Category: People

Michel Piccoli, actor 1925 to 2020

Michel Piccoli was one of the most familiar faces in French cinema over the second half of the 20th century. He is listed as having made over 200 screen appearances; on film, on television and in short films/documentaries. This is greater than that of Max von Sydow, who was himself an incredibly active actor. Piccoli played a variety of characters but one common type was the bourgeois faced with economic, social or sexual problems. Some of these characters featured in films by major European talents including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Luis Buñuel.

He started in films immediately after the war in 1945. His early roles were mainly small supporting ones, often uncredited. He had a speaking part in Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1955), a vibrant film in Technicolor, recreating Montmartre in the 1890s. He also appeared in a film produced in the German Democratic Republic /  Deutsche Demokratische Republik [GDR], Ernst Thälmann – Führer seiner Klasse (1955). This probably reflected his relative left-wing views. Then he had an uncredited role in Rene Clair’s Les grandes manoeuvres (1955). And he obtained  roles on television, both in TV films and TV series.

He had a supporting role as a night club owner in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Doulos (1962). Then in 1963 he played Paul Javal in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris. The action takes place during a film production; we actually hear Fritz Lang’s famous put-down of CinemaScope, suitable only for ‘snakes and funerals’. Paul is married to Camille (Brigitte Bardot); how we envied him. But she is the target of producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). The latter is an extreme caricature of the overbearing over-sexed Hollywood producer; an early role model for Harvey Weinstein. But the film is equally memorable for the way Godard uses Raoul Courtard’s cinematography and Agnès Guillemot’s editing.

The following year saw his first outing with Luis Buñuel who was making his first collaboration with the writer Jean-Claude Carrière on Diary of a Chambermaid  / Le journal d’une femme de chambre (1963). The film was adapted from a novel of the same name by Octave Mirbeau (1900) and followed an English language version directed by Jean Renoir for a Hollywood independent production in 1946. This French version enjoys the advantage of the casting of Jeanne Moreau as the chambermaid, Célestine. Piccoli plays Monsieur Monteil, the head of the decadent household at the château where Celestial works. Piccoli’s character is an obsessed and exploitative bourgeois; both animals and women are his prey. Piccoli went on to appear in several more films directed by Buñuel. Belle de Jour (1967) stars Catherine Deneuve as a wife who seeks sexual variety by working in a brothel. Michel Piccoli as Henri Husson is a friend of her husband and but also a client at the brothel. He attempts to us his knowledge to pressurize Séverine (Deneuve) into providing sexual favours. This is Piccoli in his most familiar role; cool, aloof and predatory. His role in The Milky Way / La Voie lactée (1969) is a cameo as the Marquis de Sade. The film is a picaresque. story following the pilgrim’s way to Santiago de Compestelo with a variety of characters and theological issues; all presented in sardonic manner. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972) finds Piccoli in a supporting role as a government minister. The film has one of Buñuel’s favourite plot devices, recurring dinner parties or similar events that never actually complete.

Piccoli appeared along with a host of French, German and US stars in Is Paris Burning? (Paris brûle-t-il ?), a 1966 French-American epic historical war film about the liberation of Paris in August 1944 by the French Resistance and the Free French Forces during World War II.

In The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les demoiselles de Rochefort) is a 1967 musical and romantic comedy directed by Jacques Demy, Piccoli is part of a cast which includes Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorleac, Danielle Darrieux and the non-French Gene Kelly. Piccoli plays the owner of a music store which is an important site in the key romance between Deneuve and Kelly. He and Danielle Darrieux provide supporting older generation romance.

Themroc (1973) saw Piccoli in the lead role in a film that gave two fingers to censors and became a cult classic. The actors had to manage without dialogue as the sound track was grunts, howls and similar. The plot included cannibalism and incest among other taboo activities. I, like many, enjoyed it immensely.

With his next film, La grande bouffe (Blow-out, 1973) Piccoli seemed in danger of becoming typed cast. The film celebrated suicide by over eating; with Michel one of a quartet dedicated to gross indulgence. The film also became a cult title; as funny as Themroc but not quite as subversive. The film also offered a plethora of canine characters but not in any way suitable for English susceptibilities.

