I just learned earlier this week that British actor Jon Finch passed away in the final days of 2012, perhaps due to diabetes, though so far a specific cause of death has not been released. Finch doesn’t quite have a household name -- certainly not in the U.S. -- but I grew up with a deep appreciation of his limited, horror-tinged catalog. The fact that he was tall, dark and Byronically handsome didn’t hurt either.
Finch was best known for two roles. The first was Roman Polanski's Macbeth (1971), where he played the titular, cursed Scotsman. Finch was primarily a theater actor, so he was well-qualified for the role, but he brings a certain gravity and seriousness to the film. A lot has been made of the fact that Macbeth was Polanski’s first production after the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate. This is a dark, violent production of an already dark play, dripping with blood and gleaming with knives, swords and other weapons of murder. Whether or not this interpretation should be read into Polanski’s film, the scene where Macbeth gives his final soliloquy -- a farewell to his wife and recognition of the futility of life -- is one of my favorites.
I am a huge fan of Polanski’s work and his Macbeth, and I think he and Finch did a wonderful job bringing Shakespeare to a new generation of cinema fans, particularly to lovers of cult and horror. Finch got his start in film with a number of small roles in Hammer Horror films, such as The Vampire Lovers (1970) and The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), which is also how my teenage self became acquainted with him. He returned to the Hammer House of Horror’s TV series (“Witching Time,” 1980) and towards the later years of his career he would return to horror with the lesser known Lurking Fear (1994) and the witchcraft/Druid themed Darklands (1996). Horror fans might be interested to learn that for most of the ‘80s he was married to Catriona MacColl, who starred in Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981), and House by the Cemetery (1981).
Finch is most famous for the lead role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), the celebrated director’s second to last film and one that nearly ruined his career due the unexpected level of violence and brutality. Finch plays one of Hitchcock’s standard roles, the wrong man. But unlike Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, there are many moments where we believe Finch might be capable of the vicious serial stranglings that occur in the film. His bitter, downtrodden character is a strong point in the film and also serves as an example why audiences and critics panned this exceptional film. His character’s dislike of London and the people in it remind me of a certain line from Sondhem’s Sweeney Todd: “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit, And the vermin of the world inhabit it.” Not a particularly cheery or popular sentiment, but one that sums of Frenzy.
Finch allegedly turned down a lot of roles because he wasn’t interested in stardom. He was one of the many actors considered to as Sean Connery’s successor for the role of James Bond and nearly co-starred in Ridley Scott’s Alien, though the latter is due to a sudden diabetes diagnosis. (He was replaced by John Hurt.) Despite avoiding the limelight, he had an active film, television and stage career; he delved seriously into classical, especially Shakespearean theater, some of which carried over into film, such as a Henry IV series (1970), Richard II (1978) and Much Ado About Nothing (1984). He appeared in Death on the Nile (1978), a delightful adaptation of Agatha Christie’s beloved novel, and was even in some sci-fi - The Last Days of Man on Earth (1973) and the TV mini-series The Martian Chronicles (1980). He had couple of roles in the ‘90s and ‘00s, and his final part was in Ridley Scott’s ridiculous Kingdom of Heaven (2005).
RIP Jon Finch.