Max von Sydow 10th April 1929 – 8th March 2020

That elegant actor, Max von Sydow, has died at the age of 90. An exponent of Swedish cinema, he lent his grave hauteur and expressivity to at least one excellent film in every decade that he worked, bringing a kind of innate decency and enigma to the work of many international film directors. His rise to global prominence came courtesy of his collaboration with Ingmar Bergman, firstly with The Seventh Seal, a defiantly eccentric work in the oeuvre of an otherwise modern filmmaker, with whom he made several masterpieces including the man haunted by nuclear war in Winter Light and  he was part of Bergman’s theatre repertory company too. You could say the spectre of Death haunted von Sydow but his natural abilities were seen in other kinds of work and when he made his English-language debut it was playing Jesus, in The Greatest Story Ever Told. That religiosity, interspersed with more work with Bergman and Jan Troell and some spy thrillers, culminated in his being cast as Father Merrin in The Exorcist, making him a staple exemplar of goodness in the anglophone horror genre. He made a chillingly effective super-rational hitman in paranoid thriller Three Days of the Condor opposite Robert Redford. The intellectual aspect of his performance made him ideal in Steppenwolf, a role that probably inspired Woody Allen to cast him as the temperamental artist Frederick in Hannah and Her Sisters, in which he gets a very funny line about the Holocaust. He was good at playing bad Germans – in The Quiller Memorandum and Shutter Island. And he would play a problematic Nazi-sympathising author Hamsun in the eponymous biography. For many of us we first encountered him as children, watching him as pitiless Emperor Ming in the exhilarating sci fi parody Flash Gordon and in the same spirit he gave us his Blofeld in Never Say Never Again. Most recently he appeared as Lor San Tekka in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the Three-Eyed Raven in Game of Thrones, with his last release Thomas Vinterberg’s Kursk disaster film, The Command. But it’s perhaps in Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror that he gave his most endearing performance as the illiterate farmer. With 163 screen credits, there’s plenty to choose from. He was acting royalty. Rest in peace.

Code Name: Emerald (1985)

Code Name Emerald

I was expecting Peter Lorre. Augustus Lang aka Emerald (Ed Harris) is a spy for the Allies working undercover in Nazi-Occupied Paris during World War II but the Nazis believe he’s their man. With his assistance they capture Wheeler (Eric Stoltz) an ‘Overlord’ thought to know the plans for D-Day. Lang is planted as his cell mate and their conversations are monitored by Gestapo officer Walter Hoffman (Horst Buchholz) who is constantly at odds with his SS colleague Ernst Ritter (Helmut Berger) but retains friendly relations with decent Jurgen Brausch (Max Von Sydow).  Outside the cell in everyday Paris, Lang is in contact with Claire Jouvet  (Cyrielle Clair) who is trying to help him engineer Wheeler’s escape. But Wheeler is weakening under threat of torture and Hoffman suspects there might be more than one spy in the wings … Averages aren’t everything. There’s such a thing as grace. A really good premise in a terrific screenplay by Ronald Bass from his novel is largely laid waste by miscasting and some underpowered directing. That makes a change! Harris is not expressive enough to elicit our sympathy as the hero of the piece and Stoltz is unconvincing and probably too young in his role; paradoxically it’s Buchholz who has the most interesting character to play – how often do we see Nazis in civvies in WW2 films? Von Sydow is good as a vitally placed German officer and Clair does very well as the woman at the centre of the romance/resistance storyline. While the tension isn’t strictly maintained, the magnificent score by John Addison goes a long way to giving this a sense of urgency that isn’t necessarily in the dénouement – the outcome of the war is at stake but you wouldn’t know it from the way this is staged. C’est la guerre. Directed by Jonathan Sanger for NBC in their first theatrical production. One of these Krauts is on our side. Problem is, I don’t which one it is

 

The Kremlin Letter (1970)

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You’re a fool.  What’s worse, you’re a romantic fool. When an unauthorised letter is sent to Moscow alleging the U.S. government’s willingness to help Russia attack Red China, US Navy Intelligence Officer Charles Rone (Patrick O’Neal) has his commission revoked so he can do an extra-governmental espionage mission.  He’s speaks eight languages fluently and has a flawless photographic memory. He and his team are sent to retrieve the letter, going undercover and successfully reaching out to Erika (Bibi Andersson), the wife of a former agent now married to the head of Russia’s secret police, Kosnov (Max von Sydow). Their plans are interrupted, however, when their Moscow hideout is raided by cunning politician Bresnavitch (Orson Welles) and Rone finds himself being played by a network of older spies seeking revenge .My father says bed is integral to this and one must be good at it. Adapted by director John Huston with his regular collaborator Gladys Hill (who began as dialogue director on Welles’ The Stranger) from Noel Behn’s 1966 novel, this complex canvas of betrayal, treason, murder and double cross is in a line with Huston’s film noir period with a soupçon of Beat the Devil‘s absurdism. Its convoluted plot is best appreciated in response to the hijinks of Bond with its determinedly low-key approach allowing the banal thuggery of the spy master to be revealed. The cast is astonishing – Richard Boone as Ward, the peroxide instigator capable of literally anything, sadism, torture and murder;  two Bergman alumni united in transcontinental jiggery pokery; George Sanders playing piano in drag at a gay nightclub and worse, with a penchant for knitting; Barbara Parkins as Niall MacGinnis’ safe-cracking daughter; Vonetta McGee as a Lesbian seductress;  Nigel Green as The Whore, another old spy keen on playing dress up; Lila Kedrova as a Russian brothel keeper;  and Welles’ Gate Theatre mentor Micheál MacLiammóir shows up – in fact he’s the first character we encounter. A crazy cast in a fascinating Cold War timepiece that requires keen attention. Even so, it’s a stretch to have dour O’Neal pose as a gigolo to win Andersson’s affections. Still, Ted Scaife’s cinematography is a thing of beauty. Never mind the story, feel the wit. Huston appears early as the Admiral who gives Rone his marching papers. If you believe in a cause no danger is frightening

