Friday, August 19, 2011

Elegant heavy

Gone and sadly forgotten

  Think the Continental charm and sophistication, if not quite the looks, of Paul Henried. Combine this with a little of the oozing caddishness of George Saunders, and throw in a touch of Lionel Atwill intensity, and you get an idea of our unlikely hero. Ivan Triesault was born in Estonia in 1898, and he and his family moved to the U.S. in 1916.* His biography mentions early training in dance as well as acting, and this might explain his aristocratic carriage and precise movements which served him well in the many Prussian roles which were his bread and butter for the better part of four decades.
  His acting resumé lists a number of respectable supporting roles in the early Forties, but, mirroring the conspicuous post-Casablanca non-success of the aforementioned Henried, Triesault’s career peaked a bit too soon in mid-decade, after which he was consigned to character roles which were usually little more than extended cameos. 
  But let us return to 1946 and his supreme cinematic moment (albeit in a supporting role) as the head of the South American Nazi spy ring in Notorious ** -- did a bad guy ever look so good in a tuxedo? Triesault is simply brilliant in the role, projecting his character’s icy charm which barely conceals the menace beneath.*** His villainous bonafides are established early on as he orders the execution of one of his co-collaborators, an important scientist no less, all on account of a minor disturbance at a dinner party. His powers of intimidation are such that even the super suave, and very rich, Claude Rains and his wicked-witch-of-the-west mother defer to him, cringing in abject terror at his gaze. Speaking of gazes, that last staircase scene -- if a look could kill, Claude Rains would have been taken out on the spot -- heck, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, too, half the audience. 
  But, alas, this memorable performance did not provide the springboard for other, more substantial roles, quite the opposite. As early as 1950 he was appearing uncredited in bit parts, a typical example being the owner of the photography shop in D.O.A. It may well have been that his rather sinister looks and thick Central European accent simply precluded him from extending his character range. In any case, by the early Fifties he had settled into typecasting as urbane European diplomats, scientists or military officers.
  Along the way there was the occasional, and all too fleeting, juicy part, one of the best being that of the pompous auteur director in The Bad and the Beautiful. Then there was the Soviet general in the über-jingoistic Cold War thriller Jet Pilot (his Nazi screen persona could smoothly morph into a Commie if the script called for it). 
  Doubtless he was in more than a few bad movies. But ultimately it could said that he never gave a bad performance, always the thorough and reliable professional (the sunnier side, if you will, of the stiff, severe characters it was his lot to impersonate), and deserving of more recognition in the literature than he currently receives.

  * As much as he was a seemingly omnipresent figure in old movies and, later, TV programs, there’s scant little, purely biographical, information available on Triesault, either online or otherwise. There’s the usual credits and a couple of short bios in IMDB and Wikipedia, and this tantalizing fragment from, of all places, LIFE magazine. Does anyone know more about his biography?

  ** The lines of authority in the conspiracy group are a little vague. Here’s my take : because of his wealth and corporate connections, Rains is the titular head, but in important operational matters - the elimination of a problematic co-conspirator, for instance - the Triesault character is obviously running the show by way of his unique position as villain-in-chief and principal enforcer. Triesault is so good in the part of Eric Mathis that he almost upstages the better-known, more experienced Rains. Moreover, he literally gets in the last word, delivering the film's memorable closing line : "Alex, will you come in please? I wish to talk to you." But ultimately, in a cruel irony, Triesault was a little too good in the role; he essentially played variations of this screen persona for the rest of his career.

  *** The character of Mathis in Notorious is a mixture of Old World elegance and 20th century ruthless efficiency; even during his most villainous moments he still manages to have note-perfect manners. In a lightly macabre, eminently Hitchcockian touch, as he’s leaving with the doomed conspirator he takes the time to ask Sebastian (Claude Rains) to be sure to thank his mother for the excellent dinner and to tell her that the dessert was superb.

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