Christopher Walken, writes Arifa Akbar in the Independent, is a “sinister-looking man who has made a living from looking — and acting — sinister,” but he didn’t start out that way. His “career trajectory – starting benignly enough in children’s commercials, musicals, and dance – took a darker turn two years after his near-miss with Star Wars,” when he’d almost landed the Han Solo role that went to Harrison Ford. Instead he played “the emotionally decimated Vietnam veteran in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and was immortalized in the ‘Russian roulette’ scene as a gaunt, bug-eyed madman aiming a shaking revolver to his own head. The role won him an Oscar and led to assembly-line casting in an array of deranged, demonic parts.”
Of course, when an actor becomes synonymous with a grim but artful intensity, he must sooner or later interpret the work of a writer synonymous with grim but artful intensity: Edgar Allan Poe. And so on this day, the 167th anniversary of Poe’s death under still-unexplained circumstances, we give you Walken’s performance of “The Raven.”
The 1845 poem stands today as Poe’s best-known work by far, as he seemed to intend: he wrote it, so he later claimed in a magazine essay, with “the intention of composing a poem that should suit at once the popular and the critical taste” and pack an emotional punch as well.
Walken, for his part, has variously appealed to both popular and critical tastes in the roughly 130 roles he has played over his sixty-year career, somehow earning both respect as a serious dramatic actor and almost instinctive audience laughter as a figure of fun. At his best, Walken’s darkness contains a lightness and his lightness a darkness, all of which you can hear in his nine-minute recitation, accompanied by music and sound effects, of the words of this nameless man tormented by a talking bird while pining for his lost love Lenore. If anybody can credibly stare into the abyss Poe’s work opens up, Christopher Walken can — after all, he knows what it means not to fear the reaper.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.