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.
The Lineup (1958)
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)
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, 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)
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 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.
Mystic River (2003)
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)
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.
Seven Thieves (1960)
How the West Was Won (1962)
The Victors (1963)
Lord Jim (1965)
Genghis Khan (1965)
How to Steal a Million (1966)
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)