George Coulouris is a sublime villain, supremely important to Watch on the Rhine (1943), so charming in his lazy gentlemanliness, so pitiable in his bad luck and bad moves, and so treacherous in his motives.
The character he plays, a blasé Rumanian count, and a refugee from Europe and his own failed enterprises, is one of playwright Lillian Hellman’s most simple, and yet most brilliant creations. He is not a blustering fascist—in this anti-Nazi drawing room drama that would stand out like tacky décor, and besides, the bold and courageous resistance fighter Paul Lukas plays is too clever to let himself get too near a real storm trooper-type. Coulouris is dangerous because he is not an instigator, not a brainwashed (or brain dead) Nazi; he is on the second tier of evildoers—an opportunist. As Lukas (and Lillian Hellman) describes his ilk: “Some of them were, up to a point, fastidious men. For these we may someday have pity. They are lost men. Their spoils are small. Their day is gone.”
This is my entry in The Great Villain Blogathon hosted by those evil villains at Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin, and Silver Screenings blogs.
Watch on Rhine began as a tremendously successful Broadway play. I discuss more about it in my upcoming book on Ann Blyth, who had a minor role in that play as a child. The play’s producer and director, Herman Shumlin, went to Hollywood to cast the adult roles because throughout the Great Depression that’s where a lot of the best stage-trained actors went. He didn’t want Hollywood stars, necessarily, he wanted stage veterans. In February 1941, he came back with three heavy-hitters: Paul Lukas; Lucile Watson, who would play the acerbic matriarch; and George Coulouris. Interestingly, he wanted Henry Daniell, but Daniell wasn’t free (he appears in the film as Baron Von Ramme).
Before we get to the film, we need to appreciate the overwhelming respect this play received when it was produced in 1941-1942. I think in the decades that followed the film lost its strength for a modern audience that regards it as sentimental propaganda, a museum piece of a more gullible era. Sometimes one of our worst sins is our condescension about the past. Add to this the changes in the script that gave a larger role to Bette Davis—I’m afraid she tends to take too much of the spotlight in her scenery-chewing. But the original play hit the theatre world like a storm. The emotion of the day for the Broadway play was genuine.
Here is one review:
I want to tell you that I believe the finest, most deeply moving play that has been written in America in years is at Ford’s Theater this week…I say it because it is each man’s high duty to inform his fellow-men when he finds, or thinks he finds, something very true, very beautiful, very important.
Watch on the Rhine is all these things to me. And it was obvious when the curtain fell on the opening performance that it had these qualities to many others, too.
There was the testimony of the applause which continued until the desperate theater manager turned on the bright house lights. There was the testimony of many tear-filled eyes…With humor and with tenderness, with logic and with occasional poetry, Lillian Hellman has written this play. And Herman Shumlin has produced it not as a theatrical businessman presents plays. He has staged it, quite obviously, with love and with great reverence…I do not like to use the word ‘great,’ particularly about a play whose theme is so close to the headlines that our viewpoint may unconsciously be distorted. Only years can tell that.
But certainly it casts a spell which, for a time at least, transforms a theater into a rare and holy place where the heart is touched, elated, ennobled. – Louis Azrael, Baltimore News-Post.
In an unusual move, Warner Bros., in securing the rights to the play, allowed Herman Shumlin to direct (this was his first movie, and he made only one other); and allowed Paul Lukas, George Coulouris, Lucile Watson, as well as Frank Wilson, who played the butler, to come with Shumlin as part of the deal. Paul Lukas would win an Academy Award for his performance, and Lucile Watson was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
George Coulouris, originally from the U.K., had a Shakespearean background, and then met up with Orson Welles’ troupe and began a long and very distinguished career in film, stage, TV, radio alternating between noble characters and villains. That he was adept at both says a lot for how he plays his character in Watch on the Rhine. We understand him, and can even sympathize as we despise him.
The intelligent script by Hellman gives all the characters a great forum, and this is what makes a great script. No character is wasted, they are all necessary and everything they say matters.
We meet Coulouris coming down to breakfast on the terrace of Lucile Watson’s palatial family home outside Washington, D.C. He is married to Geraldine Fitzgerald, and we see their marriage is rocky. He snipes at her, accuses her of being too fond of Donald Woods, the son of the house. In a moment, he greets his hostess Lucile Watson with old-world European charm, and we settle in to the intriguing world of a professional houseguest in the home of a rich patron.