Winter Light (1963)

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Aka The CommunicantsThe passion of Christ, his suffering… Wouldn’t you say the focus on his suffering is all wrong? Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) a pastor in a Swedish village handles his own existential crisis as he fails a fisherman Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) who is suicidal about the possibility of nuclear annihilation; and his former mistress, local schoolteacher Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin) whom he doesn’t think is as good as his late wife … Some years ago at a dinner party I was asked what I thought of Bergman. Being a smartass, I responded, Ingmar – or Andrew? That was my way of sidestepping a tough question about an auteur who can simultaneously leave me cold and move me unbearably. This is one of a loosely connected spiritual trilogy (known as Silence of God) which Bergman himself said tackled certainty. Here, it’s the pastor’s inability to understand the message of The Passion and the need for physical trials and to question the existence of God. It’s a thoughtful narrative with an unlikable protagonist and reflects on Bergman’s own relationship with his father, a Church of Sweden minister, and the position of the Church itself regarding the liturgy and its uses when a priest is unable to vocalise its virtues in a way that is meaningful to people desperate for reassurance. A serious film about major issues which are tackled and somewhat resolved in an astonishing 81 minutes by Bergman’s regular ensemble, with cinematography by the peerless Sven Nykvist whose camera traces the movement of sunlight through the church’s problematic spaces. Masterful.

The Night Visitor (1971)

The Night Visitor poster

What an oddity this is:  Ingmar Bergman’s regular troupe – Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Per Oscarsson – in the middle of an ax-murdering spree investigated by Trevor Howard in Sweden’s snowy wastes. You know you’re in for something different when you don’t recognise Henry Mancini as the composer – no easy cinematic grace notes, here, just an off-key harpsichord, organ, woodwind and synths which have the predictably unsettling effect that producer Mel Ferrer and director Laslo Benedek sought. Max escapes a lunatic asylum and starts killing the family members who framed him for a crime that saw him put away for life. But he goes back at night – curling his lanky and unwieldy frame into unlikely shapes and climbing vast edifices and running through the snow fields leaving a ghastly trail of bodies in his wake. He succeeds in persuading police inspector Howard that something is indeed amiss about the circumstances of his imprisonment but gets out again and, well, he’s now a serial killing ax murderer. There will be blood. Striking in all sorts of ways, but the parrot really takes the cake! Written by Guy Elmes.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

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What a fascinating star Robert Redford has been – enigmatic, beautiful, perfect, leaving us to wonder if there is any there there? This paranoid thriller adapted from the James Grady novel is one of a series of rewarding films he made with regular collaborator actor/director Sydney Pollack. It asks the question, Is there a CIA within the CIA? Redford reads books for the American Literary Historical Society, an agency outlet and when he returns from lunch one day he finds all his colleagues have been shot. One is on life support – eventually stopped, by someone’s hands. Condor takes shelter with photographer Faye Dunaway as he tries to find out why he’s now a target and has to keep his wits about him to stay alive in an elaborate cat and mouse chase that includes Max Von Sydow as a double-edged hitman. Has it got something to do with an obscure thriller translated into an improbable array of languages? It’s wonderfully shot by Owen Roizman and full of telling detail in a screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr and David Rayfiel, who regularly worked with Pollack. A scene with a mailman is right out of Hitchcock. This came out mid-Watergate revelations, an episode in American history which Redford would immortalise in All the President’s Men – and we have a preview of coming attractions in the last scene here.  Through it all is this mystery man with the tousled blond flicky hair, blue chambray shirt, denim jeans and donkey jacket, keeping it real. Peak Redford.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

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This came out right after I’d spent my first summer in New York City. Seeing it was like being immersed in a very warm welcoming bath. And what a cherishable film it is, a Chekhovian comedy drama about the impossible lives and loves of a trio of sisters played by the incredible Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey with Allen himself and Michael Caine and Max von Sydow rounding out the cast. This is on constant rotation chez moi. One of the greats.