Alfred Reginald Natzick aka Reggie Nalder/Detlef Van Berg/Detlas Van Burg
There are actors who look and act unconventionally – Lon Chaney Snr., Dwight Frye, right up to Steve Buscemi and Ron Perlman. If they, at any point in their careers, were labelled ‘The Ugliest Man In Hollywood’ or ‘The Face That Launched A Thousand Trips’, I imagine they’d look at their bank account or canon of work and risk a wry smile. If you’re Reggie Nalder, that’s the call-upon of your CV.
Born in Vienna in what was then Austria-Hungary in 1907, or indeed any point during a twenty year period around this time – Reggie was not a man for details like these – Nalder came from acting stock – his mother was a popular star of early German film and his father had also appeared on stage. His uncle signposted Reggie’s future career rather more clearly, running a decidedly rum cabaret known as Hoelle (‘Hell’) in the 1920s – more grand guignol than haute couture.
Catching the performing bug, he became involved in the German cabaret scene pre-WW2, particularly in physical performance, dance especially. He became famous in the scene for an act called The Apache which he performed with his then partner. Perhaps shockingly, and rather neatly bookending his career, this including live sex in front of a specially invited audience. With a hunchback barker, at the height of German Nazism. It’s fair to say that Nalder had a clear understanding of doing whatever it took to stay alive and stay in work.
As the above picture shows, Reggie had a fairly arresting visage at this time but nothing to prompt any running in the aisles. His facial scarring can be pin-pointed neither by date nor cause – he was unwilling to discuss the burns to the lower part of his face throughout his career, offering several reasons over the years, none of which are likely to add anything to the story. It wasn’t until after the War that Nalder made the transition into films.
Even his early roles thrust him amongst the elite of his contemporaries – he was directed in Impasse Des Deux Anges by Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques) appeared in Le Signal Rouge alongside Erich Von Stroheim and in an early role created for an English-speaking audience in Adventures of Captain Fabian, also starring Errol Flynn and Vincent Price. These were relatively insignificant roles, though he was certainly mingling among the right company – his appearance in a slew of swashbuckling movies brought him to the attention of Alfred Hitchcock who duly cast him in the role of Rien, the assassin, in the remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much (1957).
Rien is thoroughly evil in what is actually rather limited screen time. His face is quite concealed with make-up though the camera lingers on him with a mixture of disdain and curiosity. In the cliff-hanging final sequence in the Albert Hall where Rien is to carry out his killing, only two faces stand out from the hundreds in the auditorium; Nalder’s and Doris Day’s, as if to highlight the evil ugliness of Nalder with the clean-cut beauty of the lead actress. Nalder’s angular face hangs portrait-like in the frame, as much the genius of Hitchcock’s direction as the self-awareness of the actor’s arresting power to capture the audience’s attention. His slow movements and insect-like twitching are both disgusting yet impossible to turn away from. Rien is rumbled by James Stewart and dies tumbling like the Fallen Angel from his perch, having the good fortune to miss Day singing ‘Que Sera, Sera’ at the film’s conclusion but not before becoming one of the most memorable villains of film at this time.
This was inevitably the breakthrough Reggie needed to get to Hollywood; naturally, the touch of Hitchcock did the same for any actor. He appeared in numerous TV shows in the early 60’s from Peter Gunn, to 77 Sunset Strip to two memorable episodes of Boris Karloff’s Thriller. The first of these, The Return of Andrew Bentley (from a teleplay written by Richard Matheson), features a little too much Scooby-Doo cape wafting by Nalder to really strike fear into mortal hearts as he plays a ghost intent on revenge. There is however something disconcerting about this episode as he appears without warning with his lantern-headed familiar, the suspense is purely down to his appearance as the part is silent throughout.
His second appearance in Thriller in the same year as a graveyard caretaker in Terror In Teakwood, is a more interesting story concerning the massive hands of a dead pianist becoming hot property as an impossible to play piano recital is required. Nalder again is demonised as an ‘only by moonlight’ social outcast who can only make his presence felt through blackmail. Also appearing in this episode was Hazel Court – as we’ve seen, not the first time Nalder played opposite a beautiful female to accentuate his features.
It is worth noting that in many of the roles he had played thus far on the screen, he was not pointed at and mocked for his looks – not out loud anyhow. It was always the inference – how could he not be ‘the baddie’ looking like that? He was beyond redemption and beyond pity; he was used as a device to suggest pure evil. It would have been madness not to have gone along with this ruse on Nalder’s part given his increasing popularity for character roles in Hollywood but it is undoubtedly typecasting of the cruellest kind.
Appearing opposite Rock Hudson in Spiral Road won’t have hurt (playing a witchdoctor this time) but it was almost certainly his appearance (and Appearance) in The Man Who Knew Too Much that brought him to the attention of Frank Sinatra. The blessing of Sinatra was the most mixed of all possible blessings. If you were Sammy Davis Jnr it meant that Frank and his pals could take the piss out of you but no-one else. It was in any case not an approach that would have been sensible to turn down and lo, Nalder appeared in a silent role as a Russian spymaster in The Manchurian Candidate. Although this now meant Nalder’s CV was enviable by any standards it was maybe time to accept there were only ever going to be certain roles for Nalder.
For the rest of the decade, he was kept constantly busy but in nudge nudge wink wink roles that were veering from the ludicrous to paens for Hitchcock. His appearance as the ambassador Shras in the ‘Journey to Babel’ episode of Star Trek features him painted blue with antennae – despite pig-like characters in the ensemble trying to throw you off the scent as to who the baddie might be, it’s obvious even from only looking at the cast who the mischief-maker is going to be. A gift for the programme makers, elaborate (or perhaps not) make-up was utterly unnecessary to create the required feeling of unease.
