Thursday, June 26, 2014

In Character: Eli Wallach

I’ve had a bittersweet few days since hearing of Eli Wallach’s passing. On one hand, there is no doubt that we lost a film legend. Wallach was one of the premiere character actors to ever grace the screen. He delivered hundreds of iconic performances in film and television, as well as on stage, and I’m so saddened by his loss. On the other hand, at 98 years old, it’s clear that Wallach lived a full and great life.

When news broke of Wallach’s death, I did what I always do when an artist I admire passes: I traced through his filmography, looking to fill any major gaps I may have missed. A few of the films below are ones I’ve just watched for the first time. They’re great films; masterpieces, even. Films I’ve wanted to get to, but had been putting off. I’m sad that it took Wallach’s passing to motivate me to watch them, but now more than I ever, I know Wallach’s work will certainly live on.

Five Essential Roles
The Lineup (1958)
Dancer
While on vacation abroad, several American tourists have pure heroin slipped into their bags without them knowing. When they reenter San Francisco days later, it is Dancer’s job to retrieve the drugs, without the tourists realizing anything has happened. It’s a difficult task that requires plenty of patience, which Dancer is in short supply of.

Early in The Lineup, Dancer’s partner describes him as, “A wonderful, pure, pathological study. A psychopath with no inhibitions.” Truer words couldn’t be spoken. The foreboding command Wallach has over Dancer is captivating. He makes the simple act of unlocking a suitcase utterly terrifying. His stares are ice cold, and his speech is succinct and unpleasant. Dancer is one of the most despicable characters Wallach ever played; a frightening and fascinating portrayal of a psycho killer void of conscience.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Calvera
I suppose I’m not the biggest fan of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven. It’s an unnecessary remake (of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Seven Samurai), rooted in somewhat phoned in performances from the titular heroes. Yet, there is magic to be found in the film, including its spirited gunfights and, chiefly, Eli Wallach’s scenery chewing work. As the leader of a group of Mexican bandits, Eli Wallach bites into every one of his scenes, tearing the film apart with maniacal glee. His work as Calvera is proof that, even if a movie wasn’t that good, you could never take your eyes off Eli Wallach.

The Misfits (1961)
Guido
Guido, a kind hearted cowboy living in Reno, is the first man in The Misfits to spot Roslyn Tabor (Marilyn Monroe). And from the moment he meets her, Guido becomes intoxicated by her charm and beauty. But soon after introducing Roslyn to his best pal, a roughneck named Gay (Clarke Gable), Guido is devastated when Roslyn chooses to shack up with Gay instead of him. Although this love triangle only takes up part of John Huston’s perfect film, it certainly makes for some of the most emotive work Wallach, Gable and Monroe ever delivered. In fact, of the principal cast members, Eli Wallach has the least showy role in The Misfits. But that doesn’t make the plight of Guido any less enthralling. The arc of his character, particularly in the film’s final scenes, is simply heartbreaking.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Tuco Benedicto Pacífico Juan María Ramírez aka The Rat aka The Ugly
Eli Wallach stole damn near every one of his scenes as the Ugly bandit in Sergio Leone’s pulp fiction slice of bravado, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He brought a levity to the picture that has helped make it so iconic. Whether Tuco is inspecting a handful of guns, shooting a man through sudsy bath water, tormenting a horribly burned Clint Eastwood, or trying to secure footing as he dangles from a rope, everything Wallach does in the film helps solidify Tuco’s distinct brand of lunacy. Wallach plays Tuco strongly, but never pushes him into farce. He’s hostile, but never fully dangerous. The beauty of the performance is that, although Tuco isn’t aware that he is always the butt of the joke, the man playing him certainly does. This is the kind of performance that defines a career, long after that career is over.

The Godfather: Part III (1990)
Don Altobello
Don Altobello is the best type of film villain. An unassuming, seemingly well-intentioned fella who will shake your hand while stabbing you in the back. And although the third Godfather film is clearly inferior to the two that come before, Don Altobello has always been one of my favorite menaces of the entire saga.

Most gangsters rely on physical intimidation to assert their power. But Don Altobello is different. By presenting himself as a harmless old codger, he rightfully assumes that people will mistake his frailness for weakness. But this is a ruthless man whose evil motivations make for many of Part III’s best scenes. Late in his career, Eli Wallach was so skilled at embracing his old age through his characters. He was 74 years old when The Godfather: Part III was filmed, and it remains the finest older performance of his career.

Wild Card
Mystic River (2003)
Mr. Loonie
I love everything about Eli Wallach’s uncredited cameo as Mr. Loonie in Mystic River. I love his excited-turned-bitter retelling of a robbery that took place in his liquor store years ago. Love the way he pulls a shotgun in front of two cops, then mutters “Yeah… yeah, sure,” when they ask him if he told the initial cops about the gun. Love the way he mocks “Just Ray” Harris’ grin, and, of course, I love the way he asks Kevin Bacon if, “I look senile to you?”

