Borrowing a series started by the venerable Matt Cale, here are some
additional performances that are extraordinary, and essential to the
film containing them.

Simone Signoret – Mathilde, Army of Shadows

Simone Signoret

One of the peripheral characters of one of the greatest films ever
made, ‘Mathilde’ is a victim of the collision between patriotic and
personal duty. Her devotion to the French resistance has made her one
of the most cunning of their fighters, orchestrating operations of
suicidal daring. She only betrays a human emotion in one scene, and it
is evocative of a person standing tall in an open field within range of
a sniper. As an undercover agent, the acting is required to be subtle;
Signoret goes well beyond this into sublime territory in one harrowing
scene involving a rescue of a comrade in a German prison. I won’t spoil
the scene for you, but her character must hold her cards close to the
vest, yet manages to show aching regret under an impassive mask. Her
portrayal of a patriot who must drown in an expanse of despair, yet
remain devoid of overt emotion, becomes the centerpiece of the film by
the end.

Jean Martin – Colonel Mathieu, Battle of Algiers

Jean Martin

Not only one of the greatest of all war films, but one that remains acutely relevant today.Battle of Algiers remains the final word on how insurgent efforts to unseat a superior military force are properly

used. At the center of the storm is one Colonel Mathieu, a cold,
utterly ruthless man who will employ any means to cripple the
Algerian’s aspirations toward independence. Throughout, he details the
anatomy of an underground resistance and how it is broken – and this is
coming from a man who, it is intimated, was a member of the French
Resistance. He employs brutal methods, torture, and martial law to
maintain order, but he is completely honest about these methods and why
they are used.

Col. Mathieu: “Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer ‘yes,’ then you must accept all the necessary consequences.”

Truer words were never spoken. Once you have chosen to use force to
crush an unwilling population, you must accept the sustained use of
force. To pretend that resistance will disappear and an oppressor will
be accepted over time, while historical revisionism paints the alien
occupier as a liberator only works in think tank discussions over

Col. Mathieu: “The word ‘torture’ doesn’t appear in our orders. We’ve
always spoken of interrogation as the only valid method in a police
operation directed against unknown enemies. As for the NLF, they
request that their members, in the event of capture, should maintain
silence for twenty-four hours, and then they may talk. So, the
organization has already had the time it needs to render any
information useless. What type of interrogation should we choose, the
one the courts use for a murder case, that drags on for months?”

Colonel Mathieu has no illusions about the outcome of such conflicts,
particularly if an occupier is unwilling to be as ruthless as those who
fight back. In a way, he seems almost amused by the circumstances, and
accepts the inevitability of failure when dealing with people who are
willing to die to achieve their goals. Though some would see his role
as excessively didactic, as he tells essentially both sides of the
story, this only enhances the movie, and highlights the absurd
philosophy of the occupier. A complete and perfect performance in an
extraordinary film.

Sean Connery – Barley Blair, The Russia House

Sean Connery

Sean Connery may play a Russian submarine commander, or a scientist, or
action hero, but he always plays the same role: The Sean. And why not?
Since the Bond years, his persona has been enough to carry a film no
matter how banal or misguided that film may be. Even in The
Untouchables, the only real variation is his accent, with a heavy Irish
lilt stapled onto his indelible Scottish brogue. No complaints here –
Connery could make a film about colostomy fetishists, and I’d be in
line at the box office like everyone else.

In The Russia House, however, something happened to The Sean. It is
difficult to nail it down, other than that the actor seemed genuinely
shaken at times. The confidence of James Bond was long gone here, as he
played a rumpled alcoholic jazz musician who hailed from Britain, but
was deeply fond of Russia. Essentially, he was a man without a country
by choice. Directionless, shiftless, his character was content to play
chess and discuss literature with Russian intellectuals while watching
his publishing company go down the drain. Then, a beautiful woman
delivered Russian missile secrets to him to publish in a book, and he
suddenly tried to become a man of consequence.

Sounds like a clichéd story of redemption, but this is not your regular
schmoe-cum-hero character. John Le Carre is a master at writing regular
joes caught up in extraordinary circumstances, primarily by having them
exhibit believable behavior. Blair’s deceptively simple ways belie a
literate and thoughtful person. He learns quickly, and fails as often
as he succeeds while developing the ambition required to play the spy
game with integrity. Midway through the film, Blair withdraws into
himself, and seems to be played by another actor entirely. In one
scene, a team of CIA agents is grilling him, to make sure he is a
reliable spook:

CIA Interrogator: Have you ever met any jazz musicians you would describe, or who would describe themselves, as anarchists?

Barley Blair: Hmmm… ah, there was a trombone player, Wilfred Baker.

