Frank Finlay was never a star, but he was one damn fine supporting actor. The highbrow set would know him as Olivier’s Iago in the 1965 film of “Othello.” Most casual moviegoers might remember him as the delightfully dim Porthos in Richard Lester’s Musketeers films. But for the hard-core genre nuts he was Leon Sale the slimy power behind gang boss Derren Nesbitt’s throne in “The Informers,” and Robinson, the mousey ex-bank clerk who blows the best-laid plans of Stanley Baker all to hell in “Robbery” by insisting on phoning his wife to let her know that all is well, and mid-level mobster Marty Gold who makes the mistake of trying to shop Oliver Reed and Ian McShane to Scotland Yard in “Sitting Target.” As fine as he was in each of these Brit noirs, he did even finer work in the 1977 B.B.C. mini-series “Count Dracula,” in which he was a Van Helsing for the ages and in Tobe Hooper’s “Lifeforce” in which he played yet another vampire hunter, Dr. Hans Fallada, who is not quite as fortunate as Van Helsing.
What worked so well in Ken Annakin’s “The Informers” (released in the U.S. as “Underworld Informers”) was his physicality. As graying and shabby low-level mob gopher Leon Sale he literally fades beside Derren Nesbitt’s blond and boastful gang boss Bertie Hoyle with a wardrobe full of sharp suits–revealed in the end to be a mere puppet who takes his orders from Sale, who rather pathetically has his own closet full of sharp threads that he can’t wear because he’s cast himself as “a nobody” and now must play the part. He was similarly diffident as Robinson the disgraced bank clerk who must vet the stolen cash in “Robbery,” only here it’s no act. Robinson really is a little crook fallen into a shark tank of big-time pros. There was nothing retiring about his Marty Gold, this guy thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, whether cheating on his wife with a young mistress or planning to set up wanted prison escapees Harry Lomart and Birdie Williams. What Marty doesn’t know is that his young mistress is cheating on him and Birdie is an even slicker customer than Marty.
His Van Helsing displayed a combination of compassion and resolve that worked quite well opposite Louis Jourdan’s suave but heartless Count. He lacked the physicality of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing, but he had the benefit of appearing in a three-part adaptation that is still the most faithful attempt at filming Bram Stoker’s Victorian shocker. So Finlay got to play ALL of Van Helsing as Stoker imaged him, not an eighty-minute abridgment of the role. In Tobe Hooper’s F/X extravaganza “Lifeforce,” he gave the proceedings some humanity as his Dr. Fallada tries to wrap his head around the notion that a brood of extraterrestrial vampires have descended upon London. He learns how to stop them, but not quite in the nick of time.
None of this purports to be an overview of a respected actor’s career on the stage and the big and small screens. It’s just my personal trip down memory lane and a review of some of my favorite Frank Finlay moments.