Best Screen Performances: Part I

All time best screen portrayals in cinema 

A Potpourri of Vestiges Feature

It’s been more than 5 years since I made tryst with cinema. Ever since that fleeting moment of everlasting joy when I first lay transfixed under its bewitching influence my unconditional love for this enchanted avenue of endless uncertainties has only grown stronger. Even after having lived hundreds of lifetimes, I still find myself wanting for more. Such is the power of cinema. Once you are caught there’s no escape. The only solace is the want for more. And the more you savor the thirstier you feel. To quench this ever increasing thirst you must strive for more even though you are fully aware that in the wonderland of cinema more is less. I consider myself both the victim and the beneficiary of this endless onslaught. And it’s only appropriate that I contribute my bit in spreading this syndrome to every nook and corner of the planet. I take pride in calling cinema my muse, my whore, my beloved. A Potpourri of Vestiges was started with the aim of acquainting the masses with the realm of cinema, especially as the ultimate medium of human expression. In other words, it is my vehicle of expression and a small token of my appreciation to cinema.

Today onwards, I am starting a series wherein I will be bringing to you my most favorite screen performances of all time. And while I have watched hundreds of movies during the last half a decade, I believe I have just reached the tip of the iceberg, for I have been introduced to the real good ones only recently (not to mention the new ones that get added every year).

And so, if you find one or more of your favorite performances missing from the list then it's highly likely that I may not have watched them yet.

So, I hereby implore my highly learned readers to guide me in case I miss or fail to acknowledge a worthy performance. I will certainly make sure that it’s incorporated in the subsequent editions of this series.     

Here’s the first part of the series. Lo and Behold!

For part two of the series, click here

PART I: 1 to 5

1). Tatsuya Nakadai in Ran (1985)

Tatsuya Nakadai as the senile warlord Hidetora in Ran, a character inspired by Shakespeare's King Lear, Directed by master Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa

In a long career spanning over several decades Nakadai delivered several unforgettable performances that made him the most popular Japanese actor in the whole world, perhaps with the exception of the great Toshirô Mifune. While his performances in Harakiri and Kagemusha are nothing short of exemplary, it is his mesmerizing portrayal of a once ferocious senile warlord tamed by the vicissitudes of time—in the vein of William Shakespeare’s King Lear—in master Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s visual masterpiece Ran that truly serves to be the crown jewel of his legendary career. During the portrayal Nakadai seamlessly goes through a gamut of emotions; the tremendous range that he shows during the portrayal is simply awe-inspiring. Over the years many actors have excelled in similar roles, but Nakadai’s portrayal of Hidetora undoubtedly remains a cut above the rest.

2). Klaus Kinski in Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)

Klaus Kinski as Spanish commander Don Lope de Aguirre in Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Directed by German filmmaker Werner Herzog

The most popular of the German actors and arguably one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, Kinski had a rare gift for acting. The only thing that ever got more attention than his acting was his temper. In a long career that was plagued by his temperamental woes, Kinski managed to deliver several great performances. He often played larger-than-life, overambitious characters whose excessive pride and zeal invariably drove them to utter ruination. But, he is best remembered for his collaboration with the great German filmmaker Wernez Herzog with whom he realized two of the most inconceivable works of cinema: Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God and. While Kinski’s performances in both these films are breathtaking to watch—both marked by an air of frenzied insanity—his portrayal of the Machiavellian Spanish commander Don Lope de Aguirre in the latter stands out as best among equals.  

3). Rod Steiger in Duck, You Sucker! (1971) aka A Fistful of Dynamite

Rod Steiger as the Mexican Bandit Juan Miranda in Duck, You Sucker! (1971) aka A Fistful of Dynamite, Directed by Italian master filmmaker Sergio Leone

During his long and illustrious career Rod Steiger appeared in over 100 motion pictures. Steiger’s greatest gift was his incredible range as a performer, a singular attribute that allowed him to do an exhaustive variety of roles. There are few who can forget his arresting performances in films likes Duck, You Sucker!, Doctor Zhivago, The Pawnbroker, Waterloo, and In the Heat of the Night for which he also won the Best Actor Oscar.  While all his performances are remarkably singular in those own right, his performance of the rapacious yet naive Mexican bandit Juan Miranda in Italian maestro Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker! remains the most consummate of the lot. What makes the portrayal sui generis is the great precision with which Steiger delicately balances his verbal and non-verbal deliveries as a performer.  

4). Marlon Brando in Queimada (1969) aka Burn!

Marlon Brando as William Walker in Queimada (1969) aka Burn!, Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo

In a career spanning over five decades, Brando delivered a plethora of unforgettable performances. Among the myriad of performances that Brando delivered during his long illustrious career, it’s quite remarkable that he rated his portrayal of William Walker—a British agent provocateur—in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Queimada as his best ever. In his autobiography "Songs My Mother Taught Me", Brando revealed, "I did some of my best acting in 'Burn!'". Brando also admitted to it during an interview with Larry King. What makes the portrayal singular is the element of unfathomable complexity associated with it. Brando’s Walker is a cross between a wolf and a sheep, an inflictor and a savior, a demon and an angel, a usurper and a guardian, a misanthrope and an altruist, and a mercenary and a messiah. Walker is a gifted orator, a master manipulator, an opportunistic pacifier who dresses with the perfection of a fop. His aristocratic attire offers a striking contrast to the shabby appearance of the war-torn natives. And yet he has a certain element of humaneness that makes him likable. It is this ambiguity that makes Brando’s portrayal unique and remarkably magnificent.

5). Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice (1971)

Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice (1971), Directed by Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti

English actor and novelist Dirk Bogarde was unarguably one of the most underrated actors of the 20th century. By the virtue of his stunning performances in films like Victim, Accident, The Servant, The Go-Between, The Damned, and Death in Venice, Bogarde also proved why he was also one of the most versatile actors of all time. Bogarde’s best came during the ‘60s and the ‘70s where he got to work with the likes of Joseph Losey and Luchino Visconti. In Losey’s The Servant, Bogarde plays with sublime authority the challenging role of a machinating servant to an English aristocrat. In Accident, his second collaboration with Losey, he sublimely portrays an Oxford professor going through a mid-life crisis.  In Visconti’s holocaust masterpiece The Damned, Dirk Bogarde masterfully plays a Macbeth-like character. But, it is his haunting portrayal of an avant-garde composer in search of ideal beauty in Visconti’s Death in Venice that is undoubtedly his greatest ever.
For part two of the series, click here

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  1. Wow, fantastic work, Can't wait for part 2. I really liked the depth of research in your post. Take a bow

  2. Thanks for those kind words... I am really glad that you liked it!!! Please do stay tuned for the forthcoming posts of the series.

  3. Subhorup DasguptaApril 1, 2013 at 8:30 AM

    Wow, Murtaza, another impossible list shaping up. These five were great choices. Haven't seen Duck, You Sucker. WIll be looking out for more.

  4. Thanks a lot! I knew it was going to be a challenging assignment and so I decided to break it into smaller tasks.


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