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Morell, André (1909-1978)


Main image of Morell, André (1909-1978)

At first glance, André Morell might appear to be a representative character star of postwar British cinema - an actor whose cultured tones and clubbable appearance marked him out as ideal for upright officer types. But his patrician presence was more complicated than that, incorporating a twinkle of subversive humour that was alternately sardonic and sinister, an ambiguity that made him a natural for Hammer Films.

A Londoner, Morell (real name: Cecil André Mesritz) was half-Dutch on his father's side and became a professional actor in 1934, and his West End debut followed two years later. Among the highlights of a distinguished theatrical career was a spell at the Old Vic in 1952, playing the title role in Timon of Athens.

Though his TV and film engagements were already underway prior to a wartime stint in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, it wasn't until demobilisation that his face became familiar. An association with director David Lean began with cameo roles in Madeleine (1950) and Summer Madness (1955), while Morell's performance as Superintendent Folland in the Boulting Brothers' gripping 1950 thriller Seven Days to Noon was strong enough for the character to return in High Treason (d. Roy Boulting, 1951).

For the BBC, he played Othello (tx. 23/4/1950) opposite Stephen Murray's Iago and also starred in Rudolph Cartier's production of It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer ( tx. 22/2/1953). This led to his casting as O'Brien in the corporation's controversial adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four (tx. 12/12/1954), also directed by Cartier. Inflicting methodical tortures on Peter Cushing's febrile Winston Smith, Morell was praised in the Glasgow Herald for his "still, soulless, burning perseverance".

This was the point at which Hammer, always keeping a sharp eye on television developments, equated both Cushing and Morell with horror subjects. Morell's first substantial role for Hammer - after a 'hero's friend'-type assignment in Stolen Face (d. Terence Fisher, 1952) - was another source of controversy. The Camp on Blood Island (d. Val Guest, 1958) dwelt unflinchingly, and unforgivingly, on Japanese atrocities during World War II, with Morell cast as Colonel Lambert, compromised leader of a group of POWs in south-east Asia.

Its completion in September 1957 was followed a month later by the release of Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, a film on a similar theme in which Morell played a similar role. The coincidence was symptomatic of the pattern which his career would henceforth follow - supporting roles in 'prestige' pictures coupled with star parts in so-called 'exploitation' films.

His next Hammer assignment, however, was in one of their most glamorous productions. The Hound of the Baskervilles (d. Terence Fisher, 1959) offered Morell a rematch with Peter Cushing on far friendlier terms than their previous pairing. Morell's intention, as he put it, was "to make Watson a real person and not just a butt for Holmes." The estimate of the Daily Telegraph was typical: "André Morell, who cannot act badly, plays Watson very well."

Back with the BBC in Cartier's third and most ambitious Quatermass serial, Quatermass and the Pit (1958-9), Morell was finally taking on a role first offered him in 1953, augmenting the title character, as the Observer put it, with "a Ronald Colman moustache and a touch of jerky apocalyptic hysteria." He would remain identified with the part for the rest of his life; when he married Joan Greenwood in May 1960, the Daily Mail reported the match under the headline 'Bride of Quatermass'.

Morell's remaining Hammer commitments included two tremendous performances showing him at his wry and unflappable best - as an upper-crust bank robber to Cushing's panicked bank manager in Cash On Demand (d. Quentin Lawrence, 1961) and a Holmes-like investigator who uncovers The Plague of the Zombies (d. John Gilling, 1966) in 19th century Cornwall. His other latterday roles included a formidable Tiberius in the Granada series The Caesars (ITV, tx. 1968) and a memorable cameo as Lord Wendover in Barry Lyndon (d. Stanley Kubrick, 1975).

He died of lung cancer in November 1978, aged 69.

Jonathan Rigby

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of 10 Rillington Place (1970)10 Rillington Place (1970)

Grim but unsensationalised account of the John Reginald Christie murder case

Thumbnail image of Barry Lyndon (1975)Barry Lyndon (1975)

Stanley Kubrick's visually ravishing reconstruction of the 18th century

Thumbnail image of Boys in Brown (1949)Boys in Brown (1949)

A progressive Borstal governor tries to reform his boys

Thumbnail image of Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)

The first large-scale David Lean epic, a multi-Oscar-winning World War II saga

Thumbnail image of Hound of the Baskervilles, The (1959)Hound of the Baskervilles, The (1959)

Typically full-blooded Hammer Sherlock Holmes, with Peter Cushing

Thumbnail image of Madeleine (1949)Madeleine (1949)

David Lean's film about real-life alleged murderess Madeleine Smith

Thumbnail image of Plague of the Zombies, The (1966)Plague of the Zombies, The (1966)

Hammer horror in which zombies invade a Cornish village

Thumbnail image of Seven Days to Noon (1950)Seven Days to Noon (1950)

Tense Boulting Brothers nuclear thriller - still surprisingly powerful today

Thumbnail image of Summer Madness (1955)Summer Madness (1955)

David Lean directs Katherine Hepburn in this Venice-set romantic comedy

Thumbnail image of 'It is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer' (1953)'It is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer' (1953)

Oldest complete surviving TV play, a tense drama set in French colonial Africa

Thumbnail image of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Highly controversial - in its day - Orwell adaptation by Nigel Kneale

Thumbnail image of Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59)Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59)

The scientist hero confronts an ancient alien evil

Thumbnail image of Will Shakespeare (1978)Will Shakespeare (1978)

Tim Curry stars in John Mortimer's rollicking biographical portrait

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