Greenstreet, Sydney

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Nationality: American. Born: Sydney Hughes Greenstreet in Sandwich, Kent, England, 27 December 1879. Education: Attended Dane Hill Preparatory School, Margate, Kent. Family: Married Dorothy Marie Ogden, 1918, son: John Ogden. Career: 1899–1901—worked as tea planter in Ceylon; 1901–02—agency manager, Watneys Coombes and Reed's Brewery, Harrow, Middlesex; 1902—joined Ben Greet School of Acting: debut in Sherlock Holmes in Ramsgate, Kent; 1904—toured with the Ben Greet company in the United States, and stayed; then acted in Shakespeare for five years; subsequently acted for several groups, including the Harry Davis Stock Company, Pittsburgh, the Henry W. Savage company, the Margaret Anglin company; 1941—film debut in The Maltese Falcon. Died: 18 January 1954.

Films as Actor:


The Maltese Falcon (Huston) (as Kasper Gutman); They Died with Their Boots On (Walsh) (as General Scott)


Across the Pacific (Huston) (as Dr. H. F. C. Lorenz); Casablanca (Curtiz) (as Ferrari)


Background to Danger (Walsh); Conflict (Bernhardt) (as Dr. Mark Hamilton)


Passage to Marseille (Curtiz) (as Commandant Duval); Between Two Worlds (Blatt) (as Thompson); The Mask of Dimitrios (Negulesco) (as Mr. Peters); The Conspirators (Negulesco) (as Riccardo Quintanilla); Hollywood Canteen (Daves) (as guest)


Pillow to Post (Sherman) (as Col. Otley); Christmas in Connecticut (Indiscretion) (Godfrey)


Three Strangers (Negulesco) (as Jerome K. Arbutney); Devotion (Bernhardt) (as W. M. Thackeray); The Verdict (Siegel)


That Way with Women (de Cordova) (as James P. Alden); The Hucksters (Conway)


Ruthless (Ulmer); The Woman in White (Godfrey) (as Count Fosco); The Velvet Touch (Gage) (as Capt. Danbury)


Flamingo Road (Curtiz) (as Titus Semple); It's a Great Feeling (Butler) (as guest); Malaya (East of the Rising Sun) (Thorpe)



Sennett, Ted, Masters of Menace: Greenstreet and Lorre, New York, 1979.

On GREENSTREET: article—

Pickard, Roy, "Sydney Greenstreet," in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1972.

Sennett, T., "Masters of Menace: Greenstreet and Lorre," in Cineaste (New York), December 1979.

* * *

Sydney Greenstreet's merrily monstrous screen persona sprang belatedly forth in the actor's 61st year with his first film role as Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon. His decade as a screen villain (1941–49) stood in contrast to a 40-year stage career in England and America which nurtured his outlandish presence in Warner Brothers films.

His 285-pound bulk filled the frame, often in low angle shots (such as those in The Maltese Falcon) that magnified the impression he gave of looming menace. Clever as well as corrupt, charmingly dandified when sybaritic, Greenstreet's typical villain mocked his victims with throaty laughter that seemed to detach him from the awful deeds he plotted to commit. He took obvious pleasure in playing cat-and-mouse, and satisfaction in his own greedy amorality. Concerned only with financial gain, he remained unflinchingly objective, able to appreciate his adversaries (Sam Spade in The MalteseFalcon and Rick in Casablanca, for example) and to acknowledge it when outfoxed in the end.

Such physical distortion in a film character reassures the viewer of his own comparative inadequacy, and may elicit revulsion or mirth. Greenstreet at his best elicited both responses simultaneously. But his villains never became buffoons, remaining sinister by contrast with the weasels played by Peter Lorre, Greenstreet's foil in eight Warners films, even as he exploited the comic possibilities of his dialogue with a knowing delivery. "As leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca, I am an influential and respected man," boasts his fly-swatting black marketeer Ferrari. Moments later, moved by the plight of Ilsa Lund and her freedom-fighter husband, Ferrari suggests a possible way for them to escape, and seems as surprised by his grand gesture as they are, since, he almost apologetically declares, "it cannot possibly profit" him.

Greenstreet vainly sought to display on film the acting range he had earlier demonstrated in the theater, where he performed a variety of classic and contemporary roles (including, triumphantly, numerous Shakespearean clowns), toured America with the Lunts for the Theatre Guild, and even played a feature part in Jerome Kern's Broadway musical Roberta. Among his few permitted forays into screen comedy, only Christmas in Connecticut (where he's cast as a circulation-crazy magazine publisher) reveals the Greenstreet talent for mischief. He played detectives (The Verdict, The Velvet Touch), the novelist Thackeray (Devotion), a celestial interrogator (Between Two Worlds), and General Winfield Scott in a Western (They Died with Their Boots On), but Greenstreet's fame rests on his gallery of desperate schemers which made him one of the great movie villains.

—Mark W. Estrin

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Greenstreet, Sydney

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