French actors like Michel Piccoli appear to have a longer career that is the case in mainstream US and British industry; and Piccoli worked almost exclusively in French/European productions. In 1990 he had the title part in a fine Louis Malle film, Milou en mai / Milou in May. Set in an atypical 1968 setting, rural South-western France; family life and a funeral are disrupted in a minor way but mirroring the wider conflicts of this memorable year. French film titles suffer in English translation but the US release was especially maladroit, May Fools.

In La belle noiseuse (1991) Piccoli played the almost retired painter who revisits his art. The film is loosely adapted from the short story ‘Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu’ (‘The Unknown Masterpiece’) by Honoré de Balzac, with important additions by the director Jacques Rivette. The painter’s professional and personal interaction with his young model raises issues both about art and personal relationships.

In 1994 he played in The Emigrant / Al-mohager, a film by Youssef Chahine, the Egyptian film-maker. This biblical-based story, like his earlier foray in the GDR would seem to reflect his personal politics and principles; in this case working with a major film-maker whose films are rarely seen in the trans-Atlantic territories.

Piccoli continued appearing in films regularly up until 2015. Most years he appeared in several films, active until the age of ninety. Many of these, as was the case throughout his career, did not receive a British release. So I have only seen a small part of his output. But his best films were memorable, both for his screen presence and for the film being the product of really fine film-making. One would expect his work with the likes of Buñuel, Demy, Godard, Melville and Rivette to lead to new generations enjoying his skill and distinctive persona.

Searching for Ingmar Bergman (Germany-France 2018)

All three of us currently contributing to this blog have written about Ingmar Bergman’s films. I think Keith would be happy to accept the position of fan. But I and possibly Nick are more wary. I admire the skills of his filmmaking and I like some of the early films, but I struggle to enjoy the later films I’ve seen. Margarethe von Trotta, however, is a filmmaker I certainly admire and I’ve found all her films interesting. This is her documentary and therefore I approached it with some trepidation, knowing that she was a Bergman fan too.

Liv Ullman responds to Margarethe von Trotta’s questions

The film opens with von Trotta on the beach where Bergman shot The Seventh Seal (1957) as she takes us through her first experience of watching his films and then moves to Paris as she tells us how in 1960 she intended to study at the Sorbonne. She then admits that, after meeting some young French cinéphiles, she spent much of her time in cinemas catching up on la nouvelle vague and, through the young directors like Truffaut, discovering Bergman. We realise that this will be a ‘personal journey’ type of documentary and what follows sees the German director discussing Bergman with other directors, several of his female actors and then several members of his family as she visits Bergman’s home on Fårö, the small island in the Baltic where he spent most of his later life. As several reviewers have pointed out, this is a performative documentary – Margarethe von Trotta appears in the film herself and we see her interacting with her interviewees. What could have been a dull series of talking heads interspersed with clips from the films becomes something more personal and engaging. It’s good to see von Trotta talking with, for instance, Liv Ullman. Here are two successful female filmmakers, both of whom have been actors as well as directors, talking about a man who seemed to have the ability to find strong, beautiful and intelligent women (and skilled actors) to be the leads in his films – something eloquently confirmed by the Spanish director Carlos Saura. Bergman was also a man who married five times and seemingly left his wives after they gave birth, unable to engage in any way with his young children.

Margarethe von Trotta with two of Bergman’s sons, Daniel (right) and Ingmar (left)

We do meet Daniel Bergman, one of Bergman’s sons who had a difficult time in later life working with his father on Sunday’s Children (1992), a film written by Ingmar and directed by Daniel and drawing on memories of Ingmar’s father, the cleric Erik Bergman. Von Trotta also shows us a photograph of the whole Bergman clan, over three generations, taken when they travelled to Fårö. On this occasion several of the eight Bergman children met each other for the first time. The documentary does also begin to explore Ingmar’s deep psychological problems with his father and his own need to endlessly explore his childhood rather than engage with his children. This is just one example of how the documentary doesn’t ignore Bergman’s darker side but this isn’t enough to appease some of the film’s reviewers and several see von Trotta as creating a hagiography. She is a fan and she shows us Bergman’s list of films he selected for a publication related to the 1994 Göteborg Film Festival. It reveals that von Trotta’s own film The German Sisters (1981) is the only film in the list directed by a woman and the only one by a filmmaker who is still alive.

