Yesterday was another truly sad day for classic film fans, with the news breaking of the death of the actor Max von Sydow. He was 90 years old and passed away at his home in Provence,France. He is one of my favourite actors and I am devastated by the news of his death.
His career spanned seven decades and saw him appear in over one hundred films. His final film, which is currently in post-production, will be Echoes Of The Past. The words legend and icon are often bandied around rather frivolously today, but in Max’s case both of those words apply fully, not only to Max as an actor, but also to his films and the impact that they’ve had on cinema. Can you imagine an alternative history of film where his performances in the likes of The Passion Of Anna; Three Days Of The Condor; Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close(a film in which he doesn’t speak); The Virgin Spring; Hour Of The Wolf; The Greatest Story Ever Told; Flash Gordon; The Seventh Seal; Needful Things and The Exorcist etc don’t exist? I can’t.
Max von Sydow was actually born as Carl Adolf von Sydow, in Lund,Sweden, on the 10th of April 1929. He became interested in acting while he was at school,where he founded his own amateur dramatic group with some friends. The legend goes that during his two year stint in the Swedish Quartermaster Corps, he took up the name Max because it was the name of a star actor who he saw performing in a flea circus.
Like many film fans, my first introduction to Max was watching him play Father Merrin in The Exorcist(1973). Dick Smith’s incredible make-up, coupled with Max’s physical performance, had me convinced for years that he was an elderly actor at the time he made that film. Imagine my surprise after I became a fan and checked out more of his work, and then discovered that he had actually only been forty-four years old when he took on this role! He had me fooled.
With his hooded eyes and sharp facial features, Max von Sydow fit perfectly into the haunting and brooding screen world conjured up by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. The pair first met in 1955, when they began working together at the Municipal Theatre in Malmo. Von Sydow starred in several of Bergman’s plays at the theatre during the 1950’s. Also working with the pair at the same theatre were Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom, a group of actors who, along with Max von Sydow, would become Bergman’s stock company of screen actors.
Max appeared in many of Bergman’s films including Wild Strawberries; Shame; Winter Light; Hour Of The Wolf; Through A Glass Darkly;Brink Of Life and The Passion Of Anna. He is great in all of those films, but his performances in three Bergman films in particular stand out to me.
The Seventh Seal(1957) was the film which first brought him to the attention of audiences around the world. He is absolutely brilliant as the weary and disenchanted crusader who does all he can to evade death, who actually appears to him in human form(played by Bengt Ekerot). A remarkable performance from a young actor.
The second film is The Virgin Spring(1960), in which he plays the devastated and enraged father of a girl who has been raped. The father unleashes a terrible wrath to avenge his baby. I think this could possibly be his greatest performance. His face is a kaleidoscope of emotion.
The third film is the extremely underrated The Magician(1958), in which he plays a mysterious magician whose travelling show is apparently supernatural in origin. His performances in these three films are among his very best. The roles and his approach to them are so different in each of these three films, that it’s almost like you are watching the performances of three different actors. He’s that good.
Hollywood soon beckoned, and in 1965 Max played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told, this was Max’s first English language film. Over the years he would continue to work in the American film industry and also ventured into TV too, even playing the all powerful Three Eyed Raven in the hit series Game Of Thrones.
One of my favourite Max von Sydow performances is in Sydney Pollack’s thriller Three Days Of The Condor(1975).Max plays a professional hitman who develops respect and sympathy for the next man he is sent to kill(Robert Redford). He doesn’t have much dialogue and he doesn’t need it either, because he steals that film with looks and body language alone. He manages to make his character both frightening and cold, but also somebody who we respect and even weirdly grow to like.
Another great role for him is as the dastardly Ming The Merciless in Flash Gordon(1980). Max absolutely owns that film. He plays it totally straight and oozes malevolence and madness.He absolutely rocks those fab costumes too.
I will miss seeing Max on screen, but I take comfort in the fact that I know I will be able to keep dipping into the cinematic treasure trove he has left behind as his legacy. R.I.P,Max. All sympathies to his family and friends. He was truly one of the greats.
What are your thoughts on the great man and his films?