Hitchcock’s most devoted disciple, Dario Argento, was keen not to miss a trick and cast him once more as an inept assassin in his breakout film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Clad in yellow, one of the motifs of the film, Nalder has really hit his stride at this point – imperious in front of the lens, he was never afraid to stare the camera out. The futility of Tony Musante’s predicament in the lead is accentuated by the fact that he somehow manages to lose Nalder’s character in a crowd.
Nalder’s next role was pivotal – it made him famous in exploitation cinema forever but also meant he could never achieve the mainstream heights he longed for; Adrian Hoven’s Hexen Bis Aufs Blut Gequäl (Mark of the Devil). Mark… is an insane film – it delivers scenes of revulsion and mayhem that are often promised in marketing and build up but fall flat or are just simply untrue. Once again appearing alongside exalted company (Herbert Lom and Udo Kier), the film is very much the evil twin of Michael Reeve’s Witchfinder General, which is in no way intended as a denigrating remark about either film.
There is an almost mondo feel to proceedings; the washed out colours, the language (“Shampoo for his beastly head!” during a tarring and feathering sequence) and the ‘what, really?’ twists and turns are, in my mind, akin to the effect Ruggero Deodato achieved with Cannibal Holocaust. A couple of points labour the obvious a little too obviously; ‘hero’ Kier’s character is called Christian, Nalder’s Witchfinder without portfolio is called Albino, at once the outcast. Unusually, Nalder’s character is equally at home in silent mode, staring impassively as innocents burn at the stake as in full effect chatterbox, accusing any nubile wench in striking distance of sorcery.
Mark… also contains perhaps the most cutting remark in any of Nalder’s films; after an attempted rape of Olivera Vučo by his character has been rumbled, the victim cries out, “Look at his face! He is the Devil! Look at his face!”. Nothing has been done by the make-up department to prompt this outburst – what we see on the screen is literally that – Nalder’s face. Whilst recognising that events are based on fact, even in the fairytale world of the movies, this is beyond damning. One can only wonder how the actor felt, the payoff being the success the film enjoyed and the fact that Reggie’s name was as near as it ever was to being up in lights. His career perennially being the double-edged sword, Nalder’s visage also made it to the front of one of the most famous of all exploitation marketing techniques, the ‘Vomit Bag’, which was given to attendees of screenings in America by Hallmark Releasing.
Riding the crest of a wave of some kind, he followed this role with Hexen geschändet und zu Tode gequält (Mark of the Devil 2), also from director Adrian Hoven. The film is more of the same but with more of an emphasis on ‘tampering’ with nuns and shocking without really concentrating on storyline. In truth, you’re only ever going to watch this if you’ve seen the original (which is something of a misnomer – only Nalder returns from the cast and even he, understandably given the demise of Albino in the original, is playing a different character) and that being the case are likely to come away disappointed – it never hits the same standards in any respect.
Nalder starred as a zombie in Curtis Harrington’s better than it should be TV movie The Dead Don’t Die. Harrington recalled,
“His face was like something out of a nightmare. He looked like the Phantom of the Opera. I felt sorry for him though. He asked me one day, “Why can’t I play a leading man?”, and I thought, “Man, you’re just not self-aware!”.
With friends like these… Two things: one, Nalder was perfectly self-aware but knew that although his looks made him in demand for certain roles, he wouldn’t have got half the work if he’d been a lousy actor, Secondly, there was one more important reason Nalder never got leading roles – his accent. He carried his heavy East-European accent throughout his career and though it obviously wasn’t a problem for the European market, in America it limited him in speaking roles to Communist protagonists and soundbite-spouting mentalists.
This can be seen in Albert Band’s Zoltan… Hound of Dracula, where, playing the servant, Nalder is all pithy “Yes, Master” and no substance beyond his understanding of how to portray himself physically.
It is slightly ironic that it is for the role in which he s most heavily made-up that he is most recognisable to people. Starring as Barlow the vampire in Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, he is possibly the most hideous vision of a vampire since Max Schrek’s Nosferatu in F.W. Murnau’s film of the same name.
Nalder’s performance is as over the top as any of his career, at least since his cabaret days. This was in all senses to be the twilight of Nalder’s career. By now he had almost certainly accepted the kinds of roles he was going to receive and willingly accepted all of those he was able to take.
His career is bookended quite remarkably – from his earliest days performing in sex shows with his girlfriend, two of his final roles brought him almost full-circle. Appearing under pseudonyms Detlef Van Berg and Detlas Van Burg, Nalder appeared in two US adult films – Dracula Sucks and Blue Ice, alongside the likes of Jamie Gillis, Anette Haven, John Leslie and Ron Jeremy.
Blue Ice is for completists only, a confusing excuse to have some Nazi imagery in an uninspired sex film. Dracula Sucks, however is essential viewing, with Nalder playing a non-sex role opposite Gillis’ Dracula. Nalder was unembarrassed by these parts; he was, of course, no more exploited here than he was throughout his career. In fact, for once, he received less attention in terms of appearance.
Let it be a mark of the man that he is equally famous for describing Bill Cosby as “rude, arrogant and incredibly untalented” after starring with him in the crushingly awful Oh, God! rip-off The Devil and Max Devlin.
Nalder died in Santa Monica in 1991, succumbing to bone cancer. Had he defeated exploitation of his looks by becoming the exploiter? I think, in his own mind, he had, and that’s what counts. To him, his face was what opened doors, first to America and then to appear in so many films and TV programmes – what kept him there was his uncanny ability to hold the audience in the palm of his hand, to hypnotise in a way only Klaus Kinski has ever bettered. Truly an artist, Nalder reminded us what acting was and could ever be.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA