Martin Balsam Best Films

Martin Balsam's Top 15 Films Ranked

Actors Aug 11, 2023

Martin Balsam was one of the most talented and prolific character actors of the 20th century. With an acting career that spanned over 50 years across stage, film, and television, Balsam built up an impressive résumé of memorable roles and acclaimed performances. He became forever immortalised on the silver screen for bringing to life some of the most iconic characters and stories in cinema history.

15. Cape Fear (1962)

Cape Fear (1962)

Kicking off the list is Balsam’s chilling turn in 1962’s psychological thriller Cape Fear. Based on the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald, this film saw Balsam take on the role of Detective Mark Dutton, tasked with investigating the sinister Max Cady, played brilliantly by Robert Mitchum. As Cady embarks on a revengeful rampage against his former lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), it is up to Dutton to try and put an end to Cady’s trail of terror.

Balsam brings a stark intensity to the role of Dutton, matching Cady’s malevolence with a steely determination to stop him before he can inflict more harm. The placid world of the quaint coastal town is shattered by the intrusion of Cady’s menacing presence, the light versus dark symbolism used to great effect. Balsam’s performance provides an anchor for morality amidst the chaotic spiral into violence and terror. While by no means his most iconic role, Balsam’s turn in Cape Fear showed his ability to hold his own against acting heavyweights like Mitchum and Peck.

"We're gonna get him, Sam. We're gonna nail him." - Det. Mark Dutton, Cape Fear

14. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

In this high-stakes thriller, Martin Balsam plays Harold Longman, a former NYCTA motorman who uses his insider knowledge to participate in hijacking a subway train under the alias Mr. Green.

As the anxious and ruthless Mr. Green, Balsam brings an urgency and tension that amplifies the film's suspense. Having been fired after a prior drug bust, Longman's motivations are fueled by both greed and vengeance. Balsam portrays Longman's escalating fear and desperation as the heist faces complications, adding to the human drama.

Overall, Balsam's performance as the villainous Longman is crucial in making the premise feel authentic and elevating the stakes. His previous experience as a motorman provides pivotal context for how the hijackers can expertly manipulate the train. Balsam's acting talents help make Longman a compelling and complex antagonist fighting for his share of the ransom.

"For God's sake, we've got to do something before these bastards start shooting hostages!" - Mr. Green, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

13. Hombre (1967)

Hombre (1967)

Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, 1967’s gritty western thriller Hombre saw Balsam take on the role of the affluent Dr. Alex Favor, who must band together with stranger John Russell (Paul Newman) when their stagecoach gets ambushed. What unfolds is a stark morality tale exposing humankind’s prejudices, as Favor’s civility gives way to cowardice and the so-called savage Russell reveals his true heroic nature.

As Favor, Balsam is arrogant yet insecure, hiding his cowardice behind a veneer of social pretensions. His character arc provides a sophisticated take on how quick people can abandon their morals when threatened with harm. Balsam’s performance provides the perfect counter to Newman’s stoic heroism, reiterating the film’s themes on challenging superficial assumptions about character.

"My hypocrisy goes only so far." - Dr. Alex Favor, Hombre

12. Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

Proving his versatility as a performer, Balsam took on a more comedic role in the 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As O.J. Berman, a brash yet good-natured Hollywood agent, Balsam gets some of the film’s most memorable and entertaining scenes opposite Audrey Hepburn’s sparkling lead performance as eccentric socialite Holly Golightly.

Despite his bravado and swagger, Berman has a heart of gold underneath it all, going out of his way to help protect Holly despite her reckless behavior. Balsam brings a gale of energetic charisma to the role, able to disarm even the most stone-faced stoics with his motor-mouthed monologues and anecdotes. His friendship with Hepburn’s Golightly provides the emotional core to this otherwise lighthearted romantic caper.

“You call yourself a hotshot. You're only good for one thing: nuisance value.” - O.J. Berman, Breakfast at Tiffany's

11. Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Based on the 1934 novel by acclaimed mystery writer Agatha Christie, 1974’s star-studded extravaganza Murder on the Orient Express saw Balsam take on the role of Bianchi, one of the ill-fated passengers aboard the legendary locomotive. With a murderer on the loose amongst their midst, it is up to iconic detective Hercule Poirot to piece together the puzzle and identify the culprit.

As Bianchi, Balsam is suspicious and cagey, with a hidden knowledge that both he and the killer are desperate to conceal. Balsam’s air of melancholy and regret adds emotional depth to this smaller supporting role, with the events onboard the train clearly weighing heavy on Bianchi’s conscience. In many ways, Bianchi symbolizes the loss of moral innocence, his fate a tragic example of how even good people can end up on an misguided path.

