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Max Schreck Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)

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Schreck’s portrayal of vampire Count Orlok in this silent adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula turns on the elaborate makeup he dons for the part—pale skin, bald head, bushy eyebrows, raccoon eyes, rat fangs, pointy ears, and especially, long-nailed fingers—as well as the expressionist repertoire of atmospheric lighting, shadow, stop-action motion, and film-speed alterations. But it’s Schreck’s acting that makes the performance. Slow, uncanny movements distinguish his work—especially against the expansive emoting of the other members of the cast, typical for the silent era—as does his restraint. Murnau reveals Orlok’s true nature slowly through the first third of the film, and Schreck alters his portrayal accordingly.


Schreck’s graceful hand gestures, aristocratically authoritative, bidding young real estate agent Hutter sit down or sign a document, yield a few scenes later to the horrific Orlok in full feeding mode, entering Hutter’s bedchamber, bald head no longer covered with a cap, fangs fully exposed, hands held rigidly at his sides: all monster. Every subsequent portrayal of Dracula devolving from noble to bestial derives from Shreck’s transformation of Orlok from eccentric to parasite. Some of Schreck’s most effective acting occurs simply in shadow, as his outline, arms and fingers outstretched, creeps over walls, floors, and victims. The shadow of his hand closing on Hutter’s wife Ellen’s heart at the film’s climax sums up the monster’s threat to goodness and purity. Moments before, Schreck replaces Orlok’s usual blank expression with a gloating look of triumph as Ellen willingly offers herself to him. It’s a short-lived victory. Ellen has tricked him into staying with her until sunup, and Orlok turns to face the rising sun, again expressionless, an inhuman beast barely comprehending its fate. Michael Curtis Nelson


 
Max von Sydow Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)


There have been plenty of films about tortured artists, but few have the unrelenting creepiness of Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. And none have the clear-eyed commitment that Max von Sydow brings to the role of Johan, a painter living secluded on an island with his wife Alma (Liv Ullmann). As a painter, he’s hit a dry patch, and the appearance of some admiring aristocrats near the couple’s cabin resurrects Johan’s deep-set demons. But while the aristocrats may be the antagonizers—although whether they are really the demonic clan Johan thinks they are is unclear—it is von Sydow’s Johan who emerges as the film’s true villain.


Even as his delusions overtake him, von Sydow never pitches Johan into hysterics. Instead his face purses with the tired pain of it all. To watch von Sydow stare at his watch, dreading over the interminable length of a minute is to be dragged into his bottomless despair. But Sydow’s real triumph, and what makes this all so heartbreaking, is the wooden way he consoles his worried and pregnant wife. After an unsetting visit to the aristocrat’s castle, he follows her like an alien shadow and, when she shakes his half-hearted consolations off; he turns robotically and walks home. She is merely an afterthought to his terrors. And when the demons finally get him, he doesn’t come undone and writhe in agony. He stands there, face flat with despair and acceptance and takes it. Despite plenty of great performances in better-known Bergman films, this is von Sydow’s most hauntingly realized character. He gives us the broken Johan in whispers rather than shouts, and renders him utterly unforgettable. Matt Fiander


 
Richard Widmark Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway, 1947)


This film’s trademark scene will remain immortal—when Widmark, with little thought, pushes a wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down a stairwell. The macabre flourish is shocking, especially for the late ‘40s, as the camera doesn’t even blink when the fall smashes her character to a sure death. Widmark’s Tommy Udo casts darkness over what many call a golden-age noir piece, yet curiously Kiss of Death plays more as a melodrama driven by the sentimentality of Victor Mature’s Nick Bianco. So oppressed by society is he that he turns to bank robbery, and a moralizing voiceover drives the point home. After getting caught, Bianco eventually squeals on his accomplices, which allows him to reunite with his two motherless daughters and a new wife waiting for him.


His stooling also draws him toward hit man Udo, Widmark’s Oscar-nominated debut. The role plays upon a caricatured villain just enough to draw us in, at which point the actor unmasks his character’s deep moral void. Udo speaks as if he were born to reap the innocent and spread evil, and thus works as a deliberate counterpoint to the uplifting Mature. Yet Widmark’s stylized presence runs deeper than the understated lead. The former is a fair-haired menace with eyes wide and tongue curled behind his teeth. He sneers out short laughs like creaks in an old floorboard, while Mature lacks when we’re meant to root for him. If the production code didn’t mandate the villain’s defeat by the film’s end, Udo would have walked away triumphant, tossing a butt at a flat-on-his-face Bianco. Widmark serves up a casual tour-de-force in minimal screen time. This character actor’s cops, doctors, and robbers would overshadow leads for years to come. Matthew Sorrento


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