Ever since my first exposure in college film courses to the classics of foreign cinema, I've loved these movies. In the last few years I've made a conscious effort to fill in some of the gaps in my film-viewing experience in this area. In doing this I have, like most avid film watchers, come to regard certain actors and actresses as favorites. Just as I love the great English language film performers like Cary Grant, James Stewart, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn, I've also come to love a number of actors and actresses who appeared primarily in foreign language films.
In compiling lists of my favorite classic foreign language actors and actresses, I considered several things. For one, I wanted people who, like their English language counterparts, made a strong impression on me not just in one well-known film, but in many films. I also wanted actors and actresses whose performances were of consistently high quality, even when the films they appeared in weren't. Finally, I wanted people whose screen presence was both vivid and unique. Today I'm going to reveal my 10 Favorite Classic Foreign Film Actors and what I consider to be the signature performance of each, which I've indicated with a *. In some cases this was a very hard thing to do because there were so many to choose from, so I've included other notable performances as well.
Here, then, are my 10 favorite classic foreign film actors, presented in alphabetical order. In a couple of weeks I'll be revealing my favorite classic foreign film actresses.
SOUMITRA CHATTERJEE (b. 1935)
Born in Bengal, India, Soumitra Chatterjee was a radio announcer and a college graduate with a degree in Bengali literature before being cast by the Bengali director Satyajit Ray as the adult Apu in the final installment of Ray's Apu Trilogy, The World of Apu (1959). Chatterjee then went on to appear in 141 films but is best known for the fourteen films he made with Ray. The two formed a close collaboration, and some of Ray's films were written specifically for the actor. I've seen only a handful of these, but he is consistently excellent. *The World of Apu (1959), in which Chatterjee plays the adult Apu struggling to write his first novel while experiencing both joy and misfortune as a husband and father. Also recommended: Charulata (1964), Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), and The Home and the World (1984), all directed by Ray.
ALAIN DELON (b. 1935)
A school dropout at the age of fourteen, Alain Delon served in the French Navy before being dishonorably discharged for his rebellious behavior. In the late 1950s he was spotted at the Cannes Film Festival by a talent scout for David O. Selznick and, after a screen test, put under contract to Selznick. Before working for Selznick, though, Delon decided to stay in Europe and was released from his contract. His first major success was in Purple Noon (1960), the first version of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, in which he played the chameleonic psychopath Tom Ripley. He appeared in nearly ninety films before going into semi-retirement in 1997. *Le Samouraï (1967, dir. Jean-Pierre Melville), in which he plays a professional hitman with a decidedly existentialist view of the world and his profession. Also recommended: Purple Noon (1960, dir. René Clément), Rocco and His Brothers (1960, dir. Luchino Visconti), L'Eclisse (1962, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni), The Leopard (1963, dir. Luchino Visconti), and Mr. Klein (1976, dir. Joseph Losey).
JEAN GABIN (1904-1976)
Sometimes called the French Bogart because of his rugged looks and masculine screen presence, Jean Gabin worked on the stage and in music halls for several years before making his film debut in 1928. His career reached its peak in the late 1930s with a series of remarkable performances that established him as the leading French actor of his time. During the WW II Nazi occupation of France, he worked briefly in Hollywood. After he returned to France his career never again reached its prewar heights, but he still remained one of the major stars of French cinema, playing Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret in several films made in the late 1950s. *Le Jour se Lève (1939, dir. Marcel Carné), perhaps the definitive version of the doomed antiheroes Gabin is best known for, forerunners of the antiheroes of postwar American film noir. Also recommended: Pépé le Moko (1936, dir. Julien Duvivier), La Grande Illusion (1937, dir. Jean Renoir), La Bête Humaine (1937, dir. Jean Renoir), Port of Shadows (1938, dir. Marcel Carné), Le Plaisir (1952, dir. Max Ophüls), Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954, dir. Jacques Becker), and French Cancan (1954, dir. Jean Renoir).