I’m not sure that it is fair to describe the film as a ‘hagiography’. Von Trotta does interview two of Bergman’s prominent contemporary disciples in the shape of the French directors Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen-Løve. The latter made a visit to Fårö to make a (fiction) film which appears to be still to be released. However, another director of a ‘post-Bergman generation’, Ruben Östlund, points to the split in Swedish film culture that came about in the 1960s. Östlund explains that he was trained at the Göteborg film school where there has been more of an influence of the younger directors from the 1960s, led by Bo Widerberg, whereas in Stockholm there is still the sense that Bergman is the important figure. This view, which I confess I have long held, preferring Widerberg to Bergman, is confirmed by the writer, director and critic Stig Björkman who explains that in the 1960s Bergman began to feel threatened by the rise of a new generation. To be fair to Bergman though, he did include one of Widerberg’s films in that 1994 list.

A production still of Ruben Östlund being interviewed by Margarethe von Trotta

I think Margarethe von Trotta could have delved a little deeper into some of Bergman’s darker places and it’s unfortunate that she doesn’t/couldn’t interview some of Bergman’s male actors. Many of them are no longer with us. Perhaps my major disappointment with the film is that it fails to fulfil the blurb in the sense that although Margarethe von Trotta does probe a little about Bergman’s childhood, she doesn’t attempt to say anything about Bergman’s early work. He had made 16 feature films between 1946 and 1956 when he started on The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Apart from Summer with Monika (1953), which was a big influence on Truffaut and Godard, there is no mention of the early career in film – or theatre. It is the early films that I have enjoyed most. There is a clue as to why the early films are excluded. What does emerge from the documentary is that above all, Bergman saw himself as a writer. In those early films he was often constrained by working on somebody else’s original material. Von Trotta’s film does feel like a gathering of auteurs. It is an entertaining gathering and I was most impressed by the directors fluency in discussing the life and work of Bergman in French, German and English and at least I now know how to pronounce properly a range of names and titles in German and Swedish. In summary, this is a film that will interest Bergman’s fans and anyone interested in the history of European cinephilia. But if you don’t know Bergman that well it might not be the best place to start? On the other hand, it is a well-made documentary and Margarethe von Trotta is an engaging guide.

The Warrior (India-UK-France-Germany-US 2001)

The Warrior practises his swordplay

The sad death of Irrfan Khan means a look back to some of his most significant films. The Warrior marks the point in Irrfan’s career when he had reached an impasse. Although he had already spent 14 years working in TV and film in India, he was thinking of giving it up since he was getting bored with jobs that didn’t stretch him or interest him. Fortunately he heard about Asif Kapadia’s project to make The Warrior and when the two men met they got on very well and became firm friends. When Irrfan’s death was announced at the end of April, Kapadia released a moving tribute to his friend.

The court of the local feudal lord

Asif Kapadia is Indian-British. Born in London and taking a route through UK higher education he eventually emerged on the international scene with a short film The Sheep Thief (1997) which caused a stir at various festivals. Shot in Rajasthan this is available on the DVD of The Warrior and it clearly set up the possibility of a feature set in India. The Warrior was fortunate to emerge at a time when there was more support for British film with the development of a funding and support infrastructure through the British Film Council set up by the new Labour government elected in 1997. This co-production was no doubt underway before The Film Council took over British Screen, but the new structure was always likely to try to highlight this release. It was given a spread in Sight and Sound in 2002 and won various awards around Europe. It didn’t make any direct impact in the film market in India but it did introduce both Asif Kapadia and Irrfan Khan to the European and North American segment of the festival circuit and this in turn would strengthen his position in India.

