when you have to shoot… shoot… don’t talk: eli wallach


Character actor Eli Wallach turns 97 years old today. I’ve said it for years that he’s right at the top of my list of people to have dinner with, because he’s a brilliant raconteur and you know the evening would be filled with entertaining stories. He’s long been a favorite and it’s difficult picking just one brilliant performance by him. I love so many of his scene-stealing roles in various movies: Baby Doll (his first feature), The Lineup (a nifty crime movie), The Magnificent Seven (one of the great first scenes), The Misfits, Lord Jim, and more recently in his memorable small role in The Ghost Writer.

He’ll always be Tuco to me, however. Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (Wallach plays “the Ugly”) is epic stuff, rich in visual texture and sublime in aural majesty. Like all of Leone’s movies, what makes them brilliant is the direction and the score by Ennio Morricone. Acting is always subservient to that. That doesn’t mean great performances can’t be seen in these movies. All three of the leads in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are fantastic and Wallach in particular gives a ferociously entertaining performance.

There’s a little Tuco in all of us.

To celebrate this man’s latest birthday, here’s one of the final scenes in the movie, showing Tuco running through the cemetery looking for the grave of Arch Stanton… where the gold awaits. It’s a deliriously operatic moment and a fitting prologue to the violent showdown, which can be seen directly below it.

Happy birthday, Mr. Wallach.

happy birthday, clint: army of one

I had no idea I hadn’t blogged since March. I honestly just stepped away from the computer. The house is obviously bigger than I thought. I will do a proper post soon, but since it’s the birthday of one of the great (still living) movie stars, I thought I’d celebrate with a couple of videos from two of Eastwood’s best movies.

I watched Kelly’s Heroes earlier in the week. It’s not a movie I ever cared about. Friends have tried getting me to reassess it, but I’ve been stubborn. I really didn’t like it the last time I struggled through it around 1999 or so.

What an idiot I was. I saw it with new eyes and for my money it’s one of the most entertaining of the later World War II movies. The director, Brian G. Hutton, directed the fabulous Where Eagles Dare, starring Eastwood and Richard Burton, and that one has always been one of my favorite war movies. But Kelly’s Heroes was too anachronistic and silly for me. Like I said, however, I was an idiot. It is very much the things I chastised it for being… so what? That’s why it’s fun. It’s also great because of the cast and it’s well-directed. War movies post-Saving Private Ryan tend to be serious, serious, serious affairs. Real war is certainly grim and depressing. But not every war movie has to be. At least, not all of the time. The video below is the original trailer.

And when I think of Eastwood, I think of Westerns. My favorite of the Eastwood oaters (excluding the Leone ones) is The Outlaw Josey Wales, released in 1976. I was seven years old when it came out and I saw it in the theater. It made quite an impression on me and I’ve watched it numerous times since and its hold hasn’t weakened. The book it’s based on, Gone to Texas, is very good too. The video below is the original trailer. I may just have to re-watch the movie this weekend.

all according to the law: the great silence (1968)


The Italian film industry during the mid-to-late 1960s was cranking out Westerns at a prodigious rate, a trend that started after the box office success of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964.  That movie was a gritty, ecstatically violent remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (which was loosely based on Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel Red Harvest), and it made an international star out of relatively unknown actor Clint Eastwood.  Hundreds of so-called spaghetti Westerns flooded the market over the next few years.  Many of them are excellent–Django, The Big Gundown, A Bullet for the General, to name a few–and they rank among the greatest Westerns ever made, especially Leone’s subsequent contributions to the genre–For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West.  But none of them can match the darkness awaiting you in Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 classic, The Great Silence.

“I’m going to shoot every one of these people here,” a bounty hunter named Loco (Klaus Kinski) states near the end of the movie to Pauline (Vonetta McGee), before he does just that.  Pauline’s husband was killed by Loco and she hires a mute bounty hunter, Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), to avenge his death.  Although Silence is a lethal killer and exudes a sexy coolness that was de rigueur for any antihero worth their leather chaps in those days, he’s sauntered into the wrong movie.  He’s doomed.

Corbucci’s world is dominated by corruption–the Utah town where the story is set is ruled by bounty hunters and venal authorities.  The majority of the townspeople–men like Pauline’s husband–have been branded outlaws because they’ve had to resort to stealing food to survive, which is why so many bounty hunters have swarmed into the area… business is a-boomin’.

Silence is a man of violence.  He makes his living off the blood of others, but he avenges the poor and is anti-authoritarian, another strong plus for any proper gunslinger in the age of rock ‘n’ roll.  John Wayne–who during the same time always represented larger-than-life father figures and men of the establishment–was square.  Duke represented the hardhats and Nixon’s Silent Majority.  He was your dad.

Silence, on the other hand, was who young guys wanted to be and who everyone wanted to be with.  He was lean, sharp, and European.  Trintignant was French and decidedly cool.  Arguably even cooler than Eastwood’s Man with No Name character.

But not even Silence could get out of Corbucci’s movie alive.  Evil is not vanquished.  There’s not even room for an ambiguous finale, a stalemate where Silence and Loco are allowed to go their separate ways, each the hero in their own narratives.  Silence dies, Pauline dies, the townspeople all die, and Loco and his men ride off to destroy the lives of others for another day.  Loco even plucks Silence’s pistol from his cold dead broken hand and keeps it for himself.