MARCELLO MASTROIANNI (1924-1996)
Marcello Mastroianni began working in Italian films as an extra as early as 1939 and gradually worked his way up to starring roles. In 1957 he came to the attention of filmgoers outside Italy when he played the male lead in Le Notte Bianchi (dir. Luchino Visconti). In 1960 he played a character named Marcello in La Dolce Vita (dir. Federico Fellini), the first of six Fellini-Mastroianni collaborations that brought the actor his greatest fame and helped make him the best-known Italian actor of all time. During his nearly sixty year-long career he received many awards, including two BAFTAs, two Golden Globes, and two best actor awards at the Cannes Film Festival. He was also nominated three times for the Academy Award as best actor. *La Dolce Vita (1960, dir. Federico Fellini), in which he plays a paparazzo torn between his decadent and his moralistic impulses. Also recommended: Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958, dir. Mario Monicelli), Divorce Italian Style (1961, dir. Pietro Germi), 8½ (1963, dir. Federico Fellini), The Organizer (1963, dir. Mario Monicelli), Dark Eyes (1987, dir. Nikita Mikhalkov).
TOSHIRO MIFUNE (1920-1997)
High and Low (1963). Also the Samurai Trilogy, in which he plays the legendary Musashi Miyamoto (1954-56, dir. Hiroshi Inagaki).
YVES MONTAND (1921-1991)
Yves Montand was born in Mussolini's Italy, but the year of his birth his parents fled to France. By his twenties he was appearing in a Paris music hall, where he was spotted by Edith Piaf and adopted as her protégé. He appeared in a few films, including two with Piaf, before landing his breakout role in The Wages of Fear (1953). He married Simone Signoret in 1951 (they remained married until her death in 1985), and they became the most prominent French acting couple of their day, a sort of French equivalent of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In the early 1960s he made several English language films with stars like Marilyn Monroe, Shirley MacLaine, and Ingrid Bergman. In later years he settled into character roles and remained active in film right up to his death. *The Wages of Fear (1953, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot), in which Montand displays all his rugged masculinity in one of the great nail-biters, as a truck driver delivering a load of nitroglycerin over winding mountain roads. Also recommended: The Wide Blue Road (1957, dir. Gille Pontecorvo), The War Is Over (1966, dir. Alain Resnais), Le Cercle Rouge (1970, dir. Jean-Pierre Melville), Jean de Florette (1986, dir. Claude Berri).
FERNANDO REY (1917-1994)
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, dir. Luis Buñuel), That Obscure Object of Desire (1977, dir. Luis Buñuel).
TAKASHI SHIMURA (1905-1982)
Between 1935 and 1981, Takashi Shimura made more than 200 films, but he is best known in the West for the twenty-one films he made for director Akira Kurosawa. If fact, he appeared in the first film Kurosawa ever directed, Sanshuro Sugata (1943). Although he most often took supporting parts in Kurosawa's movies, his greatest artistic and critical triumph was in the lead role in Ikiru (1952), one of the greatest and most poignant of all performances by a screen actor. Shimura's most widely seen role in the West is almost certainly as the fatherly lead researcher in the granddaddy of all postwar radiation-horror monster movies, Godzilla, released in the U.S. in 1956. *Ikiru, as the dying bureaucrat who must come to terms with his own mortality while overseeing one last project by which he hopes to be remembered. Also recommended: Drunken Angel (1948, dir. Akira Kurosawa), Scandal (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa), Seven Samurai (1954, dir. Akira Kurosawa), and Gojira (1954, dir. Ishiro Honda—the original Japanese language version of Godzilla, without Raymond Burr and far superior to the more familiar dubbed version).
JACQUES TATI (1907-1982)
Jacques Tati is remembered today for the five feature-length comedies he directed between 1949 and 1971. In four of these he played his signature character, Monsieur Hulot, the man with the pipe, the too-short trousers, the loping stride, and the killer tennis serve. Like Jean Gabin and Yves Montand, Tati got his start playing music halls and cabarets. By the 1930s he was experimenting with short film and in 1949 directed his first full-length film, Jour de Fête, an expanded version of an earlier short. His next film, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953), introduced his signature character and brought him international fame. *Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953, dir. Jacques Tati), virtually a primer on physical film comedy, nearly silent, containing sound effects but almost no dialogue, a loving homage to Tati's favorite American silent comics Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. Also recommended: Jour de Fête (1949, dir. Jacques Tati), Mon Oncle (1958, dir. Jacques Tati), Playtime (1967, dir. Jacques Tati).