The Warrior before he ‘sees the light’

Film 4, one of the UK partners involved has long been a supporter of Indian cinema in the UK, albeit in the early hours of the morning. Still, it has links to Indian film industries and film culture and in 1994 had funded a controversial diaspora film by Shekhar Kapur, Bandit Queen. The Warrior is a very different kind of story with Kapadia and co-writer Tim Miller turning to Japanese folk-tales (presumably the reason why ‘the warrior’ is known as ‘Lafcadia’ in some listings, a possible reference to Lafcadia Hearn the Greek-Irish writer famous for his books on Japanese ghost stories). If the story is Japanese, the film also draws on Japanese cinema as well as Chinese cinemas (Taiwan/HK?) and spaghetti Westerns (which also derive from Kurosawa et al). The film narrative is very simple. ‘The Warrior’ (he isn’t named in the film) becomes disgusted with his feudal lord’s commands which mean executing tenants who can’t pay annual rents and raising villages to the ground, killing everyone. When he rebels, The Warrior becomes an outlaw pursued by the lord’s other warrior retainers. After his son is executed by his enemies he escapes to the desert, but he is finally saved by his companionship to a boy and to a girl and her family. The plot involves some ‘magic realism’ in terms of the girl. The desert scenes were shot in Rajasthan and the mountain scenes in Himachal Pradesh. I was struck by the several shots of lone trees in the desert and the use of extreme long shots covering the journeys taken. Some of these made me think of traditional East Asian visual art rather than the style of contemporary Indian cinema. I’ve included several images of the ‘long shot style’ here.

The warrior, shorn of his locks, with his young companion . . .

. . . pursued by by his former second-in-command, Biswas

At around 86 minutes, the film is short but it is packed with some stunning cinematography by Roman Dosin on his first film as DoP. The music by Dario Marianelli works well with the ‘Scope photography. I think both Osin and Marianelli must have met Asif Kapadia in London. They worked on his next few films. The star of the show, however, is Irrfan khan. He has relatively little dialogue, but he says a great deal with his eyes, one of his strengths. Kapadia does well to organise a cast which includes only a few other professional actors amid a much larger group of local non-professionals, some of them in significant roles.

The key moment in the narrative, a form of magic realism when the warrior changes his actions

Since his critical success with this film, Asif Kapadia has had no luck with three further features, none of which made much money, but he has become a hot name in documentary with his trio of biography pics, Senna (UK-Brazil 2010), Amy (UK 2015) and Diego Maradona (UK 2019). I hope he doesn’t give up on features and if I can find time, I might look at the earlier ‘flops’. Irrfan Khan’s career took off from this point. He got more prestigious roles in Hindi cinema and was recruited by diaspora and American/European directors shooting in India.

Impasse du deux anges (France 1948)

Looking for the early starring roles for Simone Signoret I found this 1948 film which was not released in the UK. It has an English language title , ‘Dilemma for Two Angels’ which doesn’t make that much sense to me. ‘Impasse’ means much the same in French and English – a ‘dead end’. It’s difficult to categorise the film but we are clearly in noir territory, both in visual style and theme. This is the last film directed by Maurice Tourneur, a prolific filmmaker from 1913 onwards in France and in the US during the silent era. He returned to France in the 1930s and made over 80 feature films in all. He was the father of Jacques Tourneur. This film was written by Jean-Paul Le Chanois, photographed by Claude Renoir and with a music score by Yves Baudrier (also composer on La bataille du rail (1946).

Simone Signoret as Anne-Marie/Marianne

The story is slight. Anne-Marie, a girl from a poor background, has become ‘Marianne’, the star of theatre and variety in Paris (Simone Signoret). She has decided to marry into wealth and accepted the proposal of Marquis Antoine de Fontaines (Marcel Herrand). He has brought her a family heirloom, a valuable necklace, to wear for the wedding, and placed it in the safe in her house. She holds a pre-wedding party after her last stage performance at which she meets Antoine’s family and aristocratic friends. The necklace has attracted the interest of a criminal gang who hire a ‘specialist’ to steal it. This turns out to be Jean (Paul Meurisse) who was Anne-Marie’s lover seven years earlier when he suddenly disappeared from her life. He crashes the party, suitably dressed in evening wear. Recognising him, Anne-Marie slips out to join him and they go to a café. Will she leave her fiancé on the night before the wedding and stay with Jean? What about the criminal gang who are watching Jean? The answers to both questions make up most of the rest of the narrative. The film’s title refers to a dead-end street where there was once a small hotel, a rendezvous for Anne-Marie and Jean. It is now closed and the whole area is being re-developed.