[the interrogator starts writing]

Barley Blair: He’s the only jazz musician I can think of who is completely devoid of anarchist tendencies.

Now, this sounds like the words of a smartass, but in Connery’s
hands it becomes a playful warning that he is his own man, and is not
to be trusted. His character changes so subtly, and so gradually, that
his betrayal, in retrospect, is not only a heroic act, but something we
should have seen coming the entire time. Sean Connery has always been
an alluring actor to watch. It is in this film, however, where he sheds
his trademark confidence to produce a truly compelling portrait of an
ordinary person who, under the right circumstances, is capable of
extraordinary acts. Despite being a romance film, The Russia House
stands on its own as the anti-Casablanca; there are times when
patriotism becomes destructive ballast. “It is our duty to betray our
countries – because all victims are equal, and none are more equal than


Stellan Skarsgard – Jonas Engström, Insomnia

Stellan Skarsgard

Ignore the tepid remake of this brooding psychological thriller –
this is the truly stunning exploration of the precarious moorings of
morality. Overtly a police procedural, the film takes place in Tromsø,
a Norwegian town above the Arctic Circle where the sun does not set in
the summer months. Skarsgard gives an astonishing performance as a
detective investigating a brutal murder. The case itself seems to
disappear into the literal and metaphorical fog when Jonas accidentally
kills his partner, and covers up the accident to blame it on the killer
under investigation. As the pervasive light causes Jonas’s grip on
reality to slip, he also lets go of that moral perspective that most
people hold onto in order to appear as well adjusted human beings. We
are all animals with our worst instincts tightly bound by social mores
and intellectual understanding. This unravels all too easily when we
break a principle synonymous with our identity. Skarsgard buries
himself in this role, acting both the tough cop and the insecure
antisocial, adrift at sea without a compass once the unraveling begins.
With time, and as Jonas continues his slide into the abyss, we really
stop caring much about the killer he is chasing. Skarsgard’s assured
exterior gradually slips away, revealing a malevolence that is all the
more disturbing by appearing to be commonplace. This is an altogether
penetrating performance from one of the most versatile and underrated
actors in film today.

Another role of note: Captain Tupolev in The Hunt for Red October. You
could not find a more icy performance anywhere. “I’ll shake the man

Chevy Chase – Clark Griswold, National Lampoon’s Vacation

Chevy Chase

Not normally confused with the great thespians of our time, Chevy has
made a career out of underplaying a comic role. From the salad days of
SNL to his early film career, Chevy Chase had been called the ‘funniest
man in America’, and had box office clout to spare. Despite his
popularity, he wanted to do ‘real acting instead of schtick’, leading
him to take the lead role in Foul Play rather than appear in Animal
House. This concern about respectability seems to strike every major
comic actor at some point, despite the absurdity of a comic who is
afraid they are not being taken seriously. His star declined, and he
remained unable to find that serious role that would redefine his
talent. After a crippling bout of depression, drug use, and rehab,
Chase emerged from the wringer a bit worse for wear. These days his low
key acting has morphed into sleepwalking, phoning in any role his
Satanic agent sends his way. He need not be concerned about his ability
to act, however, given his criminally underrated performance in
National Lampoon’s Vacation.

In Vacation, the stars aligned – Chase was at the height of his
comedic talent, and the film was anchored by an excellent script filled
with flesh and blood characters that actors could truly wear. Chase
inhabited the role he was born to play: DAD. Not just a dad, but the
Dad. From the awkward attempts at bonding with his ever-distant teenage
kids to the clumsy flirting with the hot vapid chick in the sports car,
this was the dad that we all grew up with and were perennially
embarrassed by. His low key performance here was perfection itself,
never rising into histrionics for cheap laughs.

One scene in particular illustrates this – when he is pulled over by a
traffic cop after dragging Aunt Edna’s hated dog to death on a highway.
That fucking dog spent the whole movie snarling at and biting The Dad,
and finally he forgot to untie the piece of shit from his bumper as he
drove away. The seething cop just lays right into him, and recounts
tearfully his own dog’s demise… all the while Chase bites down hard on
the gleeful laugh that threatens to explode forth and guarantee a baton
in his rectum. The scene goes on and on and on, and it is a marvel. One
may be tempted to dismiss this entry as ‘just funny’. Get fucked. There
is nothing more difficult than a scene, performance, or film that is
genuinely funny. That Chase never got so much as a nomination for an
Oscar is a testament to the irrelevance of those little golden dildos.

Part I - Part II - Part III

About Matt

Matt is the site’s Longest Serving Critic and chief misanthrope. He divides his time between classics of cinema and the most ridiculous movies he can find on Redbox.
Follow Matt: @mattcale52