Camp, Cults & Dr Cyclops – Albert Dekker (1905–1968)

Posted in Rewind by - April 27, 2015
Camp, Cults & Dr Cyclops – Albert Dekker (1905–1968)

A hugely talented character actor from the ‘old school’, genre-crossing Albert Dekker is today mostly remembered more for one of the most bizarre deaths in Hollywood history than for his natural acting chops. Often seen as a doctor or sinister villain, he could be menacing, funny, or on rare occasions, even romantic.

Born in New York on December 20th 1905, Dekker was acting on the stage by 1927 and made his screen debut ten years later in the Olivia de Havilland starrer ‘The Great Garrick’ (’37). After playing King Louis XIII in James Whale’s ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’, he incited a mutiny in the superb action-adventure ‘Beau Geste’ (both ’39). Next came the part which remains his most beloved among cult movie lovers. In ‘Dr Cyclops’ (’40) Dekker gleefully played mad bald-headed scientist Doctor Thorkal, who works on a remote island and discovers a way to shrink animals and humans to only a few inches in size, with the aid of local uranium. It was a fun piece of nonsense and bolstered by a fantastic performance from Dekker. Also that year saw Albert in a rare romantic role in the South Seas adventure ‘Seven Sinners’, playing an alcoholic doctor winning the arm of Marlene Dietrich’s scandalous nightclub singer.

After a good turn playing twins (one homicidal) in the exciting thriller ‘Among the Living’ (’41), Albert supported Veronica Lake in the funny comedy ‘Hold that Blonde!’ (’45). My first encounter with Dekker came in Robert Siodmak’s seminal noir ‘The Killers’ (’46), where he was wonderfully menacing as gang boss Big Jim Colfax, whose beautiful moll Kitty (Ava Gardner) betrays Burt Lancaster’s smitten ex-boxer. 1947 was a good year for Dekker with a trio of strong and diverse roles. First was the Oscar-winning ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ (’47) as a magazine publisher who tasks Gregory Peck with writing a piece on Anti-Semitism. Then came the camp classic ‘Slave Girl’ (’47) with beautiful Yvonne De Carlo, and finally the little-seen sleeper ‘The Pretender’, which saw Dekker in excellent form as an immoral businessman who hires a hit-man to kill his love rival.

During this time Dekker’s interest in politics led him to being elected as a Democratic member of the California State Assembly, which he held from 1944-46. He was also an outspoken critic of Joseph McCarthy and the subsequent witch-hunts, causing him to lose favour for a while, which was fine as he was able to find himself busy on Broadway, most notably in the first run of Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’.

Back on screen 1955 saw a duo of cult favourites, appearing in Robert Aldrich’s ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ as a sinister dealer of atomic fuel, and ‘East of Eden’ as a successful car dealer. Back in camp territory Dekker was another nutty scientist, this time in the sci-fi horror ‘She Devil’ (’57) before landing a good role in Joe Mankiewicz’s gothic mystery ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ (’59), playing a hospital administrator bribed by Katherine Hepburn whose son has died in suspicious circumstances. The next few years saw Dekker solely in television which included guest spots on ‘Naked City’ and ‘Rawhide’. Following stints in ‘I Spy’ and ‘Bonanza’ (both ’68) Dekker’s final movie was a great one, and my personal favourite. In Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece ‘The Wild Bunch’ (’69) Albert played a grizzled railroad investigator who sends a rag-tag group of bounty hunters to track down William Holden’s world-weary bunch of outlaws. This was the perfect big screen comeback for Albert and he was excellent in it, though sadly he would die long before the movie’s release.

In his Californian apartment on May 5th 1968, Albert’s naked body was discovered in his bathroom. Gagged and blindfolded, he was kneeling with his head in a noose attached to the shower rail. Across his body were various obscenities written in red lipstick, and there were hypodermic needles in his arms. Whether this was a personal kick gone awry, or something far more sinister, the official verdict was asphyxia and ruled accidental.

Married to former actress Esther Guerini from 1929 until 1964, and with 3 children, Albert Dekker excelled in everything from drama, sci-fi and hard-edged thriller, and he was always good value. Had he just been a formulaic performer with minor talent, then his demise would not have had the lasting shock value that it does. Whatever the truth is of his mysterious death, Albert Dekker deserves to be remembered more for his cult characters than for his untimely death.

Favourite Movie: The Wild Bunch
Favourite Performance: Dr Cyclops

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