But most of all, I love how, in less than two minutes on screen, Eli Wallach was able to make himself one of the most memorable characters of an entire film. For a moment there, it was so great to see ol’ Eli and Clint, back in the swing of things.

The Best of the Best
Baby Doll (1956)
Silva Vacarro
Through my research for this post, the film that kept appearing (that I had not yet seen) was Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, which, incidentally, featured Wallach’s first film performance. Yesterday evening, I rented the film from iTunes, hit play, and literally did not move for two hours. With each passing minute, I became more immersed in the seedy world that Kazan, writer Tennessee Williams, and stars Karl Malden, Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach had created. I marveled at the film’s bold script, fearless acting and minimalist direction. But, most memorably, I sat and watched an actor be reborn in front of my eyes.

Archie Lee (Malden) is a raging cotton gin owner who is married to a naïve young woman named Baby Doll (Baker). Archie’s misgivings have rendered him broke, and when another cotton gin owner named Silva Vacarro starts taking his business, Archie burns Silva’s gin down. The next day, Silva, who suspects that Archie destroyed his gin, visits Archie’s home and is quickly left alone with Baby Doll.

What follows is a thrilling 25-minute long scene in which Silva tries to seduce Baby Doll in the front yard of Archie’s home. During this sequence, which is, without a doubt, the single greatest scene of Wallach’s career, Wallach is charming, dreadful, sexy and menacing, all at the same time. At this point in the film, we have no idea what Silva is capable of, leaving us to sit in fear as he gently preys on Baby Doll with the relaxed demeanor of wild animal waiting to strike.

Because of this scene, the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned the film and helped ban it from most U.S. theaters. And sure, by today’s standards, Baby Doll is rather tame, but for 1956, I can’t imagine the trouble it kicked up. Later in his life, Wallach said that Silva Vacarro remained his favorite performance he ever gave. I didn’t misspeak when I mentioned rebirth earlier, and here’s why: I thought I knew something about the talent of Eli Wallach, but in watching this film, I learned that you don’t fully know what Eli Wallach is capable of until you’ve seen Baby Doll.

Other Notable Roles
with Ewan McGregor in The Ghost Writer
Seven Thieves (1960)
How the West Was Won (1962)
The Victors (1963)
Lord Jim (1965)
Genghis Khan (1965)
How to Steal a Million (1966)
Batman (1967)
Ace High (1968) 
The Sentinel (1977)
The Hunter (1980)
The Executioner’s Song (1982)
Our Family Honor (1985-1986)
Tough Guys (1986)
The Two Jakes (1990)
Keeping the Faith (2000)
The Hoax (2006)
The Holiday (2006)
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006)
New York, I Love You (2008)
The Ghost Writer (2010)
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)


34 comments:

  1. Truly one of the greats. Tuco is my favorite performance from him. He pretty much stole the entire movie from Clint Eastwood. I remember the interviews Wallach had about the film and he had a lot of fun working with Sergio Leone. He wished he did more films with him.

    Don Altobello was one of the best things in The Godfather III. A truly unorthodox villain as Wallach really did a lot in that role.

    I also loved him as Calvera as he kicked ass in that as well as Mystic River. He was also great in Ghost Writer and was the only thing in Wall Street 2 that didn't suck. I also had a soft spot for his performance in The Holiday. Not a very good film but the scenes he had with Kate Winslet was very touching. If the film had been about him and Winslet, it would've been a much better film.

    Gracias Tuco, you will be missed.

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    1. I too love what he did in The Holiday, he really added some weight to that film. Which I suppose can be said for the majority of his movies. I really enjoyed going back and rewatching The Godfather III for this post and paying such close attention to Wallach's work. It's just amazing, the things that guy could do.

      He will be missed, indeed.

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  2. Oh, man, such a sad loss. May he rest in peace. Anyone who loves movies will miss Eli Wallach. A true acting legend, Wallach could easily morph into a variety of different characters and throughout his astonishing career, he has proved again and again that he could elevate even the weakest material. His work in "The Magnificent Seven" was truly remarkable and I also think that he was a real scene-stealing presence in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly". I loved what you said about how he made the most of his limited screen time in "Mystic River". Unfortunately, I haven't seen "Baby Doll", but I'm watching it as soon as possible. You made a wonderful tribute to a truly wonderful actor. Congratulations, my friend.

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    1. Thanks buddy! I was fully prepared to call his work as Tuco his finest performance, but then I saw Baby Doll and... wow. Really interested to hear what you think of that one. And when you consider that it was his FIRST film performance... astonishing. A legend lost, but I so appreciate the work he left us with.

