Having featured in more than one hundred films in a career spanning over sixty years, Christopher Walken has made a prolific and eclectic career out of playing intense and often slightly off-kilter or plain oddball characters.
Born Ronald Walken on March 31st 1943, Walken started his rise to fame as a child actor, appearing in various television productions, before first ending up in the circus and then studying as a dancer in the sixties.
By the time the early seventies hit, Walken started to appear in more frequently in films, both in bit parts, amongst which small roles in films of Sidney Lumet and Woody Allen, and the occasional starring role before breaking through to the mainstream as Nick in Michael Cimino’s 1978’s The Deer Hunter, a role which earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
With the ability to be quirky as well as menacing, Walken has since carved himself a nice niche in the industry, often playing edgy characters, suitable to his sensibilities as an actor. And it’s those eccentric performances, in which he excels, as well as the best films he has featured in that this list focuses on. This explains why some movies, which starred Walken in leading roles, have nonetheless been omitted in favour of smaller yet more memorable and typical Walken parts.
10. The Comfort of Strangers (Paul Schrader, 1990)
Based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan and adapted for the screen by Harold Pinter, The Comfort of Strangers is directed by Paul Schrader and stars Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett as a young couple who get seduced by an elder couple, played by Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren.
Colin (Everett) and Mary (Richardson) are a young English couple who have come to Venice on holidays to work out some issues in their relationship. Whilst there, they meet the mysterious Robert (Walken), the owner of a local bar, who entertains them one night by telling them stories from his youth about his domineering father and the cruel tricks his sisters would play upon him. By the time Colin and Mary leave, they are drunk and get lost in the maze-like streets of Venice.
The following morning, after having wondered through the city all night, they meet Robert again, who realises that they got lost as he got them drunk and didn’t show them the way home. Embarrassed, he invites the couple to his villa, where they meet his emotionally unstable wife (Mirren), and as the day progresses they get drawn into the older couple’s bizarre games.
The Comfort of Strangers is an acquired taste and certainly not one of Paul Schrader’s best but the main reason it’s on this list is the magnificent monologue by Walken midway the movie.
A completely compelling and surreal tale about his abuse at the hands of his family, the monologue pre-dates other more famous Walken monologues found later on this list but easily holds it own and foreshadowed what was to come later on. Sinister and bizarre, it’s an absolute highlight of the movie and reason enough to make this top ten.
9. Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton, 1999)
Arguably the last film directed by Tim Burton which is still worth a damn, although it also suffers from lack of characterisation and plot whilst being visually spectacular, a common fault in the director’s oeuvre, Sleepy Hollow is a Gothic supernatural detective film starring Burton’s go-to lead Johnny Depp whilst giving Christopher Walken the chance to ham it up as a headless horseman seemingly terrorising the village of Sleepy Hollow.
The town of Sleepy Hollow has subject to a series of murders in which the victim’s heads have all been removed and townsfolk believe an undead Hessian mercenary, referred to as the Headless Horseman, is to blame. Ichabod Crane (Depp) is a New York detective, renowned for his modern investigative techniques, who decides to look into the mystery, fully believing that there’s a rational explanation to be found for the murders.
As he arrives in town, he finds boarding at the Van Tassel family, next of kin of some of the victims, and promptly falls head over heels for the Van Tassel daughter, Katrina (Christina Ricci), much to the dismay of her suitor Brom van Brunt (Casper Van Dien). But as Crane gets deeper involved in the mystery, it appears that there might in fact be some genuine supernatural powers at work whilst it also becomes apparent that all of the victims seem to be connected to the newly drawn-up will of Peter Van Garrett (Martin Landau), the horseman’s first victim.
Visually sumptuous with stunning production and costume design as well as beautiful cinematography, Sleepy Hollow is a true feast for the eyes. With a muted colour palate, apart from the intense tones of red in the film’s various bloody scenes, Sleepy Hollow is part dark Gothic fairytale, part homage to the old English Hammer horror films and part ode to the visual splendour of Mario Bava’s 1960s horror and fantasy output. Whilst central to the story,
Walken’s part as the horseman is rather small, especially since most of the film he rides around without an actual head, but when he does he appear on screen he’s more than suitably macabre and unhinged to make his small part very memorable. Sleepy Hollow won an Academy Award for Best Production Design, two BAFTA Awards for Production and Costume Design and a whole slate of other awards, primarily in those categories and cinematography, from various other film festivals and award ceremonies.
8. Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, 2012)
Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to his fantastic directorial debut feature In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths is another darkly comedic crime film with a twisted sense of the absurd. The first entry on this list in which Walken has a starring part, albeit in a large ensemble cast which also features Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson in the other leads, Seven Psychopaths is the exact kind of quirky and slightly twisted tale to suit Walken’s sensibilities as an actor.
Marty (Farrell) is a down on his luck script writer in Los Angeles who has had a great screenplay called Seven Psychopaths floating in his head for some time. Unfortunately he has not been able to make a lot of progress on it. His best friend Billy (Rockwell), a struggling actor, also has plenty of creative input when he’s not too busy working on his dog kidnapping scheme with his partner Hans (Walken) in which they take dogs only to return them later for the owner’s offered rewards.
But when Billy and Hans end up kidnapping the beloved Shih Tzu from a psychotic local gangster, Charlie Costello (Harrelson), the trio gets themselves involved head over heels with plenty of seedy thugs whilst it also becomes apparent that Billy and Hans themselves are far from your regular con artists.
Pulpy, darkly comedic and off-kilter, Seven Psychopaths seems to be one of those movies where the screenplay was written with a character like Christopher Walken in mind. Surrounded by an impressive ensemble cast, which also further includes Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko and Harry Dean Stanton, the film revels in its own morbid oddball tone as it veers from bloody violent to humorous to poignant whilst the snappy dialogue and character interactions further contribute greatly to the overall tone.
A perfect fit for Walken’s trademark odd demeanour, Seven Psychopaths is another memorable entry in McDonagh’s unique brand of violent comedy.
7. The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983)
Based on the same name novel by Stephen King, The Dead Zone is a supernatural horror/thriller directed by David Cronenberg and probably ranks amongst the director’s most accessible and mainstream films.
When Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) awakens from a five-year coma, he discovers that he has brought back the psychic ability to foretell someone’s future merely by touching their hand. His doctor (Herbert Lom) becomes convinced that he not only has the ability to see their futures but is also able to change them. But when Johnny gets a vision of a nuclear holocaust when he shakes the hand of a politician (Martin Sheen), his ability is tested to the limit and slowly starts taking a serious toll on him.
One of the better adaptations of Stephen King’s horror works and one of David Cronenberg’s most straight-forward horror films, The Dead Zone benefits from a great cast, including a great lead performance by Walken. The film was even followed up by a spin-off TV series in the early 2000s. Also of note is the fact that Walken spoofed his character from this movie with hilarious results when he appeared on one of his many Saturday Night Live guest appearances.
6. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Arguably the quintessential American movie of the nineties and certainly one of its most influential ones, Pulp Fiction was the film that broke Quentin Tarantino into the mainstream as his second feature film became a huge critical as well as financial success. Featuring an all-star cast, Christopher Walken only has one scene in the entire film but his monologue is unforgettable and rightfully deserves a spot in this top ten.
Intertwining various stories in a non-linear fashion, Pulp Fiction became the modernised version of the hard-boiled crime film, filled with pop-culture and cinema references.
There’s the story of the aging boxer who agrees to throw the match but then decides against it, the gangster who has to look after the boss’ wife and gets himself into trouble by doing so, the other gangster who has an epiphany and decides to go straight, the diner stick-up, the MacGuffin which needs to be retrieved for the local crime lord and the body that needs to be disposed of prudently. All these stories are somehow interconnected and whilst the film mixes up the chronology, it never leaves the viewer confused.
An eclectic love letter to film and pop culture if ever there was one, Pulp Fiction wears its many influences on its sleeve and there are many many reasons to love this film. But the reason it made it onto this list is the midway monologue by Christopher Walken as Captain Koons who arrives at the house of a young Bruce Willis to hand him his father’s watch, which Koons has been hiding where the sun don’t shine whilst being a POW in a Vietnamese POW camp.
As I assume that everybody has seen Pulp Fiction, I also assume we all understand why this one scene alone deserves such a high spot on this list. Pulp Fiction went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards (out of seven nominations), Best Screenplay at the Golden Globes (out of six nominations) and Best Screenplay and Supporting Actor at the BAFTA Awards (out of eight nominations), in addition to a myriad of other awards and prizes at various international film festivals and award ceremonies.