© Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film
And so another prominent feature of the cinematic and televisual landscape that’s surrounded me since I was a kid has gone. I’m referring to the legendary English actor John Hurt who died late last month.
Hurt had many famous roles and managed for six decades to keep his profile high among the film and TV-viewing public. He played the flamboyant Quentin Crisp in Jack Gold’s TV comedy-drama The Naked Civil Servant (1975); the luckless Max in Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978); the even more luckless Kane, who becomes an unwilling incubator for the nightmarish H.R. Giger-designed beastie in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979); the noble but deformed John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980); and that great everyman of dystopian fiction, Winston Smith, in Michael Radford’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (1984 – yes!).
Later, while the highbrow performances kept coming – as scabrous Tory politician Alan Clark in the TV mini-series The Alan Clark Diaries (2004-2006), Quentin Crisp again in Brian Laxton’s An Englishman in New York (2009), Corkery in Rowan Jaffe’s Brighton Rock (2010), Control in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy (2011) – he also appeared in several internationally-popular franchises: as Ollivander in the Harry Potter movies; Bruttenholm in the Hellboy movies (2004 and 2008); Oxley in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); and the War Doctor, the militarised black sheep of the Doctor’s many incarnations, in the fiftieth-anniversary special of Doctor Who (2013).
The role that made the biggest impression on me, though, was the very first one I saw Hurt playing – in Jack Gold’s TV mini-series I Claudius (1976), based on the novels by Robert Graves, where he was the simultaneously deranged, ludicrous and terrifying Roman emperor Caligula. Actually, thinking now of the scenes where Hurt harasses the limping, stuttering future-emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi), I can’t help but think of another demented tyrant who likes to mock the physically afflicted.
But for this tribute, I thought I’d write about some items on John Hurt’s CV that have received less attention – films he appeared in that have vanished off the radar and / or ones in which he had supporting roles. Here’s my pick of the Alternative Hurt.
10 Rillington Place (1971)
Based on the case of real-life 1940s / 1950s serial killer John Christie, Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place remains a gruelling watch today. This is largely due to a performance by the normally cuddly and loveable Richard Attenborough, who brings Christie to life in a balding, pot-bellied, cardigan-wearing, tea-sipping, lisping, ingratiating, manipulative, quietly lecherous and homicidally perverted fashion that makes your skin crawl. What’s even worse is the knowledge that Christie evaded capture for several years by having his third and fourth murders, of neighbour Beryl Evans (Judy Geeson) and her infant daughter Geraldine, wrongly pinned on Beryl’s husband and Geraldine’s father Timothy (Hurt). After Timothy Evans was hung for the crimes, Christie killed four more times.
As the thickly Welsh-accented Timothy Evans, Hurt manages an impressive balancing act. His character is slow-witted, boastful, occasionally violent and generally unlikeable; but nonetheless he elicits enough sympathy for the audience to be shocked when he gets condemned to death through Christie’s duplicity and the police’s stupidity. (Attenborough, it’s said, agreed to do the film because he felt it justified his abhorrence of capital punishment.)
The Osterman Weekend (1983)
In the final movie made by maverick director Sam Peckinpah, Hurt plays a CIA man who enlists the help of investigative reporter Rutger Hauer to bust an alleged spy ring. Mainly, this involves rigging Hauer’s house up with surveillance equipment before the conspirators are invited over for the weekend. The reality, though, is not what Hauer thinks it is… A collision between a twisty, hi-tech espionage thriller and Peckinpah’s signature crash-bang-wallop, slow-motion, blood-spurting action set-pieces, The Osterman Weekend doesn’t always work. But its cast (Hurt, Hauer, Meg Foster, Craig T. Nelson and Dennis Hopper) keeps it entertaining.
And a scene where Hurt, speaking to Hauer via a two-way video / audio link, suddenly has to pretend to be a TV weatherman when the wrong person appears in Hauer’s proximity, is very funny.