MAX VON SYDOW (b. 1929)
Max von Sydow studied acting at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden. While still a student he played small roles in several films but remained primarily a stage actor until he met Ingmar Bergman, who cast him as the medieval knight in The Seventh Seal (1956), the film that made him an international star. He went on to make thirteen films altogether with Bergman. He has also made many English language films, playing everything from Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) to a James Bond villain in Never Say Never Again (1983) to one of Woody Allen's ensemble players in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). *Shame (1968, dir. Ingmar Bergman), in which he plays a musician slowly going to pieces under the strain of war and losing his humanity in the process. Also recommended: Just about anything directed by Ingmar Bergman, but especially The Seventh Seal (1956), The Magician (1958), The Virgin Spring (1960), and The Passion of Anna (1969). Also The Emigrants (1971, dir. Jan Troell) and Pelle the Conqueror (1987, dir. Bille August).
Does anyone have any personal favorites you think worthy of inclusion on a list like this? If so, please leave a comment and let me know.
A great list. But of course, all these actors worked with great directors - often in great collaborations (Mifune and Shimura with Kurowsawa, von Sydow with Bergman) that created great films. One actor missing from the list in my opinion is Jean Paul Belmondo, a consistently watchable and enjoyable screen presence.ReplyDelete
Bill, you're absolutely right about there being so many actor-director teams who worked together many times on the list, something that dawned on me fully only as I started writing. This is due in part, I think, because directors like Kurosawa, Bergman, and Fellini were so popular with critics and audiences all over the world. In many cases that's why these actors had such exposure and became so popular with fans of foreign cinema.Delete
Thanks for suggesting Belmondo. He is one of the also-rans for the list. I'm not as familiar with his work as with those who made the final cut, however, although he's sensational in "Breathless," a film I'm otherwise not completely enthusiastic about (I know I'm in the minority here). Also, I already had four French actors listed!
You're right about the limited exposure of foreign films and therefore foreign actors. There is a critical censorship that keeps lots of foreign films out of the U.S. And probably rightly so, as I'm sure they make as many bad films in France as we do here. So we never get to popular foreign actors. Someone like Jean de Jardin, who is very popular in France and has made several films that have never been released here in the States. Bollywood is full of stars of comparable charisma and talent to those of Hollywood but their films are not seen. Fortunately with services like Netflix and Hulu we can now see some of the less critically acclaimed films.Delete
You surprised me with Takashi Shimura. No reason why I should have been surprised. He's a wonderful actor and you have great taste. My introduction to Shimura was "Stray Dog" (along with that Mifune kid) and how I longed for a sequel! Shimura puts a sad smile on my heart.ReplyDelete
Caftan Woman, I agree that "Stray Dog" is a wonderful film. Shimura and Mifune were great together here and in the other film from about the same time I mentioned, "Drunken Angel." It's fun to see these Kurosawa pictures with a modern setting, rather than the period pictures he's famous for.Delete
R.D., Sometimes a blog post will spur me into action - and thanks to you, I'll be watching "Purple Noon" very soon. I've seen many Alain Delon films, but not that one - yet. Among those films I have seen, "Le Samourai" does seem his signature.ReplyDelete
Of the actors you've spotlighted, Jean Gabin is my personal favorite. I can understand the Bogart comparison - the careworn features and world weariness. Yet Gabin is unique. So deeply earthy and magnetic - and he seems to possess such an ancient soul.
The foreign film actor I would include on my list may or may not (yet) fall into the "classic" category. He is Tony Leung (b. 1962) whose collaboration with filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai is legendary. Leung won the Best Actor award at Cannes in 2000 for Wong's "In the Mood for Love," one of my favorite films ever. He has also won many, many awards in Asia. A subtle, soulful actor who's absolutely mesmerizing onscreen. I'm hoping Wong and Leung's latest film, "The Grandmaster," will soon be released in the U.S.