Paul Meurisse as Jean with the crime boss who has hired him

Most of the action takes place at night using studio sets. An unusual element of these scenes for me was the use of double exposure so that when we see Marianne and Jean together in various locations, we also see the ghostly presence of their former selves, dressed as they would have been seven years earlier in the same location. I thought this was quite effective. The overall lighting and camerawork produces a familiar noir image and at 85 minutes the film doesn’t outstay its welcome. Meurisse was a leading man of equal status to Signoret at the time and they would appear together again in future features.

Marianne with the Marquis and the necklace

Having just acquired a copy of Susan Hayward’s book Simone Signoret: the star as cultural sign (Continuum 2004) it’s worth noting some of her analysis of Signoret’s developing star image. Hayward identifies different ways of dividing up Signoret’s life and in particular her film career. For convenience, here I’ll just refer to a couple of her observations. She notes that in the period 1946-51 Signoret appears three times as a prostitute, twice as a gold-digger and twice as a woman who has risen from a lower class (one of these films is Impasse des deux anges). This is seven roles out of ten films in which her role is leading or significant. Ironically in the film discussed here, her assumed name of ‘Marianne’ is linked to the national symbol of French womanhood (and is referenced as such in the dialogue). Hayward begins her chapter by comparing Signoret with Anna Magnani in Italy during the same period. She suggests that Magnani is symbolic of Italian recovery and “the moral and ethical strength of the people”. Hayward notes that although Signoret had all the same attributes of Magnani (intelligence, integrity and authenticity), French films didn’t attempt to showcase such a character and instead Signoret represented “France’s economic underbelly”. (p 64).

But Susan Hayward does recognise that Signoret presents a ‘strong and independent woman’, perhaps a woman of the 1970s rather than the 1940s. She suggests that this strength comes from three aspects of her performances. First is her sheer ‘corporeality’. She is aware of the strength of her body, the way she stands and how she walks and how she smokes – with “an insouciant vulgarity”. Second she has reduced her gestures to the minimum, aiming to convey more with less, the raising of an eyebrow, a momentary flash of the eyes etc. Finally, she stands out as part of the ‘real world’ not the artifice of cinema. We know she is going to be a great star. This film was released in 1948, the same year as Against the Wind, the British film in which Signoret stars as an SOE operative helping the Belgian resistance. It appears that French audiences just couldn’t accept the British script (which was based on real events) and the film flopped in France where the various ‘myths’ associated with the résistance in France were not dispelled for many years. I’ve also been reading Simone Signoret’s autobiography, Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be (1976). It’s very good.

Albert Finney 1936 to 2019

Albert Finney was one of the important actors for me in the 1960s when I branched out into art cinema and the new cinema of British realism. I vividly remember how I and friends marvelled at how his Arthur Seaton downed a pint of beer in a Nottingham public house.

Finney had studied at RADA and then worked at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Intriguingly one of his early appearances on the London stage was in the play ‘The Party’ which was directed by Charles Laughton, one of the great British actors of preceding decades.

Finney’s first film role was in The Entertainer (1960) as Archie Rice’s (Lawrence Olivier) son Mick. Mick is captured by the Egyptian forces during the Suez invasion  and dies in captivity. The film was one of the early dramas to address (at least partially), the national disgrace of 1956. This was one of the film’s directed by Tony Richardson from the play by John Osborne. Both were important figures in the breakthroughs at that time in both theatre and on film.

