Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Eli Wallach (1915-2014)

Wallach got a late start in movies but stayed late; his debut came at age 40 in Elia Kazan's Baby Doll. He had already made a name on stage in some of Kazan's stagings of Tennessee Williams's plays and was a member of the vaunted Actors' Studio. In an exceptional early film role he projected pure menace as a psycho hit man in The Lineup. But he soon became one of Hollywood's all-purpose ethnic types and is best remembered for playing Mexican bandits in The Magnificent Seven (he outlived all but Robert Vaughan) and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. In the latter he defined a spaghetti-western archetype as not so much a good-bad man but a less-bad man, redeemed (at least for the audience) by an improbably likable personality. Figures like Tuco Ramirez are spaghetti westerns' audience-identification figures, more so than the godlike or too-cool heroes or the demonic (and sometimes also too cool) villains who so often seem impervious to the ordinary pains and stresses of frontier life. Tuco feels; he protests, even whines, but he muddles through, sometimes losing, sometimes winning. Even if things look bad at the end of the Leone film -- Tuco is left in the middle of nowhere with his hands tied -- you feel certain that he'll live to fight another day.

The actor always moved freely from big to small screen and back to the stage, and from the U.S. to Italy and elsewhere. His passing leaves John Astin as the last surviving male Batman TV show villain, for instance. Not every role could be memorable or good; there probably wasn't much anyone could do with the philosopher in a vat of oil in Circle of Iron, for instance. But he was always a welcome sight in movies, especially when each new appearance was proof that he still lived.  He hadn't worked since 2010 according to IMDB but I expected him to make 100 and enjoy the honors that would have been his due. The honors are coming just the same and he deserves them.

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