Eve, thanks for contributing your insightful thoughts on this subject. "Purple Noon" has just been released in a new edition by Criterion, and I'm sure it gets the deluxe Criterion treatment. I prefer it to the later Anthony Minghella version. "Purple Noon" has another very fine French actor in it, Maurice Ronet. If pressed to name an absolute favorite on the list, it would probably be between Gabin and Jacques Tati, but strictly as an actor Gabin would get it for sure, if for nothing else the films he made between 1936-39. It's got to be the most intensive body of great screen acting by anyone, just by the sheer number of great performances! I've not seen Tony Leung in much, but I sure share your enthusiasm for "In the Mood for Love."Delete
R.D., I finally watched “Purple Noon” last night. Much as I’ve thought Matt Damon’s performance as Ripley is one of his best, Alain Delon’s has more depth and is far more interesting – and sociopathic. Maurice Ronet stands out, too (Jude Law excelled in same, later). Both films are beautifully photographed and effective psychological thrillers, but Clement’s seems the more stylish and modern – it really holds up. I don’t mind that the homoerotic elements were left out, with Delon as Ripley one gets the sense that he would go in any direction or use any means to serve his ends. I can accept the altered ending, too. If I hadn’t read the book and seen the later film, I wouldn’t question it at all. Delon sitting on the shore sipping his drink, not knowing what he’s about to walk into – it works. My only issue is the title. As I understand it, "Plein Soleil" translates as "Full Sun" - much better.Delete
R.D., this is a marvelous topic and I can find no fault with your selection of notable classic-era, foreign-language actors. For me, Gabin's signature role is one from the twilight of his career--as the master showman in Renoir's FRENCH CANCAN (which I hope to review soon). That said, he is indeed brilliant in LE JOUR SE LEVE. It's hard to single out one Mifune performance, but I'm sure you're not surprised that my choice would be SANJURO. On possible addition to the list is Marcel Dalio, who shone in many supporting roles, most notably among the RULES OF THE GAME ensemble. I second the inclusion of Belmondo--perhaps not a great actor, but a charismatic star in the aforementioned BREATHLESS and the lighthearted THAT MAN FROM RIO. As I pondered your post, I decided that there are more famous foreign-language actresses than actors. I'm curious to see how my choices there will compare to your upcoming list!ReplyDelete
Rick, I almost didn't mention "French Cancan" in the section on Gabin because I'd already named so many others, but I just couldn't omit it. After reading up on Gabin a bit I couldn't help wondering if he used his own observations about music hall life in his portrayal of Danglard. I considered Dalio but aside from "Rules of the Game" couldn't think of any other major roles (though "La Grande Illusion" is close) where he made such a strong impression. And yes, I found the best foreign actress list harder to prune to ten because the also-rans were much closer to the final selections than in the actor list.Delete
This was a great list and a good introduction to those of us who should become more familiar with these films and these performers. You're doing a splendid service for us, R.D.ReplyDelete
I second your opinion on Shimura. "Ikiru" was one of the most shattering films I've ever seen and his performance one of the greatest of all time.
A year or two ago, TCM devoted a whole day to Jean Gabin, and what a treasure trove that was. I was only able to record a few of them, but I really liked what I saw and hope to see more. I enjoyed "Grisbi" quite a bit and Gabin had screen charsima that you can't buy.
Fortunately a lot of these films are readily available to enjoy on DVD and outlets like TCM.
Slightly off topic, I was really annoyed at this year's Oscar telecast when host Seth Rogen made a crack about last year's Best Actor winner, Jean Dujardin in "The Artist" saying something like "he's everywhere"...implying sarcastically that he hadn't done anything since. But a quick glace at IMDB shows he's either worked on or is currently working on five projects since "The Artist." Some are French, which is fine. There's certainly more to film than what's opening weekly in the multiplex. I don't know that crack annoyed me.
