Obituary: Bryant Haliday

Click to follow
The Independent Online
When the black-cloaked figure of Death came for Bryant Haliday this summer in Paris, he probably greeted him as an old and profitable friend. For Haliday had made Death a star across America as the distributor of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), the first bona fide European art-house hit in America and one which, like many other European modern classics, depended upon Haliday's Janus Films for general release and target marketing.

Haliday not only created Janus, he also ran the 55th Street Playhouse in Manhattan as a venue for their films. Without Janus and its in-house cinema, some of the most important films of the 20th century might not have found such widespread acceptance and certainly the cinematic aesthetic of one New Yorker, Woody Allen, would have been profoundly different.

Janus was instrumental behind the Bergman cult that swept American campuses and Bohemian enclaves, a situation unimaginable in today's dumbed-down culture. In the mid-Sixties, Janus reported that Bergman's films made up more than 25 per cent of their rental business and The Seventh Seal was shown on average twice a day in the United States.

As well as Bergman, Janus distributed Fellini's works at the height of his glory, from 1957 when he first travelled to the US to receive his Oscar for La Strada, stalked by his fan Burt Lancaster, through his third Oscar for Best Foreign Film for 8 1/2 (1963), up till the party thrown for him by Jacqueline Kennedy for the New York premiere of Giulietta Degli Spiriti ("Juliet of the Spirits", 1965). But aside from such associative glamour Janus also distributed a wide range of peerless European fare, from Ermanno Olmi's Il Posto ("The Job", 1961) to Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960).

The seriousness and indeed existentialist Catholic bent of such films make sense in the context of Haliday's own upbringing at a Benedictine monastery in preparation for the priesthood. However, at 21, he decided to become an actor, taking his place with the legendary Brattle Theatre Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and appearing in more than 50 stage productions from the classical repertoire.

Less classical in tone and remarkably, refreshingly different to the quality of the films he distributed, were the movies that Haliday himself took starring roles in. It was the producer Richard Gordon who realised that Haliday would be perfect for the main part of the insane ventriloquist in his UK horror flick of 1963, Devil Doll, very much not to be confused with the numerically palindromic 1936 classic.

After this role transferring souls into dummy bodies, perhaps metaphoric of his Janus work with American audiences, Haliday went on to play in several more zero-budget British horror films which came back later to haunt him in the graveyard zone of television scheduling.

There was the faintly racist Curse of Simba followed by The Projected Man of 1967, in which a scientist accidentally discovers himself brushing against Death (assuredly not played by Max von Sydow in this case) and best, or worst, of all, Horror on Snape Island of 1972 which, in a desperate attempt at marketing, a problem Janus never had, was renamed Tower of Evil and then Beyond the Fog.

Having profitably sold Janus films, which continues to this day, Haliday moved permanently to Paris where he continued acting, writing and producing for French television and theatre, albeit signally avoiding all demented doctor roles.

Adrian Dannatt

Bryant Haliday, film distributor and actor: born New York 7 April 1928; died Paris 28 July 1996.