On Tuesday, the film world lost one of its oldest and brightest stars: Eli Wallach, a prolific, self-styled journeyman of an actor who graced the stage and screen for more than six decades, passed away in his Manhattan home at the age of 98. From Clark Gable’s sidekick in “The Misfits” to a leering Mexican bandit in “The Magnificent Seven,” Wallach was never the star, but hovered at the edge of stardom, melting into his role and putting his stamp on every character he played. He was never nominated for an Oscar for his work, but received an honorary one in 2010, when the Academy saluted him as “the quintessential chameleon.” Whether you want to meet Wallach for the first time or mourn his passing, here are three of his most classic films. So long, Eli. We’ll miss you.
“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966)
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach
Available streaming on Netflix, for rent on Amazon Instant or iTunes
In his prime, much of Wallach’s film work came in the Western genre, where his “ugly” mug and ambiguous (well, by Hollywood standards anyway) ethnicity allowed him to stand in for a number of by-the-numbers Mexican outlaws, bandits and sidekicks. Wallach’s biggest moment in the public eye probably came from his prominent role as the antagonist of “The Magnificent Seven,” John Sturges’ star-studded remake of Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai;” but his greater performance is undoubtedly in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti masterpiece, where, third-billed and tacked on to the already-proven successful combo of Eastwood and Van Cleef (see: “For a Few Dollars More”), Wallach’s Tuco becomes the linchpin for a frontier tale of operatic scale. Representing the conniving, weaselly middle ground in Leone’s triumvirate of models of masculinity, Tuco is far more intriguing and empathetic than reticent, principled Blondie or brutal, cold-hearted Angel Eyes; he’s shifty, unpredictable, and hilarious, sometimes intentionally. Wallach’s performance in the extended cemetery climax is indelible, from his desperate attempts to read Eastwood’s intentions in the unbearable Mexican standoff, to the mixture of joy and trepidation of discovering a treasure trove of loot at gunpoint, to his final, primal cry of primal anger. Everyone in this film, Tuco included, is a real sonofabitch indeed.
“New York, I Love You” (2008)
Cast: Hayden Christensen, Andy Garcia, Rachel Bilson, Natalie Portman, Irrfan Khan, Orlando Bloom, Christina Ricci, Maggie Q, Ethan Hawke, Chris Cooper, Robin Wright, Anton Yelchin, James Caan, Olivia Thirlby, Blake Lively, Bradley Cooper, Julie Christie, John Hurt, Shia LaBeouf, Eli Wallach, Cloris Leachman
Streaming on Netflix, available to purchase or rent from Amazon Instant and iTunes
You’d be forgiven for forgetting that this Americanized portmanteau follow-up to “Paris, Je T’aime” even exists – the cast may be just as starry as the original, but when the behind-the-screen talent dips from the likes of Olivier Assayas, Alfonso Cuarón and the Coen Brothers to Brett Ratner, there’s going to be a noticeable difference. But, the segmented nature of the film still allows for some wonderful shorts to poke through, notably a Natalie Portman-directed ode to Central Park and the pitch-perfect closer by Joshua Marston (“Maria Full of Grace”) that features Wallach and Cloris Leachman, as that lovingly bickering old couple that every New Yorker will recognize. If there’s any segment that would fit in perfectly to “Paris, Je T’aime,” it would’ve been this hilarious, tender, reflective little piece featuring two old pros showing how it’s done.
“The Ghost Writer” (2010)
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson
Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant or iTunes, on disc from Netflix
Wallach’s role in Roman Polanski’s latter-day thriller is small, but pivotal, as a mysterious old man inhabiting the island where an in-over-his-head author (McGregor) has found himself trapped working on the memoirs of a slick, menacing retired politician (Brosnan). The film itself is mostly pulp, an attempt to cash in on modern fears of Big Brother government with a ludicrously tangled narrative of conspiracy, but it’s sold by the glum, oppressive setting. The paranoia of surveillance always was one of Polanski’s specialities, and by turning Martha’s Vineyard into a site of gloomy isolation, you can almost tangibly feel, as McGregor’s character does, the unseen eyes trained on him – paradoxical, considering, as audience members, we’re the ones doing the watching. In any case, Wallach, for his part, does what he did so often and so well: appear, make an impression with limited material, and fade off back into the mist.