I really enjoyed "The Artist" and look forward to seeing Mr. Dujardin in other roles.
I look forward to your upcoming look at favorite foreign actresses.
Kevin, thank you. I'm gratified that others appreciate the inclusion of Takashi Shimura. He made hundreds of movies and even for Kurosawa played many different types of characters, yet he will always be best remembered for "Ikiru." The movie I watched in the Gabin marathon on TCM that you mention is one of his American films, "Moontide" with Ida Lupino. It seemed to be trying to capture the mood of some of Gabin's French films without complete success, and Gabin's charisma didn't really come through.Delete
Seeing your list makes me realize how many films I have yet to see. What a great list, though, and so many good performances represented by these talented actors. It's interesting that Kevin commented on "Ikiru" as I saw it for the first time a few years ago and thought it was magnificent. Jacques Tati is a favorite so I'm glad he showed up on your list.ReplyDelete
Filmboy, some people consider "Ikiru" to be Kurosawa's greatest film, even more so than his better-known period movies. In some of the earlier films with modern settings, I find his attempts at emotionalism to be overdone, but in this one I find it untypically subdued, largely I think because it's internalized in Shimura's performance. Tati is also a great favorite of mine, and I thought the inclusion of a writer-director-actor broadened the scope of the list.Delete
R.D. Thanks for such a great list of actors. I spent quite a bit of time over the years in France and got to see the work of all the French actors you name - all great. Tati is celebrated but not as well known, but what a genius. I never tire of Delon - as handsome as they come but with eyes showing such sadness. Yves Montand was as great an actor as he was a singer. His performance in Jean de Fleurette and Manon des Sources is legendary - especially using his normal accent from Marseille in the French dialogue. I've watched dozens of Samurai movies and Mifune is brilliant - a sort of John Wayne of Japan. And Von Sydow could play any role with such depth of character. Great list.ReplyDelete
Christian, as a Francophile, I found it easy to think of French actors to include but hard to limit myself to a number that wouldn't dominate the list. Montand had such a long film career. He seemed to move gracefully from one stage of his career to the next, ending up in gruff malevolence in those two Pagnol films you named. Delon is one who didn't immediately occur to me, I think perhaps because the high overall quality of his early films obscured how much his acting contributed.Delete
I'm with Classicfilm boy, in that I'm not familiar with a lot of these actors or films. But you've provided a good foundation for a foreign-movie-watching list. Look at all this fab movie-watching that lies ahead!ReplyDelete
Silver Screenings, thanks. For me one of the great pleasures of reading classic film blogs is to be reminded that there's always something else in classic film to explore.Delete
I would have to say Mastroianni is my favorite foreign actor along with Jean Gabin who does have that Bogart aura about him. Other favorites would include...ReplyDelete
Max Von Sydow
Jean Paul Belmondo
Looking forward to the female list!
John, thanks for contributing your ideas, as I know you watch a good deal of foreign cinema. Lino Ventura was one of the also-rans who nearly made the final list. I recall seeing him in only three films--"Classe Tous Risques" and Melville's "Le Deuxieme Souffle" and "Army of Shadows." He was superb in all of them. If I had included him, "Army" would have been his * performance. But I wondered if I was familiar enough with his work in comparison with the others who made the final list to justify including him. I notice that IMDb also lists him in the cast of "Touchez Pas au Grisbi." Perhaps his role was a small one, as I don't specifically remember him in that film.Delete
I don't see any teutonic actors here: Wolfgang Preiss, Bruno Ganz, Armin Mueller-StahlReplyDelete
I recognized this, but I just haven't seen enough performances by these actors to be knowledgeable enough to include them. I have seen Ganz and Mueller-Stahl (I recently rewatched "Lola" for the first time in a number of years) in one or two films and found them very good. Also, their main body of work falls just outside what I consider classic, roughly 1930-80. Klaus Kinski (he was born in Poland but seems to me a German actor) was on the shortlist but didn't make it to the final list. I especially like him in "Aguirre." Anton Walbrook was another real possibility, but I know him mostly from British films made in English.Delete
You are correct about Ganz and Mueller-Stahl, they are too "new" for the list. Preiss was on stage in the 30's, made some movies during WW2, where he often played the hero's best friend, then he served in the army. His film career started up again around 1950.Delete
Wolfgang Preiss' best dramatic work is in german language films where he was very versatile. In the USA people remember him as the "go to" actor when the story called for the honorable or duty bound Wehrmacht officer in big screen military films like "A Bridge too Far", "The Train". "Raid on Rommel".
