Roger Ebert once referred to Max Von Sydow as a “mighty oak of Swedish cinema” and the same can be said of his career as a whole both in his home country and Hollywood too. Max was an actor of tremendous presence, a noble spirit with the kind of line delivery that was immersive and drew you right into the scene. He has passed away this week at age 90 and will be missed by countless people who loved his work, but he leaves behind a multi decade legacy of brilliant and diverse acting work, and these are my top ten personal favourite of his performances:
10. Blofeld in Irvin Kershner’s Never Say Never Again
Might be controversial to say but Max was the coolest Blofeld in my book. Donald Pleasance and Telly Savalas had a businesslike, robotic vibe to their interpretations but Max gave this mega villain a decidedly sardonic, playful edge. Plus that hair makes him stand out from the classic bald image we’re used to. He isn’t in the film much but his scenes are super fun.
9. Leland Gaunt in Stephen King’s Needful Things
Malevolent, ancient and evil, Gaunt is a demon in human form hellbent on reaping souls. Setting up a curious antique shop in fictional Castle Rock, he goes up against suspicious Sheriff Pangborn (Ed Harris) and seems to have an unnatural knowledge of the town. Von Sydow makes keen, charming and ultimately super creepy work of this guy, one of the most well portrayed King antagonists put to film.
8. Dr. Kynes in David Lynch’s Dune
A longtime resident of the planet Arrakis, Kynes is an intuitive fellow who senses the buried potential within Paul Atreides (Kyle Maclachlan) and admires the resolve and integrity of his father Leto (Jurgen Prochnow). He gets some interesting, atmospheric moments in the film’s trademark voiceovers and makes a magnetic presence.
7. Judge Fargo in Judge Dredd
Fargo is one of the few high ranking judges of mega city who hasn’t been swayed by corruption, and that unconverted resilience is nicely embodied by Max. I know this isn’t the most well organized film and it hasn’t aged all that amazingly but there’s a lot to love, a bunch of dope production design and one hell of a cast, our man included. When he’s banished from the city for helping Dredd, there’s no sight quite as epic as a duster clad Max sauntering out into the desert like some intergalactic gunslinger. Good times.
6. Dr. Paul Novotny in Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape
This underrated 80’s SciFi fantasy palooza sees clairvoyant Dennis Quaid get recruited by Max’s government researcher to infiltrate people’s dreams and uncover a conspiracy. He’s a good, kind and decent man here who has no idea how far up the chain this pseudoscientific mutiny goes, Max imbues him with a genuine curiosity for his field, an easygoing camaraderie with Quaid and steals the show.
5. Dr. Nahring in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island
Nahring is one of a few psychiatric professionals who heads up the austere institute that Leonardo DiCaprio’s federal marshal is snooping around in. If you know the twist and remember the dialogue, you get just how ingenious Max’s line delivery is here when he asks Teddy “if you see a monster, you should stop it, no?” It’s a great callback to the end of the film. At one point Teddy berates Nahring for being German because of his experiences during the war and one gets the sense from Max’s performance that he wasn’t on the side of conflict that Teddy assumes, it’s a terrific supporting performance that doesn’t intrude yet speaks volumes.
4. Lamar Burgess in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report
The slick CEO of a futuristic murder investigation unit, Burgess has everything under control and then some.. until his plan unravels. This is a fantastic performance that follows the Hollywood beats of a hidden antagonist but allows Max to have one final beat to the character that he nails perfectly.
3. Lancaster Merrin in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist
This is one of the films that bridged the gap to Hollywood for him and has since become infamous. Merrin is a world weary, knowledgeable yet reluctant crusader who joins forces with Jason Miller’s Father Karras in doing battle with an ancient entity he encountered in Africa before. For all its razzle dazzle and pop culture iconography, this film has two very centred, humbled and down to earth performances from these two actors.
2. Jakob Bronski in Emotional Arithmetic
This soulful indie drama sees a group of people from various backgrounds gather on Quebec farmland to heal old wounds, resolve traumas from the past and roust the kind of bittersweet situational kerfuffles that only quaint independent stuff like this can brew up. Max’s Jakob is a Holocaust survivor with deep scars that aren’t immediately apparent and has a complicated relationship with Susan Sarandon and Gabriel Byrne’s respective characters. This is a tough film to track down but worth the haul as it showcases an excellent cast in earnest performances.
1. The Tracker in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come
The afterlife holds many mysteries for Robin Williams in this stunning, overlooked classic, some of which are navigated by Max’s tracker, a mysterious being who helps him find his deceased wife in the underworld. There’s more than meets the eye to this character, bestowed with an arc that Von Sydow gives sly, heartfelt talent, his inherently angelic nature just adding to the overall tone.