Calvera is the bandit leader from 'The Magnificent Seven', and he could have easily been a one-dimensional thug. But Wallach gave him the biggest presence of the entire cast, despite having so few scenes. That was the great thing about Calvera. He intrigued us and left us wanting more of him. He's pompous, egotistical, charismatic, philosophical. An organized and very together leader. For a ruthless bandito, he's very approachable and friendly, even if it's all an act. Yul Brynner complained that Wallach was too benevolent as Calvera, but Wallach just saw Calvera as a guy trying to make a living. When Chico infiltrates the bandit camp and finds out that his men are starving and have nowhere else to turn to, much like the bandits in Seven Samurai. So it can be argued that he has a responsibility towards his men, even though he doesn’t show any care for them. Wallach gnaws on the scenery with relish. Even if you don’t like the film, chances are you're going to find him the best thing about it. He even gives Calvera a slight philosophical side. All in all, a riotously enjoyable performance in a decidedly decent remake of a classic.
The ill-fated Sarge is from the 1963 film 'The Victors', and one of Wallach's few unambiguously heroic roles from his younger days. He's the leader of a group of soldiers in WWII traveling around Europe. He's rough-edged, practical, and constantly calls his soldiers "stupid idiots", but he means well. He's just doing his job and trying to keep his soldiers in line. He apparently used to be a robber, so maybe that's why he cares so much about discipline. During the film, Joe meets an unnamed French woman, played by Jeanne Moreau, who's hiding in a ruined house from the bombs and the planes. She allows him to spend the night at the place and gives her brother's bed to him. One night she comes into his room, frightened of the noise that the bombs and the planes make. He invites her in. The next morning, she realises he already has a woman, as judged by the tattoo on his arm.
The last time we see the Sarge with his face in one piece, he's watching a man being shot during either Advent or Christmas. In his very last scene, the poor man has had half his face blasted away in combat.
Though Wallach's performance was understated, he had more presence than all the other cast members put together. Joe was pretty much the only soldier I cared about in the film, and that's not just for the obvious reasons.
3. Guido Racanelli from The Misfits
I went to see 'The Misfits' solely because Wallach was in it, though it was better known for bigger names Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. He had a bigger role in it than his billing implied, if his billing was there at all.
Guido is a mechanic who had previously been a WWII bomber. He'd wanted to be something more, like a doctor, but then the war came and ruined his dreams, reducing him to a hollow, bitter shell. He'd married his childhood friend, but they had a loveless, dysfunctional marriage and he was completely unable to help when she died and refused to take responsibility.
So at first you find him quite friendly, but then you get to know him and you realise he's kind of a jerk. He showed no respect to his late wife, and only wanted Marilyn Monroe's Roslyn for her body, only trying to be nice so he could have a chance with her. He's selfish, self-serving and desperate, but then he's not much better than the other two male leads.
He's also smarter than his friends Gay and Perce, which is at least some redeeming quality. He's more insightful which shows that he had been ambitious and simply gave up on life.
The most memorable scene is his monologue when he's driving Roslyn, Gay and Perce home drunk. He goes into a self-pitying soliloquy about all his problems, and he needs Roslyn to just say something to him, before he causes them to accidentally crash, because he's very unstable and driving at break-neck speed, almost literally. That scene is one of the best acting moments of Eli's career, and also one of Marilyn's best acting moments as well.
So yeah, Guido's an asshole, but he's an interesting asshole.
2. Silva Vacarro from Baby Doll
In 'Baby Doll', Silva Vacarro is a Sicilian cotton farmer whose gin is burnt down by his jealous rival, Archie Lee Meighan, so he gets revenge by seducing, and is implied to have done the deed with, his rival's 19-year- old bride, who had been saving herself for when she turns 20.
Silva is mysterious, seductive and we do not actually know if he really cares for Baby Doll. But what we do know is that they actually start to enjoy being together. The most memorable scene is when they chase each other around the house in utter delight and a raucous display of sexual tension which is simultaneously aggressive and affectionate, even more so than with Wallach's # 1 role.
Another great scene is where Silva vows revenge on Archie Lee, and his eyes glint and glimmer almost supernaturally in the firelight (which makes sense: he was a Sagittarius). Beautiful camerawork and acting in that moment.
