OBITUARIES: David Farrar

With his dark, saturnine good looks, distinctively clipped tones and what Michael Powell described as "the kind of physical appeal which is rare among British actors", David Farrar was a popular leading man in the cinema of the Forties. He was particularly adept at conveying the weaknesses and human qualities in figures of authority and intelligence as in two of his finest films, Black Narcissus (1947) and The Small Back Room (1948), and he could be considered an early exponent of "anti-hero" roles.

Born in Forest Gate, London, in 1908, Farrar joined the Morning Advertiser on leaving school at 15 and worked as a journalist until deciding on a stage career in 1932. With his wife he ran a repertory company until he entered films in 1937 with a role in the Jessie Matthews musical Head Over Heels, the first of several minor roles as he learnt the differences between stage and screen acting.

In the enjoyable Boy's Own adventure tale Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938) he was Granite Grant, an agent on the track of the Black Quorum, "the greatest crime organisation of the century". Later he starred as Detective Blake himself in two films, Meet Sexton Blake (1944) and The Echo Murders (1945). In Alberto Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? (1942) Farrar was one of the Germans masquerading as British soldiers in an English village, chillingly ordering the execution of five children as a reprisal for an attempted escape; but he was more typically cast as an heroic commander of an air-sea rescue unit in Charles Crichton's fine piece of wartime propaganda For Those In Peril (1944) and an intelligence officer fighting the Nazis in The Lisbon Story (1946).

Farrar's breakthrough from reliable leading man to star came the following year with his casting as the officer who brings home a German wife in Basil Dearden's Frieda, and as the agent overseeing the Himalayan palace converted to a nunnery in Powell and Pressburger's masterpiece Black Narcissus. Clothed only in khaki shorts for most of the film, he represents the world the nuns have forsaken: "Ever since you came here you've all gone crazy," he tells the nuns' leader Deborah Kerr. "Well, drive one another crazy and leave me out of it." Ultimately he provokes such sexual hysteria in one of the nuns (Kathleen Byron) that in the film's delirious climax she dons vivid make-up and attempts murder. His final parting with Kerr is touchingly tinged with unspoken regret, while the film's penultimate close- up of Farrar's rain-streaked face watching the nuns go is extraordinarily moving.

Powell and Pressburger had signed Farrar to a three-film contract and he was impressive as the government backroom scientist with a tin foot in their excellent adaptation of Nigel Balchin's The Small Back Room convincingly combining integrity and self-pity. Farrar was given a true star's entrance in the film, the camera tracking along a bar of customers until coming to rest upon the actor's back. His character's name is called and he turns to face the camera in full close-up. In the film's most controversial sequence his fight to resist easing his pain with alcohol is depicted by a surreal dream sequence in which Farrar is threatened by a 15ft-high whisky bottle.

In the team's wildly melodramatic Gone to Earth (1950) Farrar entered the spirit of things with his wicked squire who seduces an innocent country girl then tries to hunt down her pet fox.

Farrar later cited these three films along with Frieda and Basil Dearden's Cage of Gold (1950), a thriller co-starring Jean Simmons, as the artistic highlights of his career. In Cage of Gold he had argued successfully with the producer Michael Balcon that he be allowed to play the villain rather than the less colourful hero. Three years later, perhaps in light of the Hollywood successes of Simmons, Kerr, James Mason and Stewart Granger, Farrar went to the United States and, although he professed to love the "money, glamour and star treatment as only Hollywood can do it", his career declined into supporting and mainly villainous roles in undistinguished adventure and costume pictures.

He returned to Britain for two minor films, including Beat Girl (1959), but after his role as Xerxes in The 300 Spartans (1960) he retired, eventually settling in South Africa.

Never ashamed to admit to an actor's conceit, Farrar told one interviewer, Brian McFarlane: "I'd always been the upstanding young man and I was afraid of the parts that were being hinted at for uncles or for the girl's father instead of her lover! I just felt 'the hell with it all' and walked out into the sunset."

Tom Vallance

David Farrar, actor: born London 21 August 1908; married 1931 Irene Elliot (died 1976; one daughter); died 31 August 1995.