Peter Sellers did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Lionel Meadows in Never Let Go.
This film is one of the few strictly dramatic roles for Peter Sellers, and the only one I've ever seen anyways. Though there is a certain undercurrent of drama in both of his Stanley Kubrick collaborations, and Being There is firmly a dramedy. In those three films though there are plenty of moments where he is playing for laughs, there's not a single laugh to be had from him here, and that's not a knock against his performance. Sellers plays a career criminal Lionel Meadows who runs a garage that specializes in stealing the rebuilding cars. We briefly see Sellers in a silent moment early in the film as he's just going about this business, we do not see him again for a good twenty minutes before he reenters the film, after John has made considerable trouble for Lionel's business by refusing to let the theft of his stolen car go. Sellers shows up with a smile to talk to one his associates but he's not there to tell jokes.
Sellers's approach to the part with some adjustment the other way could easily be comedic performance, after all he gave a rather enjoyable turn as a similair type of criminal in The Ladykillers. Sellers though utilizes his approach, in creating a distinct accent and mannerisms, but uses them for an entirely alternative purpose here. Sellers plays Lionel almost as proper car salesman on the immediate outer surface. He seems to almost as brimming with a certain jovial quality, all the while keeping the proper posture of someone who is ready to sell you something special. Lionel though isn't there to give or even sell though, as he is in the taking business. His voice always attempting to be reassuring about something, the problem being that something is entirely unknown to both the person Lionel is talking to and Lionel himself. Now Sellers isn't portraying exactly quite facade, but is very intriguing in the way he more of presents this behavior as Lionel's attempt to exist as person in decent society at all.
The real Lionel is always right there too clawing to be set free, and Sellers suggests the whole act as the man trying to balance himself. The problem being is just being the razor thin surface is the criminal. Sellers though portrays Lionel as barely functioning criminal, presenting a man absolutely gripped with so much hate for everyone around him. Sellers is volcanic as he depicts the violence as something Lionel almost needs to come out, even though he has his thin attempt to hold it in check in some way. Sellers utilizes this brilliantly to create a real menace with his performance. He does not try to make Lionel as some sort of cunning mastermind. He rather bluntly instead makes him a man who just wants to continue to live as he currently does, and will lash out at anyone he thinks is getting in that way. Sellers is surprisingly intimidating in the part as he goes about attempting to plug the leaks in his organization, not as some refined hitman, but rather as a caged animal lashing out in rage. I'll admit there is something a little extra chilling about these scenes, as it is so unexpected to see Sellers not only commit the act but be convincing in the act.
One of the aspects of the film that is underwhelming is in the arc of the main character as he tries to find some personal pride through retrieving his car, but in doing so becomes involved in sordid elements. Todd tries but isn't able to overcome the limits of the writing. Sellers on the other hand, which almost seems like it wasn't written this way, gives a matching and more effective portrayal of Lionel attempting to hold onto his own pride, though that means a very different thing for him. Sellers even as he goes violently assaulting and accosting everyone who he thinks will implicate him in the crime, brings a real desperation in the act. He conveys this underlying fear of sorts in Lionel as he attempts to control the situation, though he is trying very hard to live up to be the man he thinks he should be. Sellers through this makes Lionel more than a one note hood, as he makes it rather fascinating as he reveals Lionel essentially going through the same thing as John just through a different perspective. In the final showdown between the two men you really feel what the moment means to Lionel because of Sellers's performance. In the fight Sellers shows exactly what Lionel is fighting for, in every wretched attack of his. I only wish the film itself, and Todd had managed to match Sellers's own work, since Seller's portrait of Lionel is rather special. It's such a shame that the film's tepid reception apparently made Sellers swear off taking dramatic roles, since this is a great performance that suggests we never got to truly see everything Sellers was capable of as an actor.