Impostors, Great & Small

DATELINE: Smarmy Smarty-pants

smarty smarmy Tony Curtis at Play

Tony Curtis was sliding into a different phase of his career by the mid-1960s. One of the earliest of these odd, new films, was titled The Great Impostor. Here he played Ferdinand Demara, a man who pretended to be a doctor, a priest, a teacher, and did other jobs—superbly, according to witnesses.

He was, first and foremost, a fake and a fraud. Yet, the movie of 1961 plays him as a fun-loving prankster, not a man guilty of identity theft.

Never having seen this motion picture, we were compelled by a neighbor who revealed she was a student of the Great Impostor in high school in Winchendon, Mass. He went by the name of Mr. Thorne and was an excellent instructor before authorities took him away.

This all-star picture features Karl Malden, Gary Merrill, Edmund O’Brien, Arthur O’Connell, Frank Gorshin, Raymond Massey, Robert Middleton, and a plethora of familiar faces from TV of the 1950s and 1960s. It was also directed by notable Robert Mulligan. There was nothing shabby here—except the attitude.

Curtis always had a regrettable habit to turn smarmy with an overbite of sugar when he was let loose. Here, his character goes beyond having no idea that he is far worse than a childish mischief maker. Alas, the movie also has the same problem.

A man with a brilliant memory and intelligence, Demara demeans people in authority by his pretense, as if the vanity of small-time bureaucrats deserves come-uppance. Curtis savors the chance too readily.

Isn’t there too much contempt for patients he operates upon? For religious rites of devout people? For patriotism of American soldiers? Demara amuses himself with his own shenanigans—and we are along for the ride.

Tony Curtis is in his own world of acting here; the audience is immaterial when it comes to his brash and frivolous performance.

As a depiction of an era and its values, this movie hits home, but as my neighbor said of her meeting with the real Demara, he was no Tony Curtis.

 

 

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