Many years ago I was at the Regents Park Open Air theatre when I recognised the actor Vladek Sheybal who played Kronsteen the chess grandmaster and sinister enforcer in From Russia with Love. Whenever I watch arguably the best of the Bonds I see Vladek Sheybal and the chanteuse Lotte Lenya playing Rosa Klebb as a predatory lesbian stealing the show from Sean Connery and Robert Shaw. As part of my research for an article for Sight and Sound on World War Two films I recently watched Mosquito Squadron. My theme is that the time the film is made is as revealing as the World War 2 episode it features. By the 60s action films with a star studded cast were replacing the grimmer black and whites of the austere 1950s. The 60s were more about daring raids like Heroes of Telemark and Where Eagles Dare . Romance was beginning to creep in too. The Mosquito Squadron (1969) featured David Macallum of Man from Uncle fame and its story is of squadron leader who assumes his best friend Scotty was shot down and killed and falls in love with his wife. He has to lead a bombing mission on a chateau in which Scotty is in fact prisoner. I immediately recognised the Nazi in charge of the prisoners as Vladek Sheybal.
This was ironic as in real life he was very much on the other side. Born in Lodz in 1923 he fought with the Polish resistance in the Warsaw uprising and twice escaped from concentration camps. A friend of Roman Polanski he became an actor after the war and he made his way to England. Down to his last pennies he found work as a drama teacher in Oxford where he directed Diane Cilento in a play. La Cilento brought his talents to the attention of her boyfriend Sean Connery and he was cast as Kronsteen. He then had a successful career largely as a villain, his long nose, hypnotic eyes and sallow features giving him a sinister air. He appeared in Ken Russell films and on the stage.
Towards the end of his career he appeared in French films usually chasing women much younger than himself . Sadly a ruptured aorta resulted in a sudden death aged 69 in 1992. Even from this distance in time I can see him at the theatre confessing he had not the first idea how to play chess and ready to converse with strangers though I never realised he shared his birthplace with my late mother. I often have to interview big named stars and rarely do they make an impression as their self-obsession reflects a hollow life. Sheybal had a back story of courage and surviving unbelievable trauma to make a name for himself on stage and on film. I so would have liked to interview him.