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    2. So I finally watched "Baby Doll" and enjoyed it a lot. I'd put it easily among the most underrated work Elia Kazan and Tennesse Williams have ever produced. Devilishly entertaining and impressively steamy (considering it was released in 1956). I loved Carroll Baker's performance as Baby Doll Meighan (Juno Temple's Dottie from "Killer Joe" owes a lot to Baker's character - besides, Tracy Letts is clearly inspired from the work of Tennesse Williams) and I think that she deservedly received an Oscar nomination for her turn here. And her chemistry with Wallach is electrifying, to say the least. The latter shines the brightest in this fantastic ensemble, serving up a potent reminder of why many regard his work here as his absolute best. He steals the show with a ferocious performance, undoubtedly the greatest of his whole filmography. He balances charm and menace so damn perfectly. Amazing to think that this was his screen debut. Wow! A great reccomendation, buddy. Thanks a lot!

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    3. Awesome man, so happy you checked this one out. Of the work I've read/films I've seen from Williams/Kazan, I would agree that Baby Doll is perhaps the most underrated work by either of them. I mean hell, I hadn't even heard of the movie before researching this post. I'm so pleased to hear that you were as taken with Wallach's work as I was. And I LOVE the Killer Joe connection you made. That's spot on.

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  3. I haven't actually seen much of Wallach outside of his roles as outlaws in various westerns, but I do love his role as Tuco. Sure he spent half the movie trying double-cross and backstab Clint at every opportunity but there is always this really weird charm.

    The other touch that always made him interesting was that one scene where he talks to his brother, and we actually see Tuco showing a little bit of humanity and get a brief glimpse into how he became the way he is. That was a very emotional and tear-jerking scene.

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    1. I LOVE that brother scene. Great call there, that really is a powerful and heartfelt moment. I'd recommend scouting out some of his later work, if you get a chance. There really is a lot of gold in there.

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  4. His cameo in Mystic River was great. And he quite easily stole every scene of The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly he was in. (I also have a soft spot for The Holiday.) In short, he was just one of those actors who was always good, no matter what the film or how big the role.

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    1. Yep, he sure was. I loved his work in The Holiday - such a tender and beautiful little role. Really curious to hear what you have to say about Baby Doll.

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  5. Excellent piece, I wondered if you were going to do an In Character for the man, and you never disappoint my friend. Hardly any other actor you've covered is as deserving of your character actor articles. As I said in my own tiny tribute article, an actor who just got the job done, did it justice and left the screen; nothing more could be asked from someone like him. I'll be sure to check out Baby Doll ASAP, I thought no other role could be better than Tuco but I'll just have to see.

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    1. Thanks Jeff, really appreciate it. You're so right, Wallach was a guy who got the job done, and his work will be forever remembered. And man, I too was ready to call Tuco his best role, but Baby Doll changed things. Holy shit, what acting.

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  6. Great tribute here, Alex. I'm not familiar with Baby Doll at all, but it sounds amazing. I've got Mystic River and The Godfather: Part III coming up in my project -- can't wait to see Wallach's work in them.

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    1. Thanks Eric. Baby Doll is really something else. Stunned me. Be curious to hear your thoughts on Mystic and Part III.

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  7. I also watched Baby Doll for the first time after hearing about his death! Without a doubt one of the greatest acting debuts ever.

    -Dan

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    1. Hell yeah man. So cool that we both sought that film out. Movie was remarkable.

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  8. I can't believe that of all these movies, I've only seen The Good, the Bad & the Ugly. I need to see Baby Doll.

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    1. It's So. Good. And to think, I hadn't even heard of it before this post! Crazy. It definitely deserves a wider audience.

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  9. I agree on The Good the Bad and the Ugly and on Godfather Part III. I've seen Baby Doll twice over the years and I honestly never ever recognized Wallach as that character. That was quite a surprise when I read it here in your post.

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    1. I think that speaks so well to his strength as an actor. And sure, he physically looked a lot different when he was younger, but he was also able to transform into his characters in such a commanding way.

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  10. Oh, I love him in Baby Doll, The Misfits, The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I even dig his unsung work in The Holiday. I forgot he was in The Godfather Part III, but I think I've only seen it once in its entirety. Now I have to watch The Lineup!

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    1. Nice man, so happy to hear you're a fan of his work. I really like him in The Holiday as well. And The Lineup is a lot of fun. Whatta psycho.

