Howard Vernon: Obituary

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The Independent Online
His lean frame occasionally to be seen lurking ominously in Hollywood productions shot in Europe, like John Frankenheimer's The Train (1964) and Woody Allen's Love and Death (1975), Howard Vernon's villains usually embodied austere Prussian monomania rather than simple malice, as evidenced by his Professor von Braun in Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965). As the technocratic ruler of that film's eponymous city of the future (where his portrait dominates every wall), Vernon portrayed a man who when eventually confronted is visibly wearied by the burdensome responsibilties of running a police state.

Sometimes he was on the side of virtue, as when he played the stiff-necked Lanton in Walerian Borowczyk's unbelievable Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (1981), and his best film role was also his most sympathetic (although under a perverse constraint), in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Silence de la mer (1949). Based on the celebrated wartime novel by Vercors, it centred on Vernon as Werner von Ebrenac, a cultured and sensitive Francophile German officer billeted during the Occupation in an antipathetic French household with whom he desperately wants to be friends, and whose animosity he spends most of the film attempting imploringly to overcome while they respond with the silent treatment.

Born in Switzerland to a Swiss father and an American mother, and raised in the United States, he returned to Europe to finish his schooling in Nice and Berne. Initially destined for the hotel trade, he worked in Egypt and then Zurich, before moving to Paris to become an actor, where he was at first a tap dancer, performing at the Casino de Paris and Le Palace.

During the Occupation he supported himself by giving dancing lessons and in 1945 made his film debut in a resistance drama, Un Ami viendra ce soir. To his distaste he was immediately typecast as a Nazi, although it was in one such role in Jericho (1946) that he caught Melville's eye.

Melville called upon Vernon again to lend atmosphere to Bob le flambeur (1956) and Leon Morin, pretre (1961), and he played a professional assassin in Fritz Lang's last film, Die Tausend Augen des Dr Mabuse (1960). In 1962 he starred in Gritos en la noche, a visceral medical horror thriller in which he was the Awful Dr Orloff (the title of the film in America), an indefatigable plastic surgeon he was to play several more times in the course of over 35 more films with director Jesus Franco over the next 25 years, including a couple of appearances as Count Dracula in Dracula contra Frankenstein (1972) and A Filha de Dracula (1972).

More upmarket productions in which he later appeared included the Jean- Marie Straub-Danielle Huillet film Der Tod des Empedokles (1987), shot on the slopes of Mount Etna, and as one of the many peculiar neighbours in the instant cult classic of the early Nineties, Delicatessen (1991).

Mario Lipert (Howard Vernon), actor: born Baden, Switzerland 15 July 1914; died 24 July 1996.

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