John Hurt: 10 essential films

A selection of some of the finest performances by one of our greatest actors: Sir John Hurt.

David Parkinson
Updated:

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Since debuting in The Wild and the Willing (1962), John Hurt packed so much into his 54-year screen career that a top 20 would scarcely do him justice. There would be room to recall his displays as conniving courtier Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons (1966) and Scottish rogue Davey Haggart in Sinful Davey (1969). Room could also be found for such diverse period pieces as Scandal (1989), The Field (1990), Rob Roy (1995) and The Proposition (2005). But it might require a top 40 to highlight Hurt’s versatility in title roles as different as Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (1971) and Little Malcolm and His Struggle against the Eunuchs, (1974) and to extol his contribution to cult favourites such as The Shout (1978) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).

And that’s before you mention TV work like Caligula in I, Claudius (1976), Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (1979), The Fool in King Lear (1983), the lead in The Alan Clark Diaries (2004) and his cameo as the War Doctor in Doctor Who (2013). Indeed, you start to wonder how Hurt found time to sell Daniel Radcliffe his first wand in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), mentor Ron Perlman in Hellboy (2004) and reunite with old friend Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). He even played a bag lady alongside an all-feline cast in Romeo.Juliet (1990). But you don’t rack up over 200 career credits unless you’re willing to take risks.

10 Rillington Place (1971)

Director Richard Fleischer

10 Rillington Place (1970)

Uttered with doomed incredulity in a panic-stricken Welsh accent, the words “Christie done it” chill the marrow and leave an indelible impression, as Timothy Evans is wrongfully hanged for the murder of his pregnant wife and baby daughter in March 1950. John Hurt earned a best supporting actor BAFTA nomination for his exceptional performance in Richard Fleischer’s simmering adaptation of Ludovic Kennedy’s bestselling account of the crimes of John Reginald Christie (played with whispering menace by Richard Attenborough). Yet, while Evans’s intellectual shortcomings condemn him in the Merthyr police station and the Old Bailey, Hurt avoids portraying him as a pathetically guileless victim.

The Naked Civil Servant (1975)

Director Jack Gold

The Naked Civil Servant (1975)

Interpretation rather than impersonation was key to Hurt’s BAFTA-winning performance in ITV’s lauded and socially significant adaptation of Quentin Crisp’s autobiography. Crisp later dubbed Hurt his “representative on earth”, and they would appear together in Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary Resident Alien (1990). Hurt later reprised the role of the self-styled “stately homo” in Richard Laxton’s An Englishman in New York (2009), which brought him another BAFTA nod. As Philip Mackie’s teleplay retained a good deal of Crisp’s text, Hurt was able to capture his courage and exhibitionism, while delivering – with palpable wit and poignancy – his acerbic bon mots and astute insights into a time when active homosexuality was illegal.

Midnight Express (1978)

Director Alan Parker

Midnight Express (1978)

Despite grossing over $100m and winning two of six Oscar nominations, Alan Parker’s account of life inside Istanbul’s Sağmalcılar prison is probably more controversial now than it was four decades ago. Screenwriter Oliver Stone has distanced himself from the “over-dramatised” narrative he concocted from Billy Hayes’s bestselling record of his experiences after being busted with 2kg of hashish taped to his chest. Brad Davis plays Hayes with fizzing intensity. But Hurt (who got into character by not bathing during the 53-day shoot) opts to underplay and, thus, gives a much more truthful and effective performance as the heroin-addicted Max, which brought him a BAFTA and a Golden Globe.

Watership Down (1978)

Director Martin Rosen

Watership Down (1978)

Most discussion of this adaptation of Richard Adams’s much-loved tale about a rabbit colony’s battle against human heedlessness and leporine tyranny centres on the role of writer-producer Martin Rosen, but the voice work is quite superb, with Hurt intuitively capturing Hazel’s vulnerability and spirit. He would play General Woundwort in the 1999-2001 tele-revival, but Hurt has always excelled at voiceovers, whether essaying Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings (1978), the Horned King in The Black Cauldron (1985), the narrator in Dogville (2003) or the Great Dragon Kilgharrah in Merlin (2008-12).

