Eli Wallach: Five Films for Newcomers
Five years ago, we lost one of the great character and supporting stars when Eli Wallach passed away. This performer was a lion during his prime, but a garnish to spruce any scene towards the end of his career. He retired in 2010, and lived to be 98. Wallach is the kind of performer where many modern cinephiles may recognize him in a variety of works, but those that dive into older works know him very well. He was of a different breed when he first came out, and his influence translated into being a founding member of the Actors Studio (Wallach was also a notable student of iconic acting coach Lee Strasberg, who you can learn more about in our Masterclass on Acting 101 here).
Suffice to say, if you don’t know Wallach’s impact, it’s never too late to learn. You can tell even from the earlier films on this list, that Wallach seemed ahead of the curve. There is something modernist about his acting: when many performers around him favoured theatrical acting, Wallach was obsessed with micro details in his expressions and his actions. To honour a character actor that paved the way for many that followed decades later, let’s check out which five films are appropriate for newcomers to Eli Wallach.
5. How to Steal a Million
As a man of wealth fixated on art collecting, Wallach’s supporting role in How to Steal a Million is one of such intrigue. You almost want to know more about the guy the first second he is on screen. Of course, there’s no taking the film away from Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn, but Wallach’s invested character adds a certain curiosity to the film. How much does he know about the planned operation, if anything at all? Will he ever get his Cellini Venus? Wallach drives the subplot at the same speed as the main narrative, and you know he will pop up again soon at any time.
4. The Misfits
Oh, Guido. So much time of Wallach’s turn as a truck driver in John Huston’s The Misfits is spent on moral conflicts. He has ghosts that haunt him (mainly his wife who died in labour), and you can see the dilemmas that split the film in half the entire time. Guido gets caught in the middle of it (as a bystander, anyway), and you want him to be one of the goodies. It’s when he lets us down that we get hurt the most. Wallach does such a good job not making Guido explicitly good or bad, so his inner demons are on full display.
3. Baby Doll
Wallach’s breakthrough performance naturally was in the controversial Baby Doll. What made Wallach a star from this film? Well, his crafty ability to coerce and con characters on screen, and us. He plays a rather creepy businessman who seems to be no better than Karl Malden’s character when it comes to showcasing authority over the titular character. When the tables turn in Tennessee Williams’ stellar screenplay, we discover there is an actual heart in this suitor. It’s a fantastic reveal, that only a nuanced actor like Wallach can pull off. You never know where you stand with this performance, and it’s fantastic.
2. The Lineup
This underrated performance by Wallach as hired criminal Dancer is one for the ages. Maybe now, with a modern lens, we can spot all the tiny little specificities that Wallach obsessed over in his performances, including all of the giveaways of a murderer that is beginning to feel even the slightest amount of guilt. It was one of the surprisingly rare features that allowed Wallach to take the lead, and for that reason alone The Lineup is worth a shot.
1. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
You can say that an honourable mention goes to The Magnificent Seven, where Wallach plays the main baddie. However, if we’re looking at westerns, there really isn’t any need to look further. You begin The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly wanting to see a Clint Eastwood film. You finish remarking on how good that Eli Wallach film was. As Tuco (or “The Ugly”), Wallach steals the entire film. It doesn’t hurt that most of it is based on his character, oddly enough. Yet, Wallach’s take on hostility and greed make this performance comedic, despicable, and compelling. He’s not a hero waiting to save the day. He isn’t death waiting to strike. He’s just a knucklehead that will do anything to get ahead. He’s a bandit that just knows how to get by through swindling. There is no better place to start if you want to get to know Eli Wallach. I don’t think any film comes close, to be honest.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.