Clever, cunning, crafty, a slimy sexual predator, Silva also has something of a heart when he takes the Meighans' fired housekeeper under his wing, which may also be him trying to take away from Archie Lee everything he valued. He also makes note of Baby Doll's growing maturity, despite her refusal to grow up, even insisting on using a crib (which looks kind of like a couch or summer bed) and subconsciously sucking her thumb. Curiously, Baby Doll takes on a maternal role after Silva decides to go into the "crib", stroking him and singing to him as he falls asleep inside.
There's a scene where he and Baby Doll kiss passionately, which would seen as commonplace today but must have been pretty shocking to prudish Fifties audiences.
So did he really have feelings for Baby Doll? Or was it all just an act? Was he simply using her as his own means to an end? Does he ever return to Baby Doll? Quien sabe?
In any case, this was his screen debut on film, and I have nothing else to say about it. Except that he was hot stuff.
1. Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez
This goes without saying. Tuco, the beloved yet simultaneously largely overlooked protagonist of 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly', was Wallach's best known character for a reason. Without him, the film would not have been the masterpiece it was.
This was the first role I saw from Wallach where I knew his name (The first role I likely saw from him was Arthur Abbott from 'The Holiday', although I did not remember him in it).
I remember when I first saw the final standoff in the graveyard, the first scene I ever saw from the movie, and I felt sorry for Tuco without knowing why. He was scruffy, and pathetic looking, and scared. In that way, he stood out from his two opponents. He was a misfit in the world of the cold and the calculating. Then when the poor guy was put into a noose, that I later realised was punishment for all the things he did to Clint Eastwood's Blondie, I feared for his life more than before, and I was more or less happy when he was saved from the rope by Blondie's super sniping and left alive.
Sure, he's an immoral bandito, but he's also much more personable than the 'Good' of the story, and much more sympathetic and relatable.
It's funny because he's so greedy, selfish, self-serving, treacherous, and self-centered. He takes joy in his own malice, is obsessively vengeful and he's light on empathy.
And yet he's stubborn, headstrong, forgetful and easily distracted yet determined, traits I can relate to.
He's the underdog. If he gains power, it all goes south for him from there. That is what is so compelling. That is what is so relatable. He does all this terrible stuff because he's desperate to survive in a dog-eat-dog world, and he's trying to get by and make a living, even if through the most underhanded means possible, hence the designation 'The Ugly'.
He also has a lot of gumption, which is what I always admire in a character. No matter what happens to the guy, he just keeps going. That walk back to town after his and Blondie's partnership was untied was impressive. You can tell by his exhaustion that it wasn't easy for him.
You kind of start rooting for him once he's pitted against people far worse than him.
In addition, he made me laugh more than any other live action movie character. Wallach's comic timing was simply brilliant. He made the film one of the funniest I've ever seen.
His relation to Blondie is economic and self-serving, and views him as just a player in his get rich quick scheme, yet his obsession with revenge on him is sadistic and almost sort of touchy-feely, like him taking his time to try and hang Blondie, spending his time gloating over his victory; his overly attentive torturing of Blondie in the desert; and him tenderly stroking his former partner's blistered lips and talking about how they're both alone in the world. Make that of what you will.
He has an unconditional love for his reserved and somewhat contemptuous brother Pablo, and as we learn in this one incredible scene, had become a bandit to provide for his impoverished parents, whom he is devastated to learn had died over the years of his career in crime. The moment when he hides his face away, trembling with grief, adds an extra level of humanity to him, as does the moment when he calls out Pablo's hypocrisy and defends his situation amazingly well. He's done terrible things, but to save his own hide. Not knowing that Blondie saw the fight, he proceeds to lie about his brother by complimenting him, to which Blondie offers his sympathy by offering him a cigar, bringing a broad grin back to the bandit's face. It's an amazing scene that simply has to be seen to be believed. Wallach's eye expressions, again, are incredible.
Although he needs others' help at times, he's a loner, and he can handle himself when the situation has called for it, such as when he saved himself from a prison-of-war train.
Alone and somewhat vulnerable, Tuco earns a degree of sympathy from Blondie, and ultimately his life is spared.
There have been many blog posts singing Wallach's praises as Tuco and I recommend you check them out because chances are they'll have phrased his performance much better than I have. But it's the astonishing layering of all sorts of different feelings, from goofiness, through to poignancy, melancholy and genuine menace, this was Wallach's richest performance in any movie. A man who, though morally reprehensible, the audience gets to identify and sympathise with in spite of everything.
So there's my number one Eli Wallach role, and one of the greatest movie characters of all time.