little characteristic nuances and personal touches add to the knackered, peculiar charm of the performance: when Diablo ditches the faux ringmaster garb for the real behind-the-scenes exhibit, he rather curiously leaves his showman’s mascara on. He’s the pesky prestidigitator of the piece and his moustache seems twirled at the edges by evil itself. The movie offers up a cat in a coffin, a death by jealous piano, a re-animated Edgar Allan Poe and android Hollywood producers but the best sideshow spectacle is Meredith’s devious turn. And he’s the one who gets to say the best line in the movie: “Look deeply into the shears of fate.”

Three more key films for the taking: Advise and Consent (1962), Rocky (1976), State of Grace (1990)

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Reader Comments (4)

I must take exception that The Penguin episodes were the ones to get most excited about on the Batman tv series. It was all about Catwoman and Batgirl episodes ;)

wasn't Burgess in clash of hte titans too?

April 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Yay for Mr. Meredith. One more performance I must recommend. His Oscar-nominated work in Day of the Locust is beyond amazing.

April 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

I'm a big fan of Torture Garden. I think it's one of the better anthology horror films in that the framing device is just as compelling as the stories. It's a convenient "and you're next" structure, but Burgess Meredith sells it like no one else could.

April 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

How The Sentinel attracted all that talent I will never know...those actors must have needed the money.

If you want to see Sylvia Miles and Beverly D'Angelo go all sapphic, topless, and masturbatory then I recommend this for you!

April 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSoSueMe
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