The death of actor Eli Wallach announced today (06/25/14) reminds me anew of the wonder of movies. To those who were privileged to know him in the flesh, Mr. Wallach has indeed gone out of their lives. But for those who knew him only from his films he will be ever living, with us whenever we sit down to watch one of his performances.
Wallach was apparently a stage actor of no mean ability, but I never saw the man act on stage, so I can’t comment on that. As a film actor, he made his share of stinkers–take the money and run movies–but he also did some fine things that will survive for many, many years to come.
Starting in a non-chronological manner, let’s take a look at his “outlaw trilogy.” In John Sturges’ “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) he was handed the part of Calvera, leader of a band of rapacious bandits preying upon a small farming community. As most people know–certainly as most of the actors cast in the film knew–Sturges’ western was based upon Akira Kurosawa’s epic film “The Seven Samurai.” Wallach knew that the bandit leader in that film was a sort of cipher, identifiable amid the chaos only because he wore a patch over one eye. But Sturgis and scriptwriter William Roberts gave him a bit more to work with than that–and Wallach ran with it, aided and abetted by the great Emilio Fernandez who gave him useful tips on bandit couture. (The red silk shirt, the blingy rings and huge embroidered sombrero were apparently Fernandez touches.) What Wallach added was a delightful cynicism, laced with lines like, “In Texas, only Texans can rob the banks.” But in the end he makes Calvera a very human figure–as human as any of the seven Americanos who oppose him. In Wallach’s performance we see the desperation of a man who can’t afford to look small in his followers’ eyes, who can’t afford to fail to feed his men. His tragic flaw is that, because they all “live by the gun,” he assumes the seven hired gunmen are exactly like himself–thus he dies still unable to comprehend that they came back and risked their lives to defend villagers who neither like nor trust them. In “How the West Was Won,” Wallach could easily have been lost in the all-star, Cinerama shuffle, yet his vicious killer Charlie Gant impressed Sergio Leone enough to offer him one of his greatest roles. Tuco Ramirez in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” can easily be viewed as The Frito Bandito writ large, but Tuco is far from a figure of ridicule. He is a wily and resourceful survivor who looks small only because he is bookended by Clint Eastwood’s benevolent superman Blondie and Lee Van Cleef’s malevolent superman Angel Eyes. For Tuco simply to stay alive is something of an accomplishment. Much like Calvera–and unlike the totally humorless Charlie Gant–Tuco is a walking bible of profane folk-wisdom. Wallach himself claimed to be amazed at the longevity of the throw-away line, “When you have to shoot, shoot don’t talk.” One of the most striking scenes in the film belongs to Wallach alone as Tuco races crazily through the concentric circles of graves at Sad Hill cemetery looking for the name “Arch Stanton,” not to pay his respects, but because a fortune in Confederate gold is buried there. This is one of the cinema’s great evocations of greed, punctuated by Ennio Morricone’s pounding, spiraling score–which comes to abrupt halt when the sought after name appears.
These are probably the films that Wallach will be most remembered for–just as Sir Alec Guinness will carry Obi-Wan Kenobi with him into eternity–but there was still more to Wallach’s career. In Tennessee Williams’ “Baby Doll”–perhaps forgotten now, but a scorching sensation in 1957–he played a sly Sicilian immigrant whose cotton gin is torched by Karl Malden’s faded aristocrat. He gets his revenge by a careful seduction of the man’s child-bride. In Arthur Miller’s “The Misfits,” he plays Gino, a guy who’s not very sly and whose outward amiability masks a curdled disposition, filled with hate. When his self-pitying recitation of his wartime experiences as a bomber pilot fails to move Marilyn Monroe’s earth-mother Rosalind, he turns real mean, real quick. But she’s not as innocent as she seems; she knows a wrong one when she sees one.
He turned up in a “Godfather” film–alas it was “Godfather III”–as Don Altobello, the latest in a long line of mob challengers to Corleone supremacy, but he’s a sly Sicilian yet again, using the vainglorious Joey Zasa as his cat’s paw. In the “Chinatown” sequel “The Two Jakes” he plays attorney Cotton Weinberg, another sly-boots, this time using Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes to draw out threats to his client, Jake Berman. He graced a couple of film noir classics as well, playing a lesser member of Edward G. Robinson’s gang of casino-robbers in “Seven Thieves,” and was better, commanding even, as Dancer, a psychotic hit-man in Don Siegel’s “The Lineup.” Dancer dutiful takes down the last words of his victims in a little notebook for the edification of his older partner, Julian. Their favorite? “Why be greedy?”
Of course these are only isolated highlights in Wallach’s career, but they’re the roles I’ll remember him for.