Born in Glamorgan 92 years ago, Billy “Stanley” Baker was a self-confessed tearaway whose energies caught the eye of a casting director from Ealing Studios. After sharing the limelight with a young Richard Burton, Baker would go on to play an assortment of credible TV villains, eventually working his way up to one of Hollywood’s more reliable anti-heroes. Never forgetting his mining village roots, Baker took leave from Oakhurst Productions – the company he’d founded that would fund 1969’s The Italian Job – for a role in the BBC’s adaption of How Green Was My Valley (1975). Somehow, he was never accorded the star status that befell fellow acting countrymen Michael Caine and Sean Connery: all the more ironic given Baker’s role in Zulu as Lt John Shard, and the fact that he turned down the 007 role for fear of being tied into a contract. We look back at some of his more prominent films.
Baker’s first acting role was this propaganda piece set in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia. Originally intended to focus on the Chetnik guerilla resistance, political references had to be removed from the film during production, when the British government decided to support Josip Broz Tito’s rival Stalinist movement. Undercover follows the Petrovitch family: army officer Milosh (John Clements) is uniting a band of Serbian guerrillas to take on the Nazis, while his doctor brother Stephan (Stephen Murray) is the invaders’ apparent stooge, forced into passing on information. But what the villainous General von Staengel (Godfrey Tearle) doesn’t know is that his man in the hospital is in league with the rebellion: the two brothers are plotting to spring Yugoslav prisoners from a Nazi train. Appearing as a schoolboy facing execution by the fascist Colonel von Brock (Robert Harris), Stanley Baker’s first film is all the more powerful given the young actor would complete his own national service after production ended.
Beautiful Stranger (1954)
A decade later, and Baker was de facto leading man in this smouldering noir from American director David Mills. After original actor Walter Rilla clashed with star Ginger Rogers, Baker was brought in to play counterfeiter Louis Galt: a scoundrel who’s fencing bullion in Cannes, and who’s gaslighting Rogers’ naïve actress Joan “Johnny” Victor. Fleeing his clutches, Joan encounters wholesome artist Pierre Clement (Jacques Bergerac), whose flirtatious pottery-firing scenes with our heroine surely influenced the famous clay moment from Ghost (1990). Can the pair shake off the sharks of the French underworld, who an unblinking Baker seems to have at his disposal? Radiating menace in each of his scenes, our antagonist’s cut-glass accent is an early example of that Hollywood staple, the icy British villain.
Campbell’s Kingdom (1957)
Now established as a box office draw, Baker reunited with his Beautiful Stranger nemesis – the droll Herbert Lom – for this adaption of Hammond Innes’ 1952 adventure novel. Prospector Dirk Bogarde voyages from England to the Canadian Rockies, determined to fulfil his late grandfather’s wish that a family land title be mined for oil. Coming up against unreceptive locals – and the possibility that presence of black gold is a myth – he finds his biggest obstacle in Baker’s dishonourable Owen Morgan: a hydroelectric contractor who wants nothing to stop his lucrative dam, and the flooding of our hero’s “kingdom”. Sporting a sneer that could trigger a hundred bar brawls and a credible American accent, Baker’s rivalry with the good guy builds into one of cinema’s most exhilarating industrial accidents.
Hell Drivers (1957)
“Nerve-shredding haulage films” is a niche subgenre, for too long dominated by The Wages of Fear (1953), William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), and the Transporter franchise. Cy Enfield 1957 drama deserves to join their ranks: it might lack the nitroglycerin and body count of its rivals, but Stanley Baker compensates with his ticking performance as the ex-con antihero who takes a job moving ballast. Long before he gets to his first transport café, he finds himself enmeshed in a world of killer shortcuts, sabotaged brakes, a corrupt boss (William Hartnell), and a four-shilling hourly rate. Expertly shot by Superman (1978) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, Hell Drivers lives up to its title: the locker room fight with psychotic foreman Red (Patrick McGoohan) sees its pugilists repeatedly collide with the bars of their payment counter.
The Man Who Finally Died (1962)
In this Hitchcockian thriller, Baker plays jazz musician Joe Newman, who’s summoned back to Bavaria – and his German childhood as Joachim Deutsch – when he receives a letter from his father. But his father died in the closing days of the war, so whose signature does our hero have folded in his pocket? It seems Kurt Deutsch had been connected to a Russian kidnapping, and perished only recently trying to cross the Iron Curtain. With the assistance of the charming Doctor von Brecht (Peter Cushing), Joe unpicks a conspiracy that draws on the Cold War brain drain. The film sees Baker looking his coolest: notice how he keeps his shades on even when brawling with locals, or witnessing an exhumation.
After the 1963 Great Train Robbery, the race was on both to capture the perpetrators, and secure the inevitable film adaption. Stanley Baker was able to both produce and star in this dramatised retelling of the events at Bridego Bridge. Here, he plays professional thief Paul Clifton, whose skin-of-his-teeth escape from a jewellery raid won’t deter him from mounting Britain’s most infamous cash robbery. Joanna Pettet gives a sympathetic turn as the criminal’s conflicted wife, and the masked, moonlit hold-up sequence is both a master class in sustained tension (and a manual in how to hijack locomotives). Like Baker’s next big production, The Italian Job (1969), Robbery marked a turning point in cinema by showing villains as three-dimensional – and having the brains to evade the law.
Perfect Friday (1970)
A lighter look at robbery, this trippy caper from theatrical director Peter Hall saw Baker cast against type as milquetoast bank clerk Mr Graham. His daydreams of a more adventurous life are realised when Lady Britt Dorset (Ursula Andress) saunters into his office for a loan, and goes on to suggest he help her and louche husband Lord Dorset (an incredible David Warner) substitute the bank’s cash for counterfeit notes. “I’m poor, and bored. I envy my rich customers,” confesses our timid hero to Andress, his eyes twinkling under his bowler. A glimpse of Baker’s comedic range, Perfect Friday would be one of his final films before an early death in 1976, age 48. As the actor said to his wife in the February of that year: “I have no regrets. I’ve had a fantastic life. I’m the son of a Welsh miner, and I was born into love.”
George Bass Contributor New York Times | The Guardian | New Scientist
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