Finney then took the starring role of Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe’s adaptation of his own fine novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Even before attending a screening I was agog with anticipation; partly because of publicity that claimed that “it makes Room at the Top look like a vicarage tea-party”. I had already seen Room at the Top and this promised, and delivered, something for more involving. If one had to pick ten British films for a desert island this would undoubtedly be one of the prints.

Finney played ‘Billy Liar’ on stage and on Television; however, I saw Tom Courtney in the part on both stage and on film. Courtney was excellent but I always regret not seeing Finney’s interpretation. Finney then played the lead in Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963); a fine romp from Henry Fielding’s picaresque novel. Finney was excellent as the miscreant hero and Walter Lassally provided excellent colour cinematography whilst the film made use of a number of techniques seen in the nouvelle vague films. There was too the most erotic meal seen up until that date in a home-made film. The film led to Finney being voted by exhibitors as the most popular star of the year at the British Box office. I also had a tenuous connection with the film: a friend earned £5 wearing a smock and floppy hat as an extra in the execution scene.

Finney also performed on stage and television; later I caught his outstanding performance in ‘Luther’ when it appeared on BBC television. Finney then formed a production company, Memorial Films, with fellow actor Michael Medwin. The company was involved in some fine British independent films including Privilege (1967), Peter Watkins’ interesting but flawed entry into feature films. And there was If…, directed by Lindsay Anderson, the seminal British film of 1968.

Finney himself appeared in two productions by the company. He starred in but also directed the 1968 title Charlie Bubbles. This was an off-beat comedy written by Shelagh Delaney and co-starring the fine actor Billie Whitelaw who won a BAFTA for her performance. Finney plays a successful and now bored writer who returns to his roots in Manchester. It is thus emblematic of the films of the 1960s with an occasional surreal touch also found  in these times.

The other film in which Finney starred was Gumshoe (1971), a private eye film set in Liverpool. Again it starred Billie Whitelaw alongside Finney and was directed by Stephen Frears. This was another oddball drama which played with genre conventions. The film had censorship problems because of an explicit scene involving heroin.

Finney’s career continued with both theatre work and films. But increasingly he took parts in international or US production. Some of these were fine. I liked both his performance and that his co-star, Audrey Hepburn, in Two for the Road, directed  by Stanley Donen and scripted by Fredrick Rafael. And John Huston’s Under the Volcano, (1984) was an excellent film and lead performance. It was adapted from a partly autobiographical novel and was some way from mainstream conventions.

Even in commercial properties Finney was always good value. As the lawyer in Erin Brockovich (2000) he offered an interesting foil to the lead played by Julia Roberts. However, I have never been able to bring myself to view Annie (1999). I did watch the ‘Bourne Trilogy’; one and three are particularly effective. Finney as Doctor Albert Hirsch in the ‘Ultimatum’ gives a barn-storming performance but the part as written is pretty stereotypical.

Looking back Finney’s work in theatre, on film and on television is impressive. But I feel that his best work was in the earlier periods. I would suggest this has as much to do with the values of the periods as to the skills of the actor. His work on relatively independent film stands out. And one can make that point with regard to both British and US film productions. His key films, especially for the British ‘New Wave’ stand out and stand up today. I am always happy to revisit the best of these.

Max von Sydow 1929 to 2020

Max von Sydow is the key figure in one of the most famous shots in world cinema; a world weary knight plays chess with the figure of Death on a stony beach as a grey sea rolls behind them. For me this was one of the key images and revelations of contemporary art cinema when I saw the film on 16mm at the Bournemouth Film Society. After a decade of mainstream entertainment I became engaged with a world of cinema that was often slower, usually more ambiguous but which was intellectually challenging in a wholly different register.

Max von Sydow became interested in acting during school trips to the Theatre. After military service he trained at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, where Bibi Andersson also trained. Both had small parts in Alf Sjöberg’s Miss Julie / Fröken Julie (1951). He moved to work at the Malmö City Theatre where Ingmar Bergman was chief director. The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957) followed. Few actors can have enjoyed such an iconic character in their first leading role. His ability to play characters that were reflexive and cerebral made his performance stand out in the film and in contemporary cinema.

