Hearing the news today that Max Von Sydow had passed was admittedly not a shock as he’s seemed relatively “up there” for a while now, though there’s always some element of surprise when a celebrity passes. Even at age 90, Sydow was still churning out films with his last project listed in post production status according to IMDb. A quick review shows that he has 163 credits as an actor in a number of different kinds of productions that span all the way back to 1949 and one nod as a director as well. With that last credit still hanging out there, that means his career spanned over 7 decades which is really a considerable accomplishment. There aren’t many participants in a club like that so today I wanted to take a quick look at a few of my favorite performances by such a celebrated actor.
I’ll start by reviewing what may be my favorite Max Von Sydow role of all of them. It is definitively Brewmeister Smith from the 1983 classic “Strange Brew”. As I’m writing this I am watching the credits roll on yet another viewing of this Canadian wonder. Back in the early days of SNL, there was a second city outside of New York that was breeding the next wave of comedians. Technically it was Chicago. But there was a SECOND second city and that happened to be Toronto where a little program called SCTV was churning out Canadian entertainment of the SNL variety. Two up and comers in that troupe were Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, not the Wendy’s guy but the actor/comedian. They had a sketch where they played two beer guzzling Toronto boys named Bob and Doug McKenzie. When their fame was at its height, MGM decided to capitalize on their success in a feature length film. The plot of this film is practically the definition of the word wacky and many of the colloquialisms are simple Canadian comedy fodder for those of us south of the Great White North.
But in the film, the antagonist to the bumbling brothers is none other than the great Max Von Sydow. He’s delightfully out of place amongst the gallery of players in the rest of this film but that makes his presence all the better. As he sits opposite Paul Dooley in a car waiting for the McKenzie brothers to return to their sabotaged van and drive off to what should be their demise, Von Sydow has one of my favorite lines in the whole film. “What the stink are they doing in there?” Its just so wildly misplaced in the dialogue that it fits him perfectly. The movie is certainly an acquired taste and a cult classic in many peoples’ eyes. But I’ll forever think of this movie whenever Max Von Sydow is mentioned.
Next on my list as we traverse Sydow’s career is a little later in his repertoire. In 1993 he portrayed the sinister Leland Gaunt in Stephen King’s “Needful Things”. Among the properties of King’s that have been brought to the big screen, this particular is one of my absolute favorites. There’s a deliciously twisted air about the entire film and at the center of all the mischief and malice is Sydow’s Gaunt playing the entire village like a skilled puppet master. The film features the quiet little burg of Castle Rock, home to several other King stories. Its a quaint hamlet filled with the sort of folks you’d imagine in Anytown, USA. Led by kind but firm Sheriff Alan Pangborn in his first on screen portrayal played by Ed Harris, this town undergoes an infection through the secret trinkets that Gaunt brings to the people in his eerie boutique, aptly named “Needful Things”. In this shop you don’t pay for your goods with money but in favors and seemingly simple errands. And even if you plan to only window shop, you’ll be suckered in by the one item that your heart desperately desires, whatever that may be, as Gaunt always seems to know exactly what makes each of the townspeople tick. But since you needn’t break out your wallet to obtain these treasures, you should be far more wary of what appears to be a kindly old shopkeeper. He whispers in your ear an easy task. “Is that all this costs?” you think to yourself. But before the town realizes just what is going on, murder and mayhem have befallen them all as peoples desires betray them and they fall deeper and deeper in debt to Gaunt. Sydow plays this villain so expertly that even as an observer to the chaos as it ensues, you are entranced by his nature. Sydow was expertly cast in this role and truly gave this film the depth it needed to be as creepy as it played out to be in the end. It will always be one of my go to’s when I’m looking for a good case of goosebumps.
Finally I’ll touch on one last role. Certainly there are scores of notable appearances from Judge Dredd to Dune to Footloose to Flash Gordon that I could go on for days about Max Von Sydow. Even as I’ve looked over his filmography today I came to realize that he was the voice of Vigo the Carpathian aka Vigo the Torturer in Ghostbusters II. Just a few years ago he had a small but memorable role at the very beginning of the final trilogy in the Star Wars franchise in “The Force Awakens”. Sydow has been a staple in many different genres of film throughout his illustrious career. Believe me, its quite difficult to pick just three roles for me to focus on in reviewing the entire catalog. But definitively I feel like his role as Father Merrin in 1973’s “The Exorcist” is the finale to my remembrance of his storied past. While there are elements of this film that make me chuckle, Sydow’s Father Merrin is one of the pillars of the film that give it such credibility in my estimation. He is woven into the story from beginning to end and brings continuity to the battle of good vs. evil. Its a clear juxtaposition of his role in “Needful Things” as he plays the antagonist of a demon instead of the epitome of one. The demon Pazuzu seems to haunt Father Merrin from the beginning of the film as he is present on an archaeological dig all the way up to his return to the civilized world where he is called to perform the titular exorcism on young Reagan MacNeil. Her transformation from carefree little girl to disfigured possession victim is one of the most iconic in all of movie history. It has horrified generations of movie watchers for decades. And at the heart of the story we find Father Merrin battling this ancient evil to the point of giving his very life in an attempt to free young Reagan of this devilish ghoul. It is a role for Sydow that will live on well beyond his years for ages to come as “The Exorcist” will continue to terrorize indefinitely.
So as I said, there’s plenty of works that I could easily stay up all night writing about Max Von Sydow’s contribution to the cinematic community. He’s an icon that will be missed. If nothing else on a day like today, I feel it’s worthwhile to stop and find a way to recognize the gifts that a man like this has lent to the world and find your own way of fondly remembering Max Von Sydow. And if, for whatever reason, you can’t find one to settle on, I’ll always happily recommend “Strange Brew” to anyone and everyone that will heed my advice. So to Max Von Sydow, we bid you a fond farewell from the Cinemasters and salute your endeavors to the world of film. I’ve been your Cinemaster to the North, Adam Peterson. I’ll catch you on the flip side.