Friday, April 30, 2010
Karloff in TV's "The Black Prophet": A surprise
The Infinity/CBS dvd set Suspense: The Lost Episodes, Collection 2, released last year, features the March 17, 1953 episode, "The Black Prophet." In it, Boris Karloff plays the infamous Rasputin, the dissolute mystic who was a sometimes-malign influence on the Russian royal family in the early part of the 20th century.
I am as big a fan of Boris Karloff as they come, but I expected Boris to be miscast. It seemed highly unlikely that a cultured, elderly English gentleman such as Boris Karloff could credibly play the middle-aged Russian peasant-turned-mystic.
I should have had more faith! (Which is probably something Rasputin said, too.)
Who would ever have expected the soft-spoken British actor to embody the charismatic Russian? But Boris does it. In an expansive lead character part, Boris goes for it with a surprising vitality, and becomes the avaricious, uncouth, and eccentric Rasputin. Though he never loses his English accent, he moderates it, and uses a roughened speaking voice that sometimes hints of a growl.
It's a bravura performance in a part that would be easy to overplay, but Karloff never makes the coarse and drunken character a buffoon; when Boris droops and dribbles the poisoned wine he is drinking, you aren't tempted to giggle. The expansive characterization is balanced with flashes of underlying suspicion and hints of a resignation to his fate. The performance rivals the noted film portrayals of the mad monk from his fellow Englishmen Christopher Lee and Tom Baker, in Rasputin: The Mad Monk and Nicholas and Alexandra respectively. And it happens in spite of the distractions and limitations of a low-budget live television production!
Also surprising is the performance of Leslie Nielsen as the Russian officer Sergei Soudekine who has been assigned the job of poisoning Rasputin. He is confident in his portrayal as a man determined to free the royal family from the strange monk, whom he considers an agent of evil.
Boris' dark, protruding brows and deep-set, dark, wide eyes often magnified his expressions more than other actors. This was an asset when playing fearful, unbalanced, or obsessed characters--which was often. Other times it made him appear to "take it big," as actors say--to play broadly. I don't think this was ever intentional on Boris' part in serious roles. Here, balanced with with a bushy black beard, wild hair and even wilder personality, Boris' eyes are perfectly expressive here, and the intelligence and enthusiasm of this performance stays in my memory.