"The Border" (1982)
Perhaps the most underseen and underrated film, and performance, of Nicholson's career, "The Border" was ignored on release, and has pretty much passed into obscurity, falling between his two Oscar-nominated supporting turns in "Reds" and "Terms of Endearment." But the film, penned by Walon Green ("Sorceror"), Deric Washburn ("Silent Running," "The Deer Hunter") and David Freeman, and directed, atypically, by the great British helmer Tony Richardson ("Tom Jones"), is an overlooked gem, with some of Nicholson's very best screen acting. The star plays Charlie, a border patrol agent who moves to Texas at the behest of his materialist, social-climbing wife (Valerie Perrine, fun, if a little broad). He soon discovers that his colleagues, Cat (Harvey Keitel) and Warren Oates (in his penultimate role) are deep into corruption, and gives into temptation, but decides to atone for his sins by tracking down the baby of immigrant Maria (Elpidia Carrilo), which has been taken to be sold to a wealthy American couple. The actor is in subdued form here, a man being eaten up by financial pressures and the self-loathing at what he's doing to live up to them, who finds salvation through his desire to "feel good about something sometime," as he tells Maria (there's a beautiful dignity to how he plays the scene, in which the girl undresses, thinking that's the payment Charlie wants for his help). The film unravels towards the end, devolving into a too-neat shoot-em-up finale that stinks of studio interference, but Nicholson's performance is a marvel throughout. It's time it got its due.
"Prizzi's Honor" (1985)
It's hard to argue that "Prizzi's Honor" was undervalued at the time as the film was nominated for a brace of Oscars, and Nicholson himself got a Best Actor nod, although he was beaten out by Wliliam Hurt for "Kiss of the Spider Woman." But its critical reputation has shrunk a little since, and probably correctly so. One suspects that the Academy wanted to honor director John Huston one last time, and had they known he had another bona-fide masterpiece in him with "The Dead," they might not have fallen for an enjoyable, if slight, black comedy. But none of that changes how good Nicholson is in the film. The actor plays Charley Partanna, a mob enforcer for the Prizzi family, who falls for Irene, a rival hitwoman (Kathleen Turner, never better). They're soon married, but find that work and love don't mix, and thanks to the interference of Charley's one-time fiancee Maerose (Nicholson's then-girlfriend Angelica Huston, who won an Oscar for the part), soon find themselves tasked with taking each other out. Huston gives the film an enjoyably nasty, dark tone, but the treat here is Nicholson, who with padding in his lip that subtly shifts his look and voice, giving him the feel of Humphrey Bogart. And despite the broad comic tone, there's a grounded, deeply sad feel to Charley, even as he wrings laughs out of his less than towering intellect.
"The Pledge" (2001)
In the last couple of decades, Nicholson's given good performances, but has too often, like Pacino and De Niro, ended up giving mannered turns that verge on self-parody. But smack in the middle is not just one of his most undervalued performances, but one of his very best. Six years after their first collaboration on "The Crossing Guard," Nicholson reunited with director Sean Penn for "The Pledge," another grim tale of child death and revenge, in which the star plays Jerry Black, a detective who, just as he's retiring, promises the mother of a murdered girl that he'll bring her killer to justice. His former colleagues think that they got their suspect, a mentally-disabled Native American man (Benicio Del Toro) who kills himself in custody, but Jerry's not convinced, and becomes increasingly obsessed with tracking down the murderer. While Penn's direction is occasionally a little heavy-handed and look-at-how-serious-I-am, he assembled an astonishing cast who never showboat (small cameos from Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave are among the highlights), but Nicholson is first and foremost among them, carrying the entire film on his shoulders. It's easily his subtlest, least mannered performance, the actor almost unrecognizable as a haunted man trying to do the right thing, but often in the wrong way, and unravelling as a result. Where he's left at the end of the film is heartbreaking, and it remains his most resonant turn, although we're ever helpful it'll be topped before too long.