Alien (1979)

Directors Ridley Scott

Alien (1979)

The chest-burster scene in Alien is truly iconic. All seems well as the Nostromo crew eat after Hurt’s executive officer had endured a close encounter with a face-hugging creature. Suddenly, however, he is wracked with pain and a tiny extraterrestrial rips through his ribs before scuttling away. None of Hurt’s co-stars knew exactly what to expect, and Ridley Scott used multiple cameras to capture their expressions of genuine shock, as Hurt screamed and blood and guts splattered everywhere. Yet Hurt (who parodied the scene in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs, 1987) concedes Bette Midler’s claim that H.R. Giger’s absconding alien looks like “a penis on a skateboard”.

The Elephant Man (1980)

Director David Lynch

The Elephant Man (1980)

Much is made of Christopher Tucker’s makeup (which prompted the Academy to create a new Oscar category) and the fact that it took seven hours to apply. But, while the prosthetics allow Hurt to resemble John Merrick, he creates his personality and the sense of dignity, gratitude and wonder that makes him so engaging with his voice and eyes. The anguish with which Merrick denies being an animal rends the soul, while his delight at each kindness, comfort and pleasure is humblingly touching. Hurt once appalled director Lindsay Anderson by claiming that “acting was just a sophisticated way of playing cowboys and Indians”. This BAFTA-winning, Oscar-nominated performance suggests there’s a lot more to it.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Director Michael Radford

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Following in the footsteps of Peter Cushing (1954) and Edmond O’Brien (1956), Hurt’s Winston Smith could easily have been lost in a mix that included Allan Cameron’s forbidding production design, Roger Deakins’ soul-crushing bleach-bypass imagery, Suzanna Hamilton’s full-frontal feistiness and Richard Burton’s swan-song melancholy. But, in being purged of his spirit of resistance and his ability to think and love, Hurt captures the tragic loss of humanity at the core of George Orwell’s bitter satire. Ironically, having played Adam Sutler, the fascistic leader of the Norsefire dictatorship in V for Vendetta (2005), Hurt assumed the mantle of Big Brother in Paper Zoo’s 2009 stage production.

The Hit (1984)

Director Stephen Frears

The Hit (1984)

Even though Hurt has several villains on his CV, Quentin Crisp rightly claimed that he specialises in victims. He is supposed to be a ruthless hitman in this subversive (supergrass Bertie Smalls-inspired) blend of road movie and bounty hunter western. But – as fatalistic Costa del Crime fugitive Terence Stamp points out to Hurt’s rookie partner, Tim Roth – he keeps having ‘accidents’ that make his task more difficult while leaving a trail of clues for the cops. Worst of all, this brutal professional, in his sunglasses and off-white suit, misses the chance to liquidate witness Laura del Sol, and his moment of tender-hearted weakness proves fatal.

Love and Death on Long Island (1997)

Director Richard Kwietniowski

Love and Death on Long Island (1997)

Notwithstanding his four marriages, Hurt once joked: “Everybody thought I was gay anyway.” After all, he played Quentin Crisp and did voiceovers for Nicolas Roeg’s sobering Iceberg and Tombstone AIDS infomercials. Yet there’s no guarantee that there’s anything conclusively homosexual about widowed writer Giles De’Ath’s sudden fixation with Hollywood heart-throb Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley), after he stumbles into Hotpants College II at the pictures instead of an E.M. Forster adaptation. The furtive dedication with which Giles compiles his Bostockiana scrapbook, and his confused determination as he acquires a VCR and television to watch Ronnie’s movies while eating pizza on his lap with cutlery, are a joy to behold.

44 Inch Chest (2009)

Director Malcolm Venville

44 Inch Chest (2009)

As well as excellent performances in little-seen shorts, such as Two Nudes Bathing (1995) and Sailcloth (2011), Hurt has often done sterling work in pictures that have divided the critics. Alongside his vengeful CIA agent in Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend (1983), cancer-stricken jockey in Champions (1984) and scheming rival for the throne in King Ralph (1991) stands Old Man Peanut, the foul-mouthed, seethingly misogynist East End villain, whose sense of Sunday school morality is offended when buddy Colin Diamond (Ray Winstone) is cuckolded. The sequences in which Peanut exhorts Colin to free himself from bondage and retells the biblical story of Samson are only topped by his devastating monologue on death.

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