One of the last of the original Hollywood “Method” actors, Eli Wallach, a veteran of 127 film and TV titles, has passed away at the age of 98. He began his big screen career in 1956’s Baby Doll for director Elia Kazan, which he starred in opposite Karl Malden and Carroll Baker. Much of his career was spent playing bad guys in westerns like How the West Was Won and The Magnificent Seven, and he played an aging mob boss in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III. He had a long and illustrious career and made his final film role in 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
But, as much as I’ve liked him in other films, for me, and probably a lot of other people too, he’ll always be Tuco Ramirez in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Portraying “The Ugly” opposite Clint Eastwood’s stoic “The Good” and Lee Van Cleef’s steely-eyed “The Bad,” Wallach was in many ways the central figure in the film. He’s nasty, corruptible, unclean, sadistic, and pretty clearly a menace to the peace of the old west, but throughout the epic adventure, the audience softens to him, partly because he’s on screen all the time and partly because he’s just so dag-blamed endearing somehow.
This scene below is a beautiful reunion scene between Tuco and his brother Pablo, who has since become a monk. It gives a great deal of backstory to Tuco and while it doesn’t excuse his actions, it gives a lot of layers to his character and makes us, and Eastwood, feel a little bit more for him.
Wallach gives an incredible performance in the film; absolutely astonishing. He never stops being a gross, violent, reprehensible individual who would sooner murder Eastwood’s Blondie as look at him if they didn’t each know half of the whereabouts of the hidden Union gold. Even though they begin trying to kill each other, a kind of forced partnership emerges and they actually make a pretty amazing team. Tuco might be simple and slovenly, but he’s a deadly adversary.
I could just keep talking and showing scenes from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, because it’s honestly my favorite film of all time, number one with a bullet (or several), but instead I’ll just leave as a final tribute to Wallach and his amazing and wonderful performance and body of work, this sequence, set to Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold,” which might be the most beautiful marriage of music, image, and performance in any movie ever made.