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November 16, 2009

In Memoriam: Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man

I have to admit that I'm too young and too American to know a lot about the career of Edward Woodward, who passed away recently at the age of of 79. But, when I saw mention of his passing I immediately thought two things - "Wasn't he in Hot Fuzz?" (He was, as town watchdog Tom Weaver) & "Man, he was astounding in The Wicker Man."

Not to be confused with the Neil LaBute/Nicolas Cage remake, 1973's The Wicker Man has long been on the short list of my favorite horror films. Calling it just a horror film is a slight injustice, as it doubles as a murder mystery, a religious commentary, and a dreamlike quasi-musical; but the story revolves around a horrific final act that is as powerful as any ever filmed. And that wouldn't have been possible without Woodward giving one of the best performances I've ever witnessed.

When I first came across The Wicker Man in a video store, I knew little about it other than that it starred the fantastic Christopher Lee and was called by someone "The Citizen Kane of Horror films". That was more than enough to convince a young horror hound like myself that I needed to see this film. I had no idea who Edward Woodward even was.

Upon initial viewing, the portrayal of Sergeant Howie by Woodward seemed cheesy. The character was a one-note, devout, unchanging man, the type that made my youthful self snicker and start to root for him to get whatever he had coming to him. But the final act of the film allowed Woodward to break out and the script, one of the sharpest in horror history, gives him a chance to shine in some harrowing situations. The film instantly became one I was ready to revisit again and again with its late twists, and Woodward's performance suddenly was a key cog in a horror classic.

As time went on, and I saw the movie a few more times, it became entirely obvious that Woodward's performance was the selling point of the film. There's so much going on, but all of it revolves around his ability to maintain his position and portray a man who's 100% dedicated to his beliefs and unwilling to waver in any regard. Woodward sells the position of a man who can not believe the people around him are the way they say they are, and who is entirely conflicted as to how he can change the people around him. The character is not cheesy, he's simply stubborn, and his performance sells this realistically even in the most surreal moments of the film.

Watching the film again today, I was obviously focused on Woodward more than usual. It's always hard to watch an actor's performance after you hear they've passed on, but in this case I couldn't help feeling a joy that I had come across one of the most interesting performances I've ever witnessed, and felt very thankful for the small portion of the man's career I've been able to see thus far. I urge anyone who hasn't checked it out and has an open mind for cinema that's off the beaten path to seek out Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man. Edward Woodward's performance is worth the price of admission alone, and there's a whole lot more on top of it that helps make those Citizen Kane comparisons seem none too far fetched.

As for Mr. Woodward himself, rest in peace, good sir. Thanks for the memories.

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