Karl Malden – unsung great

Sitting in my local, doing the pub quiz of a Tuesday evening, the first round is always a picture round. This weeks had a theme and a rather morbid one at that. The collection of pictures were of people who had died in 2009. Amongst the stupidly famous – Michael Jackson, or the “was it that long ago?” – Brittany Murphy, one picture really stood out for me. It was of Karl Malden.

It took me back to when I heard he had died. His death passed by in England, barely getting a mention. The one newspaper I saw carrying an obituary had it as a simple side column. That was it, moved on. I personally felt that it warranted much more coverage. Okay his last role in anything prominent was The West Wing and before that The Streets of San Francisco some 20-odd years earlier. What wasn’t acknowledged particularly, was his role in helping shift the acting style to what we see so abundantly now.

His career was already underway for a good decade before the boom the 50’s Method took off. Karl was at the forefront. He originated the character Mitch in the first ever performance of A Streetcar Named Desire directed by Elia Kazan and co-starring Kim Hunter, Jessica Tandy and of course Marlon Brando. He then played him in the 1951 film version. Here was an already well honed character actor. His performance is always overlooked (as is Kim Hunters) and it’s a great shame. Then came other stand out performances in films like On The Waterfront, One Eyed Jacks and Patton. Be sure also to check out his hilarious turn in Pollyanna.

He said that Brando “consistently brought out the best in me.” The same is also true in reverse. Next time you watch either of the three films they made together, you’ll see an effortless and always brilliant exchange(s). Here they do the simple things of listening and responding, but in such a seamless fashion.

Karl Malden has been described as “solid” and “dependable”. Yes they are compliments, but he was also subtle, versatile, intense, menacing and the all round decent man just trying to make his way. Quite frankly – one of the all time greats. So what if he didn’t have the looks that Hollywood craves so much? His presence on screen could elevate a poorer film. Malden is someone I would always recommend and am not ashamed to bang the drum!

If you still need convincing, watch his monologue from Waterfront. It’s a masterclass:

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