Larger than life character actor Sydney Greenstreet didn’t make his screen debut until he was 61 and although his film career wasn’t long it was certainly electric. For a few years in the early forties he appeared in a string of Warner Bros classics, usually alongside Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre. Greenstreet made his last film in 1950 died in 1954 but in a short career enlivened every movie he appeared in. Here is our pick of five of his best movies.
Across the Pacific (1942)
After being given a phony dishonorable discharge, Army officer Richard Leland (Humphrey Bogart) offers his services to Chiang Kai-Shek and the Chinese. On his journey through the Panama Canal, he comes across Dr. Lorenz (Greenstreet), a spy determined to blow up the Canal. It should be noted that the characters in the movie never reach the Pacific or cross it for that matter. Huston ultimately left production literally mid-scene to join the armed forces, leaving command of the movie in the hands of young director Vincent Sherman. “Pacific” reunites most of the cast from “The Maltese Falcon” and Sherman later worked on such TV shows as 77 Sunset Strip, The Waltons and Baretta.
Director: John Huston, Vincent Sherman
Cast: Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Richard Loo, Keye Luke, Victor Sen Yung
Background to Danger (1943)
Nazis, Soviets, and American agent George Raft are all after a cache of secret documents in the mysterious back alleys of WWII Turkey. A great, fast-moving spy tale handled expertly by Walsh. Based on Eric Ambler’s “Uncommon Danger.”
Director: Raoul Walsh
Cast: Turhan Bey, Sydney Greenstreet, Kurt Katch, Peter Lorre, Brenda Marshall, Osa Massen, George Raft
Perennially at the top of every all-time-greats list, and indisputably one of the landmarks of the American cinema. Bogart is an American expatriate and war profiteer in WWII Morocco, content to merely run the Café Americain until love (in the form of a luminous Bergman) returns to his life and inspires him to stand up for the French Resistance. An accidental Hollywood masterpiece, it just gets better as time goes by. Whilst Greenstreet’s role here is one of many fine supporting performances he enlivens the screen whenever he appears. Academy Award Nominations: 8, including Best Actor: Humphrey Bogart; Best Supporting Actor: Claude Rains; Best Cinematography.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, S.Z. Sakall, Conrad Veidt
Mask of Dimitrios (1944)
In an intriguing, exotic noir spy tale, Peter Lorre is a mystery writer vacationing in Istanbul who becomes fascinated by the life of Dimitrios, a violent master criminal (Zachary Scott) who had been mixed up with the Bulgarian patriotic front. With his steps dogged by Greenstreet, a former associate of Dimitrios, the writer tracks the story of the enigmatic criminal whose body had washed up on the Turkish coast. After Sydney Greenstreet comes clean about his interest in the case, Lorre gets an up-close look at his subject when it turns out Dimitrios is not quite as dead as everyone thought. Co-star Faye Emerson was much in the news at the time of the film’s release because of her recent marriage to Elliott Roosevelt, the president’s son. The couple divorced in 1950.
Director: Jean Negulesco
Cast: Faye Emerson, Victor Francen, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Zachary Scott
Passage to Marseilles (1944)
Michael Curtiz rounds up the male leads from “Casablanca” for another gripping, atmospheric wartime tale. The story centers on Humphrey Bogart, a bombardier on a Free France bomber who drops letters to his wife and son trapped in occupied France. Through flashbacks we see the story of his prewar romance, resistance to fascism, his arrest, and eventual escape from a penal colony. Though Bogie never makes it back alive, Rains ensures his last letter will be delivered. Stirring and action-packed.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Victor Francen, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, George Tobias