Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on June 26, 2014
“I wonder if my brother remembers his brother?”
We lost Eli Wallach on June 26th at the ripe old age of 98. The talented actor was beloved by film fans and fellow actors so quickly cobbled together obituaries as well as many heartfelt tributes have begun flooding the World Wide Web. It’s with much trepidation that I tip my own toe into these grief-filled waters but since hearing the news I haven’t been able to get Wallach out of my head. The Brooklyn born son of Jewish parents who immigrated to America from Poland appeared in over 150 films and television productions including BABY DOLL (1956), THE LINEUP (1958), SEVEN THIEVES (1960), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), THE MISFITS (1961), HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962), THE VICTORS (1963), LORD JIM (1965), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966), THE TIGER MAKES OUT (1967), ACE HIGH (1968) and THE PEOPLE NEXT DOOR (1970), which are just a few early highlights from his lengthy body of work. And while it’s difficult to point to a favorite role in a career as vast and varied as Wallach’s I can’t deny that his unforgettable turn as the grinning bandito in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY has had the biggest and most long-lasting impact on me. It’s a film I first saw nearly 40 years ago with my father when I was just an impressionable kid and much like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (another favorite Wallach film), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is a movie that I have returned to countless times and each viewing experience becomes richer and more rewarding.
I’m not alone in my enthusiasm for the film and in the days following Wallach’s death there have been numerous references made to his unforgettable performance as Tuco. Many are enthusiastic but some sources such as The New York Times casually disregarded it as “Sergio Leone’s so-called spaghetti western” without acknowledging the incredible acting Wallach does in the film. It’s worth remembering that Leone’s movie was critically dismissed during its initial release but the public loved it. Thanks to dedicated fans and fringe film writers such as Christopher Frayling, Tom Betts and William Connolly, who tirelessly navigated through the hostel critical establishment and published articles, zines and books about the often maligned genre, there’s been a re-evaluation of spaghetti westerns within the last 20 years or so. THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is now considered a bona fide classic by many and even received a much lauded presentation at the 2010 TCM Film Festival with Eli Wallach in attendance but that recognition was hard-won.
I’ve never understood the reluctance from some to embrace these films and I’ve long considered Wallach’s Tuco to be one of the western genre’s most richly realized characters. During his career, Eli Wallach worked with many renowned directors including Elia Kazan, Don Siegel, John Sturges, Henry Hathaway, John Huston, Richard Brooks and William Wyler but some of his finest and most nuanced film acting can be found in Sergio Leone’s dust drenched ode to the wild west. In front of Leone’s unforgiving camera, the gentle Jewish boy from Brooklyn was able to completely transform himself into a violent Mexican bandito. In another actor’s less capable hands Tuco aka “The Rat” could have easily become a two-dimensional cartoon character sporting brownface and wearing a sombrero, but Wallach fully inhabited his role and gave Tuco a depth and breadth that was missing in his previous depictions of outlaws as seen in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and HOW THE WEST WAS WON.
Leone famously liked to shoot his actors in extreme close-up or in sweeping wide shots where they were barely visible. But Wallach instinctively knew how to make the most of his screen time and easily navigates between these two very different modes of filmmaking. His eyes speak volumes when Leone’s camera zooms in for a signature close-up but when the director’s camera is out of sight Wallach skillfully used his body language to define his character from a distance. Many actors would get lost in the vast deserts, dilapidated cemeteries and shabby old towns that make up Leone’s film but Wallach seamlessly becomes part of the landscape. We know he’s there even when we can’t see him.
Comedy, action and drama–Wallach could do it all and with Leone’s guidance he was able to really stretch his acting muscles in ways that few films allowed him to. In THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, Wallach gets most of the film’s funniest lines and spits them out with a kind of kinetic verbosity that can make your head spin. He also effortlessly transforms himself into an action star while riding horses, jumping out of trains and blowing up bridges. But my favorite scene in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY has no laughs or action. It also features what I consider to be some of the finest dramatic acting that I’ve ever seen from Wallach (or any actor for that matter) on screen.
The six minute scene I’m referring to takes place in a crumbling monastery where Tuco and ‘Blondie’ (Clint Eastwood) have holed-up during their relentless quest for buried treasure. Tuco’s brother is a Catholic friar named Pablo (Luigi Pistilli) and the two men haven’t seen each other in nine years. As Tuco, Wallach cautiously greets his pious brother with open arms saying, “I was just passing by here. I said to myself. . . I wonder if my brother remembers his brother?” hoping for a hug in return but Father Pablo only rolls his eyes in disgust. It quickly becomes clear that Tuco’s brother does indeed remember him and is appalled by his gruff appearance, reckless behavior and criminal lifestyle. Things take a turn for the worse when Tuco asks about their parents and learns that they both died during his absence. As his brother continues to berate him, Tuco suddenly stops playing Mr. Nice Guy and unleashes a mountain of pent-up emotion that leaves both brothers battered and bruised.
After their ugly confrontation, Tuco steps outside and casually greets Blondie then begins to tell a heartwarming family story about how his brother was so happy to see him. The tall tale is a lie that Tuco desperately wants to believe and Blondie indulges him.
What Wallach does within those six short minutes is flat out astonishing. Up to this point we’ve been given very little information about Tuco but by the time that scene ends we learn everything we need to know about him. Wallach allows us to see Tuco’s truth. His past, passions and motivation are presented to us in the dialogue but Wallach animates those lines with his eyes and body language bringing the character to life in a myriad of ways. His eyes dart around the room, smile in an effort to ease the tension, tear-up when overcome by grief, pierce into his brother’s soul and finally turn into vengeful daggers. The actor is constantly shifting on his feet, cocking his head and wiping his nose making it clear that his character is uncomfortable in the presence of his brother and uneasy in the sacred space offered by the monastery. It’s the kind of powerful acting that you’re used to seeing in a Kazan film but it is smack dab in the middle of a spaghetti western. Don’t believe me? I’ve posted the video evidence below. Even played out of context, the following scene manages to retain its incredible power and grace.
If you’d like to see more of Wallach and his extraordinary talents, tune into TCM on Monday June 30th. They’ve scheduled a tribute to the actor that includes screenings of some great films including BABY DOLL, THE MISFITS and HOW THE WEST WON.
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