There followed a series of films with Bergman, defining both the work of the director and of the actor. Max von Sydow at times seemed to represent an alter ego for Bergman, He appeared in both leading and supporting roles in the films. The Virgin Spring / (Jungfrukällan, 1960) was another medieval tale, this time following the revenge of a father (Christian Per Töre) for his raped daughter. Once more the film was censored [parts of the rape scene] in the USA. Like The Seventh Seal this was a grim and dark tale, but with a ray of light at the resolution.

Then in Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spege, 1961) he played Martin, the father of Karin (Harriet Andersson) who suffers from schizophrenia. This is an intimate small-scale drama set on the island of Fårö, a location Bergman was to use for several more films. This is one of my personal favourites among Bergman films. I have watched it numerous times and I am always completely taken with the writing, acting and the development of drama and character. And the film enjoys the great artist, Sven Nykvist, as director of cinematography,

Bergman made a further series of what can be described as ‘chamber pieces’. Max von Sydow was a lead in the fine Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963). As Jonas Persson von Sydow is part of a small church congregation. The film then explores question of faith and of the wider issues in the world, including the then ever-present threat of the bomb [nuclear]. This film, along with the other chamber works, set up exploration of faith and the spiritual which seemed to dominate Bergman’s work in this period.

There were three films in which Max von Sydow played opposite Liv Ullmann. Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1967), filmed on an island in the south-west: Shame (Skammen, 1968), film  on the island of Faro: and A Passion / The Passion of Anna (En Passion, 1969) also filmed on Faro and the only title of the three in colour. I was not quite as struck with these films as the earlier chamber pieces but the acting of Ullmann and von Sydow was really impressive.

‘Shame’

Von Sydow had parts in later Bergman films and also worked with the director in theatre (‘Peer Gynt’ and, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’) and dramas for Swedish radio and television. He also worked with other Swedish film-makers, notably in Jan Troell’s two part The Emigrants (Utvandrarna 1971) which followed people from the old world to the new world of North America. In the 1950s and 1960s von Sydow had resisted offer from the USA and for international productions. Then in 1965 he accepted a lead part in The Greatest Story Ever Told. This was against the advice of Ingmar Bergman, and after seeing the film I agreed with the latter.

Better was the 1967 Hawaii, adapted from a sprawling James Michener novel. Von Sydow played opposite a miscast Julie Andrews but the plotting was fascinating; one could read this as a dramatisation of Jane Eyre’s possible life if she had accompanied St John Rivers to the missions.

The other key film for his career was the 1966 The Quiller Memorandum. Von Sydow is part of a gang of neo-nazis, notably violent and sadistic. And frequently in his subsequent career his particular persona was used for villains, often pretty over the top. Three Days of the Condor was a happy exception where he was a completely professional assassin. But Escape to Victory (1981) was more typical; we, like he, had to watch Sylvester Stallone pretending to be able to play British-style football. This long trajectory as a villain always rather puzzled me. It crept into the European art scene with a film by Jan Troell’s Hansum (1996) as a real-life collaborator from World War Ii.

‘Pelle the Conqueror’

There were other pretty good films. Von Sydow won an Academy Award for Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle erobreren, 1987) where he performed the most difficult challenge for an adult actor; playing opposite a child. He also won an Academy Award for The Exorcist (1973). I have never understood Mark Kermode’s love of this film. It seems to me that Bergman’s religious dramas are both far more interesting and closer to the real world.

Max von Sydow clocked up 163 credits for work in film and television. I have only seen a fraction of these. Some actors are very careful in the parts they considered and take on; Jeremy Irons would seen an example, even in a conventional genre film his character is really interesting. Max von Sydow appears closer to someone like Michael Caine who seems to take everything they are offered; fine films and dross. And I am not really certain why?

In retrospect, like his fellow thespian from the Royal Dramatic Theatre Bibi Andersson, I think he is defined by the work with Ingmar Bergman. Some of the director’s best and most memorable films feature his fine acting. And as I expect these to remain classics of world cinema I expect Max von Sydow to be long remembered.