“I’m number two here.” So says Denholm Elliot in Station Six-Sahara (1963) and so it was for most of his celebrated career. This highly-respected actor (who received much of his early experience performing amateur dramatics in a POW camp) rarely played the lead, instead usually a key supporting role – the number two. And he played it perfectly.
As with many actors who enjoyed long careers – with over 100 credits to his name – it took Elliott a while to find his niche onstage, in film and in TV. Or, rather, it took a while for directors to realise how best to use his talents. Whilst a film like Station Six-Sahara seems early in his career, he was already 41 years old by this point and had twelve films under his belt (including the daffy ‘Smell-O-Vision’ experiment Scent of Mystery in 1960). But in Station Six-Sahara the Elliott style, his method of acting and the impression he makes, is fully formed.
A deliberate and no-nonsense actor, his first scene in Station Six-Sahara concerns him wandering outside with his pipe hanging from his mouth to greet the new arrival. He delivers his lines, looks at the man, studies him slightly, then wanders off again. If as a director you wanted someone to play a rock star or a barbarian king, then Denholm Elliott was not your man. If, however, you wanted someone to deliver a couple of lines holding a pipe then un-sensationally depart, then there was no one better. Anyone can overact but only a gifted, intuitive performer like Elliott has the power to be still, controlled and measured and yet completely hold your attention. He communicates more in this film with a tensed jaw muscle than most actors do with an entire sequence of screaming and emoting. By not trying to make an impact, he invariably makes an impact.
At around the 30-minute mark in Station Six-Sahara, there is a moment when Major Macey (Elliott), who vainly attempts to retain the pomposity of the army, sits at the communal dinner table after everyone else has finished their meals. When the captain walks in, not only does the major stand up formally out of respect until the captain is seated, but with a couple of slow, deliberate, decisive shakes of his hand he ensures the smoke from his pipe is not in the captain’s space. It is a touch that says everything we need to know about the character and performed with the minimum of fuss. Not played for a laugh or overdone, it is the most natural and able bit of acting in the whole film.
Four years after Station Six-Sahara – with its black and white photography never looking crisper than in the Network Blu-ray – he co-starred in Gerry O’Hara’s Maroc 7, made in 1967, significantly around the time when the James Bond series was beginning to age before reconfiguring into the Seventies-Roger-Moore era. In just a few scenes as the French Inspector Barrada, he steals Maroc 7 from leading man Gene Barry. The accent may be a bit wobbly (Elliott is inseparable from his quintessential Englishness) but he constantly draws the eye in this bubbly, exotic Sixties adventure caper. In this beautiful new restoration by Network, Elliott makes filling in forms at his desk or pouring a glass of water somehow compelling. With the formal, officious and quietly witty manner he assumes in Maroc 7, one can imagine Elliott making a fine M in a James Bond film – there is certainly a whiff whilst watching it that Maroc 7 was but the first film in a hopeful franchise and one wonders what could have been.
Stealing the scene without noticeably doing so became his speciality, which he would do throughout his career in such disparate films as the Nazi-hunting thriller The Boys from Brazil (1978), to one of the defining ‘ghost stories for Christmas’ The Signalman (1976). A generous actor who kept active in theatre as well as film (with eight RSC credits to his name), he knew what his role was whilst Harrison Ford was saving the day as Indiana Jones – and the abrupt cut to his Marcus Brody helplessly lost in Hatay remains the biggest laugh in the whole Indy franchise. His Marcus Brody seems like the better-tailored version of the same character he played in his Ripping Yarns appearance. His Mr Gregory staggers out as the head of a godforsaken colonial outpost, dishevelled and bemused as Michael Palin’s Captain Walter Snetterton explains his ambition to cross the Andes by frog. His presence lends a great deal of class to the episode, standing in his crumpled linen suit and explaining with all earnestness how frogs are bad luck.
He is more familiar to audiences nowadays for the roles that made him a recognisable face in the 1980s, becoming pretty much the definition of a type of English character who is slightly out of step, slightly underachieving and whilst always wearing a shirt and tie, the worn cuffs and collar make him not glamorous enough to mix with the best and brightest of society.
Perhaps there is no greater testament to his talent than, the fact that he is to this day, the only actor ever to have won three consecutive BAFTA Supporting Actor awards, with his trophies for Trading Places (1983), A Private Function (1984) and Defence of the Realm (1985). This latter film is one of the highlights of his late career, with Elliott somehow able to communicate utter inebriation by nothing more than just gazing into the middle distance. Gabriel Byrne, that film’s protagonist, commented on his co-star’s ability to out-act whoever was in the frame with him by saying: “I amended the actor’s cliché to ‘Never work with children, animals or Denholm Elliott.’”
On that same film, Roger Ebert made a point of calling out Elliott in his positive review: “The acting is strong throughout, but Elliott is especially effective. What is it about this actor, who has been in so many different kinds of movies and seems to make each role special? You may remember him as the Thoreau quoting father in A Room with a View, or as Ben Gazzara’s lonely friend in Saint Jack. Here he is needed to suggest integrity and scruples, and does it almost simply by the way he looks.”
It is a great misconception that the mark of a good actor is one who can play any role and be chameleonic. Which is like saying a good singer should be able to sing every type of song, from opera to jazz, or a painter render on canvas any style in any medium. Elliott perfected his type over the course of 40+ years. P.G. Wodehouse, Elmore Leonard, Ernst Lubitsch, Wes Anderson all essentially wrote the same book and directed the same films over and over again and made it into an art, which is precisely what the great Denholm Elliott achieved with his acting.
Simon Ward is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. His books include The Art and Making of Alien: Covenant, Aliens: The Set Photography, Okja: The Art and Making of the Film and Making Moon: A British Sci-Fi Cult Classic. He also wrote the introduction to Modesty Blaise: The Grim Joker and has provided text and other materials for numerous Blu-rays.