The Good, The Bad, and Eli Wallach — The Role of a Lifetime
By Stuart Mitchner
I hate guns, have never had any use for them.
—Eli Wallach (1915-2014)
A week ago Eli Wallach, the actor who gave the world Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez, died at home in Manhattan. Tuco was last seen, freeze-framed forever, shouting curses at the distant figure on horseback played with cryptic cool by Clint Eastwood, the supremely sane, enlightened Don Quixote to Tuco’s feral Sancho Panza.
Chances are there is no Actor’s Studio exercise for how to enter the body of a man standing on a crooked, creaking, perilously unsteady graveyard cross with a hangman’s noose around his neck, hands tied behind his back, a fortune in gold spilled out on the ground below, shining in the sunlight. As the wooden cross teeters under his weight, the noose tightening, he’s sweating, gagging, his eyes darting up, down, and all around, he can hear the caw of crows as he struggles to keep his balance. Lose it and he’s dead with his share of the treasure at his feet. Since the mere effort to speak might be fatal, he can’t talk, can’t call for help, can’t finish the word “Bl–bl–” for Blondie, the name attached to his only hope, the bounty hunter who has strung him up and left him to his lonely fate. There’s no hangman present this time, no audience as in the past charades of execution he and his fair-haired cohort played out in small towns across the West. With the Bad (Lee Van Cleef) dead and buried after a trumpet-glorious shootout, and the Ugly teetering between life and death, the Good lifts his rifle, sets the sight, aims, and fires, the shot severing the rope, and down goes the Ugly, a 51-year-old Jewish actor from Brooklyn howling out the closing seconds of a performance for the ages.
Filmgoers may question Quentin Tarantino’s claim that Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967) is “the greatest achievement in the history of cinema,” but by now you’d think that anyone conversant with the motion picture medium would at least comprehend the possibility. The sad truth is that people who should know better still seem to be unaware of the magnitude of Wallach’s accomplishment, not to mention Leone’s. In the June 25 New York Times obituary (“Eli Wallach, Multifaceted Actor On Stage and Screen, Dies at 98”), there is only passing mention of the actor’s appearance in a “so-called spaghetti western.” In the late sixties it was worse; if you dared to enthuse about Leone to a “serious” film person, they’d have laughed in your face. No wonder Eli Wallach had doubts about what he was doing when he went to Rome in the spring of 1966, asking himself what does an Italian director know about westerns (“An Italian western sounds like an Hawaiian pizza”). But the money was good and he was curious.
“A Great Clown”
The notion of Tuco as a more villainous Sancho Panza was integral to Leone’s picaresque vision of a Mexican lowlife joining forces with a mysterious bounty hunter. The actor playing Tuco had to have a natural comedic ambience, a knack for one-liners, and an abundance of raw humanity to go with a crazed, unstoppable ferocity. Although he’d seen Wallach as a Mexican bandit in The Magnificent Seven, what convinced Leone was a moment in How the West Was Won when the bad guy played by Wallach amuses himself by pointing both index fingers at some children and miming the firing of two guns. People had warned Leone to stay away from Wallach (“he comes from Actor’s Studio”), but the director “knew he would be a great clown.” And something quite a bit more, as it turned out.
Wounded in Brooklyn
Long before Wallach had anything to do with the Actor’s Studio, there was Brooklyn. In his memoir The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage (Holt 2005), he remembers Saturday mornings at the Rialto watching westerns starring Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson. One day after seeing a “particularly bloody” silent version of Beau Geste, “I lay on my bed and began to fantasize. Reenacting episodes that I had seen in movies always gave me a sense of power. I always seemed to be crawling around on the bed wounded, shot, or about to be sentenced to death. My light tan blanket was the Sahara desert, and I began crawling over the sand dunes … surrounded by enemy Arabs. Suddenly, a shot rang out and I was wounded.”