“It’s the chance of a lifetime. This is the last journey of the Orient Express under the old system.” - Bianchi, Murder on the Orient Express

10. The Carpetbaggers (1964)

The Carpetbaggers (1964)

From acclaimed director Edward Dmytryk comes this 1964 adaptation of the sensational Harold Robbins’ bestselling novel The Carpetbaggers. Chronicling the life of an ambitious tycoon’s rise to power and wealth in the 1920s, The Carpetbaggers was known for its unflinching take on debauchery and corruption in the industrial age.

As film executive Bernard B. Norman, Balsam acts as both mentor and foil to leading man Jonas Cord (George Peppard), trying to protect Cord from his own worst indulgences while also envious of the young mogul’s success. It is a complex, morally ambiguous portrait as Norman’s guidance clashes with his bitterness. Balsam’s gravitas and solemn delivery balances the more lurid melodramatic elements, giving the ethical dimensions more poignancy.

“You'll learn, as you get older, Jonas, that ideals alone can't make your life work for you. You'll always have to compromise to protect your interests.” – Bernard B. Norman, The Carpetbaggers

9. Seven Days in May (1964)

Seven Days in May (1964)

Released in 1964 at the height of Cold War tensions, Seven Days in May envisioned a nightmare scenario of a planned military coup to overthrow the U.S. government. Balsam stars as Congressional leader Paul Girard, who assists the President in trying to stop this conspiracy before it is too late.

With trademark intensity, Balsam delivers with a grave solemnity in conveying the severity of the crisis at hand. As the political figure tasked with investigating the possible betrayal, Girard undertakes his duties with an unwavering sense of civic duty. Balsam’s grounded performance ensures that this political thriller maintains a sense of nuance and ethical complexity rather than veering into hysterical hyperbole.

“There's no doubt that they mean business. The ante's a hundred million lives.” – Paul Girard, Seven Days in May

8. The Sentinel (1977)

The Sentinel (1977)

This 1977 supernatural horror thriller featured one of Balsam’s most chilling performances as Professor Ruzinsky, a priest who aides the investigation into a series of murders involving a mysterious apartment building.

As the unsettling Ruzinsky, Balsam brings an eerie solemnity and grim authority to his warnings about the malevolent forces at work. His grave intensity adds gravitas to the film’s supernatural premise, anchoring the horror in a sober believability. In many ways, Ruzinsky serves as the cryptic oracle foretelling doom, with Balsam imbuing the role with a haunting otherworldliness that steals every scene he inhabits. His darkly charismatic presence lingers like a shadow even after his scenes conclude.

"It knows you're here. It's going to try to stop you." - Professor Ruzinsky, The Sentinel

7. All the President's Men (1976)

All the President's Men (1976)

In this 1976 political thriller, Balsam took on the role of Attorney General John Mitchell, a key figure in the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon presidency. As Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) uncover the details of the Watergate break-in, Mitchell finds himself pulled deeper into the conspiracy.

As Mitchell, Balsam exudes a gruff skepticism and air of authority that slowly gives way to desperation as the investigation closes in. Balsam's gravitas brings real depth to conveying Mitchell’s internal conflict between political loyalty and his own role in Watergate. His unraveling demeanor amplifies the escalating tension and paranoia in the film’s cat-and-mouse game with the intrepid reporters.

"The story is dry. All we've got are pieces. We can't seem to figure out what the puzzle is supposed to look like." - John Mitchell, All the President's Men

6. Catch-22 (1970)

Catch-22 (1970)

Based on the seminal anti-war novel by Joseph Heller, Mike Nichols’ 1970 satirical film Catch-22 featured an ensemble cast with Balsam playing the supporting role of Colonel Cathcart. Set on an airbase during World War II, Cathcart makes life miserable for the airmen under his command by continually raising the number of flight missions required before they can go home.

Balsam makes Cathcart a petty and bureaucratic tyrant who delights in lording his power over the troops underneath him. Poised at first as merely an officious nuisance, Cathcart slowly reveals his cruelty and callous disregard for his soldiers’ well-being. Through Balsam’s characterization, Cathcart becomes symbolic of the nonsensical bureaucracy of war and the calamitous human consequences.

“Don't call me Colonel, I'm a General. Colonel's an insult.” – Colonel Cathcart, Catch-22

5. A Thousand Clowns (1965)

A Thousand Clowns (1965)

Pairing with acclaimed director Fred Coe, Balsam earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Arnold Burns in the bittersweet 1965 comedy A Thousand Clowns. He stars opposite Jason Robards Jr. as eccentric comedy writer Murray Burns, who struggles to raise his nephew Nick (Barry Gordon) according to his freewheeling philosophy.

