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Laurence Olivier Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976)

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As actors go, there may have been, historically, scant few equals to Sir Larry’s talents but there are might be none that surpass him, in terms of sterling reputation and sheer dedication to craft. A man who could handle Shakespeare like Kobe handles a basketball, most any of his performances could have made this list; but it was his demented role as war criminal Dr. Christian Szell that truly displays an accumulated range of 50 years experience into one scene-stealing Nazi dentist. Dustin Hoffman stars as Thomas Levy, a New Yorker slowly chipping away on his doctorate, whose brother (Roy Scheider) was a mystery man he believed to be an oil executive, at least up until he was suspiciously murdered. The truth is that his brother was actually a government operative in possession of some sensitive information, information that leads to Thomas becoming one of Szell’s torture victims. Strapped to a dentist’s chair, as a drill whines hysterically in Szell’s hands, Olivier is directly responsible for perhaps one of the most tense scenes in film history (When he heard Hoffman was staying up all night to methodically prepare his body for a grueling scene of physical torture, Olivier famously retorted: “my dear boy, why don’t you try acting?”). As he attacks Levy’s sensitive nerves he repeatedly, asking “is it safe?”, Olivier’s own deliberateness and exactness as a performer, his own masterful suspension of disbelief, helps him create one of the screen’s most memorable villains. He seethes. He charms. He rages. And when his arrogance leads him into a retail district filled with Jewish merchants, some of them Nazi death camp survivors, Szell fears. Olivier does not appear during the first 40 minutes of Marathon Man, but it is the genius-level quality of his work that ultimately impacts the viewer with simply a few key scenes. Tim Basham


 
Sean Penn Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins, 1995)


Repeatedly referred to as a “monster” in Dead Man Walking Sean Penn’s Matthew Poncelet is a death row inmate days from his execution for aiding in the murder and rape of a young couple. His story is told through his complex relationship with a nun, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), who agrees to visit him during his last days. Penn’s Poncelet is initially everything he’s reported to be: racist, cavalier about the murders, ignorant, and unrepentant. Penn, an actor who fully embodies any character he portrays, is alternately chilling and sympathetic. The scenes chronicling Poncelet’s day of execution are so stark in their simplicity that they allow Penn and Sarandon to make subtle choices that speak volumes. The expression on Poncelet’s face when he convinces Sister Helen to sing the hymn she promised to get him is stunning. His confession to Sister Helen, and the moments right before his death, marks a shift in Penn’s portrayal in that he humanizes Poncelet in a way that seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the film. Penn’s ability to imbue Poncelet with a full, three-dimensional representation is no easy feat and one that marks him as an actor of rare gifts. J.M. Suarez


 
Anthony Perkins Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)


Remembering that once upon a time—1960, to be exact—the true identity of the killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was a spoiler every bit as carefully guarded as those of The Empire Strikes Back, The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense decades later, the key to Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of Norman Bates lies not in his ability to convey a sense of delicious, cackling evil, but rather tones of cloudy deceit and quiet unease. It is a lot harder to be afraid of someone when we perhaps halfway sympathize with him, as he shifts with boyish nervousness around mysterious blonde Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and later dutifully cleans up “mother’s” mess, twitching in suspense as one crucial bit of evidence begins to sink and then pauses before finally sinking fully into a murky swamp. It is this last moment that defines the sheer acuteness of the collaborative relationship between Perkins and Hitchcock here-as Perkins squirms onscreen and Hitch generates suspense behind the camera with his famous pianist-like precision, we are being lured into wanting Norman Bates to get away with it. For all of its ingenuity, Psycho would never have worked without Perkins’ delicate performance allowing us always see Norman as something other than a deranged monster, nor would it ever have been anywhere near as shocking when we finally see him lose it. Jer Fairall


 
Alan Rickman Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)


As the supposed terrorist who seizes a Los Angeles high-rise, Rickman brings order to the chaotic settings, seemingly anticipating all of the angles and never seeming to be anything less than fully in control. The actor’s sets the tone for the movie, replacing what could have been brutish and gruff with something that strives for the sleek and smart. Rickman’s triumph is also in how skillfully he lets us slowly watch Hans’ cool slide off into the sadism that he had hoped to mask. Early on, he quotes Plutarch to his first victim. Later, his plan increasingly collapsing into disarray, he orders his men to shoot out a hallway full of office windows (eventually just taking the gun and doing the dirty work himself) forcing Bruce Willis’ barefoot John McClane to navigate his escape across a field of shattered glass. It’s a vicious, calculating move; if Hans can’t catch his prey, he’ll break him down one piece at a time.


Unlike other stand-out action villains, say the James Bond model, accompanied in our memories by somersaulting names or attention-grabbing props or costumes, Rickman pulls Hans out of almost thin air. His perfect hair and beard, his thin frame, his shrugging shoulders and expressive brow, and his ability to slide in and out of accents, are all he needs to establish his character. Had Rickman taken things much further, he would have come off as a mustache-twirling heavy. Instead, he’s a cold killer that had hoped to put that all behind him and win the day with his brains and plotting. When that fails, he wastes no time embracing his roots. And as Rickman finally makes his grand exit, hanging hundreds of feet up in the LA night, dangling by a wristwatch, he assesses his impeding end and, turning a bleak, resigned, face, uses his last chance to try and bring everyone down with him. Jon Langmead


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