In "Dogs, do you Want to Live Forever", about the battle of Stalingrad, Preiss played a craven officer who is shot in the back by his own men - he was a great weasel and villain, and just as good as a hero..
He was the man thrown off the dam in "The Boys from Brazil". In the 60's Preiss made Dr. Mabuse spinoff films and Euro horror classics like "Mill of the Stone Women". The first two Dr mabuse films are the best, the rest are cashing in on the franchise.
I think people in the west don't know him well because his best work is in german language films not readily available with subtitles.
I saw a tribute to Preiss on a german website where they said he was the best looking Wehrmacht officer in films. I thought, even better than Maximilian Schell? High praise indeed.
I too, thought of Walbrook, also Conrad Veidt, who was very much an international star. He is mainly known for silent movies and his english language movies, but he made several interesting german language movies before he fled the Germany in the 30's.
R.D., reading this posting makes me realise just how many classic foreign films and actors I need to catch up with! I will definitely return to this piece for suggestions. Sadly I'm not familiar with the work of most of the actors you discuss here, but I'm a big fan of Jean Gabin's 1930s films and trying to see as many of them as possible - then will go on to his later films. (I have seen and loved 'French Can-Can' but not much more of his later work.) As well as the Gabin films you've mentioned here, I think 'Gueule d'Amour' (Jean Grémillon, 1937) and 'La Belle Équipe' (Julien Duvivier, 1936) are both masterpieces too - sadly they are not on DVD as yet but 'La Belle Équipe' is on Youtube, with both the happy ending that the studio forced on Duvivier and his original ending.ReplyDelete
Judy, I knew from a recent post at Movie Classics that we were in agreement about Gabin. I've heard of both the Gabin films you mentioned but haven't seen them, so thanks for your recommendation. I've just recently become able to watch full-length films on YouTube, and I'll add "Equipe" to the list I've started. Although I included those postwar performances because both they and the films are first-rate, for me it's really Gabin's work of the 30s that makes his reputation.Delete
A great list! Mastroianni is my favorite, but Fernando Rey and Max von Sydow are equally amazing. I hope there will be a list of your favorite classic foreign actresses, so I can come back here and maybe see my favorite foreign actress (I won't spoil the occasion by citing her here!).ReplyDelete
Le, thank you. Mastroianni was a great actor, I would guess the actor on my list with the greatest popularity. I think of him as an actor of seriousness and integrity, yet when I see him in one of his rarer comic performances I'm reminded how good he was in comic roles too.Delete
Splendid choices and superlative defenses R.D. I can't argue with a single one, and in fact for my own list every one would appear. Here is mine in a rather impossible order-of-preference presentation, enacted here only for drama. I went up to 21.ReplyDelete
1. Jean Gabin
2. Max Von Sydow
3. Chishu Ryu
4. Emil Jannings
5. Toshiro Mifune
6. Marcello Mastroianni
7. Michel Simon
8. Tatsuya Nakadei
9. Peter Lorre
10. Takashi Shimura
11. Yves Montand
12. Somitra Chatterjee
13. Alain Delon
14. Jacques Tati
15. Yves Montand
16. Fernando Rey
17. Erland Josephson
18. Takashi Shimura
19. Jean-Louis Berrault
20. Gerard Depardieu
21. Jean-Paul Belmondo
Well, I listed Shimura twice, so after the second mentioning is stricken, I will have an even 20.ReplyDelete
Sam, a great list of your top 20. Lots of overlap with my top 10, I see. Also, just about every actor on your list not on mine was under serious consideration.Delete