Another incident from Wallach’s Brooklyn childhood that foreshadows his penchant for darker film roles took place one stormy night when he saw from the front window of the family candy store “a man kneeling in the middle of the street, his hands above his head. Standing over him was a dark figure holding something in his hand.” Hiding under the counter, young Eli hears a shot, and is dragged to the back of the store by his father, who tells him, “You didn’t see anything.” Eventually the family moved from their Mafia-friendly neighborhood to Flatbush, where Wallach attended Erasmus Hall High School. From there he went to the University of Texas, as unlikely a destination for a Brooklynite as Leone’s west would be three decades later: “I felt as if I’d landed on another planet …. Here, everyone looked tall and strong, spoke slowly, and wore boots.”
Wallach’s time in the Lone Star State would come in handy. Though it was the low tuition ($30 a term) that made Texas his choice, he still needed to make money, and in addition to selling soft drinks at football games, he had a job working with polo ponies, which is when he learned how to ride; another job involved “sitting in the library typing up memoirs of old cowboys and their battles with the Indians in the Southwest.” More important still, after playing minor parts with a theater group called the Curtain Club, he was cast in the title role of Ferenc Molnar’s play, Liliom. Like Tuco, Liliom is flawed but essentially sympathetic, in Wallach’s words, a “tough drifter … who got involved in a robbery, and was ultimately killed.” He felt “strong and secure” in a role in which all his “fantasies, dreams, and yearnings about acting came to fruition.” He knew “then and there” that this was to be his life’s work.
The Gun Shop
The scene where Wallach’s Tuco truly comes into his own as a character occurs in a gun shop run by a little rosy-cheeked Gepetto right out of a Commedia dell’arte farce. While the shop owner (Enzo Petito) winces and flinches and lovably rolls his watery blue eyes, Tuco, fresh from a desperate trek across the desert, rummages crudely but purposefully through the shop, swigging whiskey from the old man’s bottle while assembling the perfect gun and at the same time revealing qualities unexpressed until that moment; now you’re seeing an artist at work, as actor and gunman. Watching how methodically and expertly Tuco creates a perfect weapon, it’s hard to believe Wallach’s claim in the memoir that he hates guns and never had any use for them. His only direction from Leone was “to take apart some of the guns, then put them back together using different pieces.” Wallach writes, “I pretended to be an expert as I squinted through the barrel of a Colt … and spun the bullet chamber of a Winchester and put it to my ear.”
“Pretended” doesn’t do the scene justice. It’s almost as if Tuco were a musician tuning an instrument, gauging the pitch or timbre, which makes sense in a film lifted again and again to greatness and glory by Ennio Morricone’s score.
In The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, when the composer wishes to express his feeling for the music of Christoph Willibald Gluck, who was born on this day 300 years ago, he writes, “An ecstasy possessed me.” Berlioz had been studying to be a doctor when he began to read and reread the scores of Gluck, which he not only copied and learned “by heart” but “went without sleep because of them and forgot to eat or drink,” so that when he finally heard Gluck’s music at the Opéra, he vowed to become a musician.
During the magnificent finale of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly something like a sonic ecstasy possesses the grubby, devious, scavenging, shifty-eyed scoundrel played by Eli Wallach. In fact, “The Ecstasy of Gold” is the title given to Morricone’s scoring of Tuco’s fierce, frantic run through a vast cemetery searching for the tomb under which the long-sought treasure is buried.
When Leone’s direction, Tonino Delli Colli’s cinematography, and Morricone’s music come together, you find yourself in a region where ecstasy and euphoria overwhelm reality and it’s possible to imagine that Berlioz himself would be stirred by soprano Edda Dell’Orso’s wordless aria soaring over a delirium of trumpets playing at Dies Irae intensity as Tuco sprints, spins, whirls, through the immense landscape of crosses and headstones, his surroundings whirling, blurring, as if the cameras had been cut loose in the turbulence. When the symphonic juggernaut finally subsides, there’s Tuco, the unholy sinner, sobbing with excitement as he begins digging up the coffin he mistakenly thinks is filled with gold. After all the grandeur of the music, you’re down in the dirt with him, his story your story, you and the boy in Brooklyn who found “a sense of power” in movies and came home to crawl around on the bed “wounded, shot, or about to be sentenced to death.” You know what he means, you’ve been there. You feel like a kid at the grandest and most glorious of Saturday matinees, and the excitement has only just begun. Here come Morricone’s trumpets.