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  11. I know this is an older thread, but I just stumbled upon it after looking up some of Mr. Wallach's movies that I have not yet seen, (which haven't been many).
    I have long adored him as Tuco and loved him in every role he made his own, but then I saw Baby Doll and my mind was utterly blown. I think I spent half the movie paralyzed with my mouth agape as though I had just been bit by a cobra. I love movies and actors and love being drawn into the magic of the craft. But what Mr.Wallach did on that black and white screen had me mesmerized and eating right out of his hands. I felt terrified for poor Baby Doll, cheering for Vaccaro as he tormented Archie Lee, and yet I could not help but be so repulsed and so completely drawn to Silva at the same time!
    What is Art if not the ability to evoke deep emotion and a personal connection to the artist? And now, I cannot decide which character is truly his masterpiece, Toco, or Vaccaro. Eli Wallach is, was, and always will be, pure genius! This very long time fan will miss him deeply.

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    1. Love this comment. And hey, it's never too late to comment about such a fine actor!

      "What is Art if not the ability to evoke deep emotion and a personal connection to the artist?" Yes, exactly. I truly believe that - very well put on your part.

      I had the exact same reaction to Baby Doll as you did. I mean... wow, holy hell. Can't believe they were able to get that film made. Wallach is such a force in it.

      I will certainly miss him dearly.

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  12. The Magnificent Seven is just okay, Eli Wallach was great and James Coburn was good ("The worst! I was aiming at the horse"), but everything else was forgettable. Though I never saw Seven Samurai. I think there should be more remakes after Akira Kurosawa. I mean we don't get more of these and it's not like you can't make a great film inspired by Kurosawa (Star Wars, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). Maybe not remake but you can take so much inspiration from the master.

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    1. I agree, The Magnificent Seven is a decent film with a few excellent performances. So many films have been based on, or inspired by, Kurosawa's work. I agree, it's rarely a bad idea to take inspiration from such a master.

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    2. I didn't know The Food, the Bad and the Ugly was inspired by a Kurosawa film. That's news to me! How was it inspired by Kurosawa? Sorry, I have never seen any of his work.

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    3. I wouldn't really say that tGtBatU was inspired by Kurosawa. But A Fistful of Dollars is essentially a remake of Yojimbo.

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    4. Ugh! I can't believe I put Food instead of Good! Tanglefingers me! Lol!

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  13. Thank you, thank you for this write up about the man who is now my favorite actor of all! Jeez, I know I'm coming awfully late to this, more than 2 years after his passing, but I was very late in coming into the fold of Wallach's admirers. It was only this past June that I had the opportunity to see more of his work than just The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, on Turner Classic Movies' "Eli Wallach night". Their movie lineup included Baby Doll, The Lineup, The Misfits, The Magnificent Seven and the aforementioned GBU. What an actor! He took my breath away with his ability to be the chameleon of the human world. All these years I never suspected he had it in him to be the sexy, provocative character he played in Baby Doll! That performance blew me out of the water. It's no wonder Silva Vaccaro was the role he was the most proud of. I can't say enough good about it. It's a performance that everyone should see at least once before they die!

    Needless to say, most people who are familiar with Wallach's career at all will easily remember Calvera from The Magnificent Seven and Tuco from the Sergio Leone film as their favorites. Those 2 are definitely favorites of mine, as his performance in those two was the highlight of both and the most riveting of those movies; but I'm on the fence about whether they should be EVER be considered above his performance in Baby Doll. That was burned into my brain forever, and was the most riveting and unforgettable performance I have ever seen. Sexy, steamy, exciting and energetic. Not to be missed by any of his fans! Do yourself a HUGE favor and watch Baby Doll however you can. You won't be one bit sorry!

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    1. So happy you're a fan! I agree, Baby Doll is definitely his finest work. Maybe not his most well known, but ultimately his best.

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    2. I think a big reason Baby Doll is not among his most well-known movies is because of its condemnation by the Legion of Decency and Cardinal Spellman of New York. The movie was withdrawn from many theaters so soon after its initial release that it didn't even turn a profit, which is sad. It was such a misunderstood movie. I had read that those who condemned it admitted they hadn't even seen it! Is that true? How can anyone condemn a movie they haven't viewed? I don't think it helped that a huge billboard of Carroll Baker lying seductively in the crib/bed sucking her thumb and wearing the shorty nightgown was put up in Times Square not long before Christmas! Am I amiss to say that this advertising and the timing of the movie's release did more to sink its ship than any actual erotic content in the movie itself (which is more dependent on what one's imagination might conjure up than what one actually sees)?

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    3. That's very interesting context. And in terms of people condemning a movie they haven't seen... sadly, that still happens today, all the time. I remember when Brokeback Mountain was released, the conservative right were shitting their pants over it, even though the fuckin' movie hadn't even been released. More recently, seemingly everyone had an opinion about The Birth of a Nation before it was released. Even though most people were condemning the person who created it, and, by proxy, the film itself.

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