Thursday, June 26, 2014
If You Have To Shoot, Shoot....Don't Blog
The recent passing of actor Eli Wallach prompted a number of tributes to the man on the internet. All of these tributes mentioned Wallach's role as Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. As a matter of fact, GBU was just about the only movie mentioned in most of the posts. In a way, this does Eli Wallach a bit of a disservice. Wallach had a long and varied screen career, and a lot of his performances deserve to be better known.
The fact that Wallach's passing brought out so many mentions of his portrayal of Tuco is testimony to how much THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is ingrained in popular culture. If you go back and read most of the original reviews of GBU when it first came out, you will find that just about every critic considered it violent junk. Sergio Leone really was ahead of his time. GBU is my second-favorite movie (next to the original 1977 version of STAR WARS) and I've been fascinated by it every since I first saw it way back on TV in the 1980s.
I not only know just about every line of dialogue from GBU, I also know just about every camera angle. I watch it about two or three times a year, and the more and more I see it, the more I realize how magnificent a job Eli Wallach did.
Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (also known as "The Rat") is not a decent guy. He's a thief, a liar, and a cheat. He's vicious, cruel, dirty, and obnoxious. His list of "known" crimes is so long that it becomes a running gag. But despite all that....you wind up liking Tuco. He's so full of energy and vitality that you can't take your eyes off him when he appears on the screen. He's the heart and soul of GBU.
Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef may be billed ahead of Wallach in the credits, but make no mistake--Wallach is the film's leading man. He's the one who gets the most screen time, and the one who gets the most dialogue (Wallach says more lines in two minutes than Eastwood does in the whole DOLLARS trilogy). Even when Tuco isn't really doing anything, he's doing something. He's constantly scratching or rubbing himself, or making faces, or taking in his surroundings. Look at the scene where Tuco is observing a Civil War battle being fought right in front of him. Tuco has the wide-eyed wonderment of a child--and it's no wonder, since in many ways Tuco is a child (albeit one who has a deadly proficiency with firearms). Also notice the legendary "Ecstasy of Gold" sequence--Tuco's running around the graveyard in search of a certain tombstone reminds me of a kid running around a playground in search of a lost toy.
There's another thing that's appealing about Tuco--he's genuinely funny (even though the character is not trying to be funny). I've read stories that during the making of GBU, Sergio Leone was so tickled by Wallach's antics that the director basically let the actor decide how to play the role. The result was that Clint Eastwood (to his own bemusement) wound up being a supporting actor in a movie supposedly built around him.
Not only is Tuco the most appealing character, he's also the only one that is really human. The characters of Eastwood and Van Cleef are almost unemotional superheroes, with no real ties to anyone whatsoever. Tuco, however, has a wife (maybe several), and we actually meet his brother, a priest (in one of the best, and most surprising, scenes in any of Leone's films). During the running time of GBU we experience every single facet of Tuco's personality. At the end of the film we feel that we know him--and you certainly can't say the same thing about the characters of Eastwood and Van Cleef.
Most American actors of the mid-1960s would have looked at a role like Tuco as something of an insult (especially in a movie like THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY). At the time of the making of GBU Eli Wallach already had a distinguished acting pedigree. He could have turned his nose up at a character like Tuco....but instead he took it and ran with it. He not only stole a film right out from under the nose of a legendary movie star, he also firmly cemented a place for himself in cinema history.
I was going to end this by saying that it would be a shame if Eli Wallach is remembered for nothing more than being Tuco....but, really, it wouldn't be a shame at all.