© Recorded Picture Company / Palace Films
The Hit (1984)
Stephen Frears’s The Hit features John Hurt as an assassin and a young Tim Roth as his apprentice. They capture a retired gangster, played by Terence Stamp, and transport him across Spain. Long before, it transpires, Stamp turned Queen’s evidence against some criminal associates and now it’s payback time. What lifts this crime-drama-cum-road-movie out of the ordinary is its characterisation. Stamp is surprising philosophical about his impending fate, Roth is endearingly gormless and Hurt gives a glorious study in world-weariness.
The Field (1990)
A tragic drama about an obsessed Irish farmer (Richard Harris) who gradually loses his mind when a precious piece of land slips through his fingers and into those of a rich American property developer (Tom Berenger), Jim Sheridan’s The Field ends up in King Lear territory – with Harris as the diminished monarch and Hurt as his loyal Fool. In fact, Hurt’s performance as Bird, Harris’s daft, cackling and excitable side-kick, adds a few slivers of comedy to what is overall a powerful but grim film.
Rob Roy (1995)
Having played a Welshman in 10 Rillington Place and an Irishman in The Field, Hurt completed his Celtic hat-trick with his performance as an evil Scottish nobleman in Michael Caton-Jones’s Rob Roy. The film suffers from the fact that its star, Liam Neeson, fails to convince as the Scottish Highlander Rob Roy MacGregor – every time he opens his mouth, a Ballymena accent comes out. And excitement-wise it never quite sets the heather alight, especially compared to the same year’s barnstorming, crowd-pleasing Braveheart. Its strongest feature is its outstanding trio of villains: Tim Roth (again) as the bastardly dandy Archibald Cunningham, Brian Cox as the venal factor Killearn and Hurt himself as the purringly malevolent Duke of Montrose.
© United Artists
Dead Man (1995)
Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is a demented psychedelic western about an innocuous accountant who becomes the quarry of bounty hunters. It also boasts an astonishing cult-movie cast headed by Johnny Depp. Hurt appears as a vinegary aide to the great Robert Mitchum who, in one of his last film roles, plays the rich, powerful and barking-mad businessman who sets the bounty hunters on Depp’s trail.
At one point, Hurt also shares a scene with Lance Henrikson and Michael Wincott, who between them have appeared in four other Alien movies – which makes this quite an Alien-actors convention.
The Proposition (2005)
While Alien contains the ultimate John Hurt death scene, John Hillcoat’s violent, grubby Australian western The Proposition gives him a pretty memorable way of shuffling off the mortal coil too. As the raddled but eloquent bounty hunter Jellon Lamb, he expires quoting some lines by the Victorian author George Borrow: “There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on a heath…” That’s just before he gets a knife the size of a shovel-blade rammed through his chest and a bullet in the head. Well, Nick Cave wrote the script, so what did you expect?
© Zentropa / Memfis Film
The Lars Von Trier-directed Melancholia is both a study of clinical depression and an account of the last days of earth before it has an apocalyptic collision with another planet. But the mood is thankfully lightened when John Hurt makes a cameo appearance as the gregarious, party-loving old reprobate who’s father to Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
An arty, languid but likeable vampire movie, Only Lovers Left Alive sees Hurt working again with Jim Jarmusch. While most of the film focuses on vampire lovers Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, Hurt provides good support as the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, who didn’t actually die in 1593 but – surprise! – got vampirised instead. Four centuries later, he lives as Swinton’s avuncular and quietly blood-drinking neighbour in Tangiers.
Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi epic Snowpiercer has an imaginative premise. The earth has been decimated by a new ice age and the last human survivors live in an oppressively hierarchical society on board a super-long train, which is in perpetual movement around the snowbound globe. Unfortunately, the film is all over the place in terms of tone, unsure whether it wants to be a gritty sci-fi actioner, a slice of Terry Gilliam-esque surrealism or a darkly humorous Roald Dahl-type fantasy. Hurt at least brings some levity to the proceedings, playing the leader of the train’s rebellious proles. Unsubtly, his character is called ‘Gilliam’.
Incidentally, one John Hurt movie I haven’t mentioned here because I’ve never seen it in its entirety is 1978’s The Shout, also starring Alan Bates, Susannah York and Robert Stephens and based on a short story by I Claudius author Robert Graves. People whose opinion I respect say it’s very good; and from the opening minutes, which are up on Youtube, it certainly looks intriguing.
© First Look Pictures