Wednesday, June 25, 2014

ELI WALLACH (1915-2014) - A Tribute
Eli Wallach was one of those stealth actors. Never really a star, certainly never really a leading man, but always interesting and enjoyable to watch. As a working actor, with a career in film spread out over a half century (and then some), he also has a sort of stealth career in some ways, winding up in a great many iconic and memorable films.
Needless to say, he will always be remembered for his, shall we say enthusiastic performance in 1966's ultimo classico western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The film may have put Clint Eastwood over the top as a star, but I suspect it's Wallach's over the top performance as the amoral Tuco (the Ugly) that people remember most vividly. Having just recently watched that particular film again, it really does belong to him. Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are all cool, stony silence, but Wallach tears into his role like Tuco would tear into a bottle of whiskey - as though it might be the last chance he gets to enjoy himself, so holding back is not an option.

My personal favorite film of Wallach's has him as a much more restrained but no less dangerous character, the intellectually curious but extremely violent hitman Dancer in The Lineup (1958). It's a great crime film, and the role of Dancer allowed Wallach to play a deeply flawed, multifaceted character that is a clear notch above the usual crime picture villain. If you've never seen it, it's absolutely worth checking out.

Of course, Eli Wallach had already made an indelible impression with his very first film role a couple of years earlier, in the controversial and condemned (by the Catholic Legion of Decency) classic, Baby Doll (1956). With a screenplay by Tennessee Williams, and direction by Elia Kazan, Wallach got handed a hot potato straight out of the shoot with his role as the slimy yet-not-entirely-unlikable Silva Vacarro. I don't know that I'd agree with the Legion of Decency about the film's moral laxity, but there's no denying its steamy Southern soap opera entertainment value.

Working in both TV and film, Wallach kept busy, and the classics kept coming. In 1960, he was in the beloved western, The Magnificent Seven, second billed after Yul Brynner, and appearing with Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn. The next year, with his next film, Wallach hit gold again, co-starring in 1961's The Misfits. It should be needless to say that this film is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was the final film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and also featured Montgomery Clift and Thelma Ritter. It's also heartbreaking and beautiful.

The would-be epic How the West Was Won came along in 1962, and, though not a very good film, it is notable as one of the few feature films to be shot in the ultra-widescreen Cinerama process. (Also appearing in it were his Baby Doll co-stars, Caroll Baker and Karl Malden.) Following this were supporting roles in two Peter O'Toole vehicles, Lord Jim (1965) and How to Steal a Million (1966). Later in 1966 came Tuco, and Wallach's cinematic immortality was assured.
Still, he never stopped working. Wallach appeared as Mr. Freeze on the campy Batman TV series in the 60s...or co-starring with Dean Martin in the lightweight comedy How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life (1968)...Returned to the spaghetti western genre with Don't Turn the Other Cheek (1971)...And even found himself at the very gates of Hell in The Sentinel (1977). You might spot Eli Wallach on an episode of Kojak, in the pretentious and preposterous all-star trainwreck Winter Kills (1979), or co-starring with Johnny Cash in a made for TV movie like The Pride of Jessie Hallam (1981). His career spanned many years, many genres, and many mediums.

Eli Wallach always kept busy, kept acting, almost right up until the end. It seems clear that Eli Wallach loved his craft, and was indeed very good at that craft. He may have never been a big, big star, but he certainly earned a place in the heavens - though the odds are running 5-to-1 that Tuco would be headed for the Other Place.


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