Later, he goes to the German Embassy for an evening gala and a late-night card came. This scene was written by Dashiell Hammett, to whom Hellman handed off the screenplay chore as she was busy with another commitment. I like Hammett’s additions for the most part, he opens the story up to all of Washington. However, some of the strength and verve of the stage play is also watered down in the process, which is a shame. I suppose it’s a tricky line to walk.
Here at the card game, like a player showing his hand of cards, we are shown the various “face cards” in the arena of fascist villains: Blecher, a cold, sneering bully, referred to as a butcher, who runs the game and the show. He is the head bad guy to whom his agents report. He is shrewd and ruthless. Ironically, this ultra Nazi swine is played by Kurt Katch, born an Eastern European Jew and a veteran of the Yiddish theatre. He comments on the others and introduces them to us: Baron Von Ramme, played by Henry Daniell is “contemptuous of us, but chiefly because we are not gentlemen. Would be satisfied enough doing the same things or worse under some stupid Hohenzollern.”
Then there is the money-grubbing publisher of the American Nazi newspaper, and Chandler, the American oil man who wants to sell to the Axis; the mysterious Oberdorff, played silently by Rudolph Anders who seems the most evil simply because we, and Blecher, know nothing about him. He is a question mark.
Then Blecher comes to Coulouris, whom he dismisses as a man who sells things “but at the moment you have nothing to sell.”
He will soon, when Paul Lukas and his family show up, and he suspects from the moment he meets Lukas that here is a man the Nazis would like to get their hands on. With very little prospects and at the end of the road, it is inevitable that a man like Coulouris will want to sell Lukas to the Nazis, but how we get to that point is intriguing.
In some scenes between them, even though the room is full of other characters, it seems as if we are watching a two-man play. They spar and take each other’s measure carefully in polite conversation. Lukas, fresh from a daring escape and having been wounded in a previous mission, is the more emotionally brittle. Coulouris comes off as suave, with the panache of a former diplomat who has learned early not to commit himself, who deals with life with a shrug of his shoulders, a man in evening dress with no neck to stick out.
His behavior is privately more unstable with his wife, alternately pleading and threatening her, but to the others, he maintains his British Public School manners and his Continental charm. He is good at bridge, knows the right things to say. He is apolitical, out for himself, but he feels more distaste for freedom fighters than for fascists because he understands the latter. But he comes to admire Paul Lukas, if not for his political stance, then for his resiliency. After the scene where he blackmails Lukas in return for not turning him over to the Nazis, Coulouris remarks after Lucile Watson and Donald Woods have left the room:
“The New World has left the room. I feel less discomfort with you. We are Europeans, born to trouble and understanding…They’re young. The world has gone well for most of them. For us, we’re like peasants…work, trouble, ruin. But no need to call curses on the frost. There it is. There it will be again, always, for us.”
But he is no peasant and has never worked hard at anything. It is only in his imagination that he identifies with the sorrows of European peasantry. In a sense, he does have a master, too: the Nazis that have taken over all Europe.
In his final scene, we finally see his fear and panic as Paul Lukas, who despite his ill health is still a man of action, points a gun in Coulouris’ face and angrily tells him, “There is no substance to you.” He both accuses, and mourns for Coulouris, because the blasé count, though he is frightened about dying now, he will have forgotten all about it in the morning if Lukas lets him get away.
We know this is true, because George Coulouris, for all his benign charm, the salon and sidewalk café façade, has shown us his empty heart from the beginning. We can’t write him off as just another bad guy. He could be our houseguest, a friend or relative who could stab us in the back to save himself. As Bette Davis says, “We have seen them in so many living rooms.”
Please have a look at the other entries in The Great Villain Blogathon here.
My book on Ann Blyth's career—Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. will be published on June 18th. I’d like to invite any blogger—film blogger or book blogger—to participate in a blog tour. I’ll be looking for blogs to schedule publicity-oriented posts beginning Monday, June 1st. The last day will be June 17th. If anyone wants to pick a day, please let me know so I can coordinate with others. Think of it as a kind of blogathon. On your day, you can post a review of the book (I’ll have ARCs – advanced reading copies - available in PDF form which I’ll email to you that you can read on your computer), or you can do a Q&A with me, or I can just send you a 250-word excerpt of the book, or you can just post the cover and a link to the Amazon page, if you will. Just a little something to spread the word. I will be posting here every day from June 1st through the 18th and I’ll be linking to your blogs, pushing traffic to you.
Among those 17 bloggers who participate, I’ll throw your names in a hat and pick five winners who will receive a print book of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. when it is published on the 18th. The rest will receive an eBook file in whichever format you choose: ePub, Mobi, or PDF (Note, the ARC copies will not have the index).