As Murray’s strait-laced brother Arnold, Balsam provides the perfect foil to Robards Jr.’s freewheeling anti-authoritarian prankster. Despite their diametrically opposed personalities, underneath Arnold still cares for his brother’s wellbeing even if he disapproves of Murray’s antics. This duality makes Arnold more complex, and Balsam’s nuanced portrayal earned considerable praise. The courtroom speech where Arnold tries to make Murray understand the gravity of his situation is considered one of Balsam's finest on-screen moments.

“Murray, you're a grown-up person. Whether you act like one or not, you're responsible for a growing human being. Nick's taken his first big step into the world—this can be his big step into manhood and maturity, too.” – Arnold Burns, A Thousand Clowns

4. On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront (1954)

In this classic 1954 drama, Balsam took on the supporting part of Gillette, right-hand man to corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who uses intimidation and violence to control the city's dockyards. When dock worker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) unwittingly aids Friendly in the murder of Edie's brother, he is consumed by guilt and ends up testifying against Friendly's syndicate crimes.

As Gillette, Balsam epitomizes the casual brutality of the union mob but also their undying loyalty to each other. His morally ambiguous character provides the middle ground between Brando's righteous hero and Cobb's remorseless villain. Balsam's natural gravitas brings real presence to even this smaller role, and his performance earned praise for its authenticity in depicting Gillette's complexities. The Oscar-winning On the Waterfront kicked off an era of hard-hitting social dramas, with Balsam's turn marking himself as a serious dramatic actor to watch.

“They got nothin' on you, Johnny. Absolutely nothin'. You still got the best operation on the waterfront." - Gillette, On the Waterfront

3.Little Big Man (1970)

Little Big Man (1970)

In Arthur Penn’s 1970 revisionist western epic Little Big Man, Balsam took on the role of Merchant, a shrewd salesman doing business with the Cheyenne tribe. As the white protagonist Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) gets adopted into the Cheyenne community, Merchant maintains an uneasy alliance with the Native Americans as long as it serves his economic interests.

As Merchant, Balsam epitomizes the capitalist opportunism that fueled much of the exploitation and betrayal of Native peoples. His performance provides a cynical counterpoint to the idealism of Crabb's journey. Through Balsam’s characterization, Merchant comes to represent the cold pragmatism that enabled the injustices of American colonialism in the west.

"These Indians're gettin' ready to find out what the white man's promised 'em - death and extinction!" - Merchant, Little Big Man

2. Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic 1960 thriller Psycho features one of Balsam’s most memorable supporting turns as Milton Arbogast, a private investigator searching for missing secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). His persistent investigation at the secluded Bates Motel soon turns deadly thanks to the establishment’s disturbed proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).

With an alluring mix of tenacity and unease, Balsam makes Arbogast a worthy adversary for the sinister Norman Bates. Undeterred by Bates’ eccentric hostility, Arbogast remains professionally determined to find answers – a doggedness that may prove to be his undoing. Balsam’s strong presence provides an anchor early in the film before all hell breaks loose in the terrifying final act.

“If anyone should inquire for me, I’m from a real estate company and am just checking the route... for a client.” – Milton Arbogast, Psycho

1. 12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men (1957)

And topping the list is one of Balsam’s early career-defining roles as Juror #1 in Sidney Lumet’s electrifying 1957 courtroom drama 12 Angry Men. As the members of the jury deliberate over the fate of a young murder suspect, tensions and prejudices boil over in the claustrophobic confines of their room.

As the level-headed de facto foreman, Balsam brings a rational and patient composure to his role as Juror #1. He is determined to ensure that true justice prevails rather than a hasty verdict based on personal biases. His moral integrity provides a principled counterpoint to some of the more belligerent and obstinate jurors. In a film full of standout performances, Balsam’s grounded portrayal earned him critical acclaim for providing the jury’s moral conscience.

“Boy’s life is at stake. I guess we owe him a few hours of our time.” – Juror #1, 12 Angry Men


Martin Balsam’s illustrious career stands as a testament to his exceptional talents as a character actor. Whether it was bringing levity to grim scenarios or gravitas to lighter stories, Balsam’s performances were always defined by nuance, authenticity, and complexity. His top 15 highest-rated films surveyed here represent some of his most iconic roles that made him a beloved fixture of American cinema.

From righteous heroes to flawed villains, every part portrayed by Balsam was injected with thoughtful depth and pathos. Audiences gravitated to his expressiveness and relatability on-screen. His vast range meant he could be chilling in thrillers as often as he was charming in comedies. Above all, Martin Balsam cemented his reputation as an consummate actor capable of being believably whoever the story needed him to be. His dedication to his craft resulted in memorable cinematic moments that continue to be treasured by cinema lovers today.

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Richard Wells

I am the founder of The Rewind Zone, created in 2022. My passion for film knows no bounds! It is my goal through this medium to bring the wonders of film from a bygone era back into your lives.