It sounds like a movie you’d never want to see unless you were a complete masochist, right?  It’s certainly not for the timid, but The Great Silence is also a movie of frail beauty and melancholy, something that you can’t really say about a lot of spaghetti Westerns.  But it’s not a particularly beautiful looking movie, despite its striking snowbound, mountainous setting.  The typical dusty and dry Almeria locale seen in countless Italian Westerns is gone.  Corbucci filmed in the Dolomites instead, isolating his characters in ice and snow, effectively stripping the movie of duels in the sun and horse chases across cracked earth.  Even Ennio Morricone’s score is plaintive and haunting, removed from his usual operatic majesty.

Then there’s Kinski.  A fixture in spaghetti Westerns, Kinski shines darkly here like never before.  At least, I’ve never seen him in anything that rivals this black-hearted bastard of a character.  It’s simply one of his finest performances, though not one sans humor.  Kinski’s eyes flash with secret wisdom throughout and there’s a moment of modest brilliance when a character shoots off his hat at one point and Kinski flicks back his head, his hair whipping back away from his eyes, as if to show that it was no big thing.  Even under pressure, he was going to remain unscathed.  Fearless.  And that as an actor, no indignity was going to seep into him.  Vonetta McGee and Trintignant are marvelous, as is Frank Wolff (an American character actor who worked plenty in Italian features, usually as a bad guy) who plays the local sheriff, the only decent authority figure in the movie.

The Great Silence has a lot going for it, despite its unapologetic nihilism.  It lacks the stylistic finesse of Leone, but its ruthless butchery of Old West mythology and its critique of unbridled capitalism and authority is spot on.  Perhaps not the kind of movie you want to pop on for a night of escapist entertainment, though it’s certainly satisfying and one of the great spaghetti Westerns.

The video at the top is a little homage I put together.  Another one of my experiments.  Hope you enjoy it.


Charlton Heston is dead. At the time that Heston made The Omega Man in 1971 (featured in the clip above), the notorious conservative actor (who was still a card carrying member of the Democratic party at that point but a Nixon supporter) probably did feel like the last man on earth. Surrounded by counterculture Hollywood, a relic of the studio system and more a practitioner of a relentlessly old fashioned theatrical style than a Brando, Heston still loomed large over the decade of decline. It was a credit to his adaptation that he managed to survive in an industry that doesn’t always reward change.

I mourn his loss because as a youth growing up in the 1970s, he was my first real movie star idol, the first real impression I had of what an actor was. He also starred in one of my favorite films of all time, Planet of the Apes (and its sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes), and to a lesser degree The Omega Man. As with the Planet of the Apes films, I loved Omega Man as a kid, then went many years without seeing it, in which I romanticized and misremembered it. When I finally saw it again in my early twenties, I was disappointed. It was far more campy and shoddy than I remembered it being, and unlike Planet of the Apes, lacked wit or imaginative bravado. But in its own misshapen way, I’ve come around and now love Omega Man and watch it at least once a year. Heston’s post-Apes roles in the 1970s are remarkable for the sheer number of times he suffered beatings and death at the hands of apocalyptic maniacs. I enjoyed, and still do, the Heston of the Epics (The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, El Cid, The War Lord) or the Westerns (The Big Country, Major Dundee, Will Penny, Heston’s favorite role). And then there was his role as a Mexican cop in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, arguably the last of the original American film noir cycle. It takes awhile to adjust to Heston’s casting as Vargas, but without him in the lead the film with Welles at the helm would have probably never happened.

As the story goes, Universal Pictures wanted Heston to appear as the star of the picture. But when the actor heard that Welles was only attached to the film as an actor, Heston recommended him to direct as well. It was a gigantic risk for the studio considering that Welles was virtually blacklisted in Hollywood due to pressure from William Randolph Hearst, the FBI, and a series of box office disappointments leading up to his exile in Europe from 1947 to 1956 where Welles conjured up new avenues of magic–though hardly anything Hollywood would want to touch. There’s a scene in Tim Burton’s otherwise fine Ed Wood in which the “world’s worst director” meets America’s best in a dark lounge. Welles, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, remarks to Wood (Johnny Depp) that he’s just been saddled with Charlton Heston to play a Mexican at Universal. It’s a funny moment, but there’s no way the real Welles would have said it considering the actor had just given him the chance to direct in Tinseltown again.

Apocalypse Heston. Disaster-mode Chuck. The slightly paranoid, cynical, volcanic Heston from the 1970s: that was the actor for me. Clint Eastwood, another early movie star idol for me, was meaner, tougher, and cooler. But for me, Heston was the quintessential Hollywood action star: masculine, intelligent, versatile, and absurdly charismatic. His portrayals of larger than life heroes was always tinged with a humanity and vulnerability that I don’t think many of the action stars that followed, e.g. Stallone or Schwarzenegger, were ever able to match. He was also the consummate professional and a gentleman from all accounts. You don’t last in the business for as long as Heston did without mastering the art of good manners.

It’s sad that for many, younger, film fans, Heston will be remembered for his “hammy” acting or as president of the NRA, conservative activist (though I find it amusing that so many of his detractors conveniently ignore Heston’s liberal past and his civil rights involvement) , or as the elderly Alzheimer-afflicted scapegoat in Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine, where the intrepid filmmaker/gadfly bum rushes the ailing actor in his own home. I’m no apologist for Heston’s political beliefs. No doubt, I’d have more in common with Moore’s politics. But the scene is disgusting and a cheap shot. Regardless of personal beliefs, I know who I’d rather have dinner with.

Below are two more favorite clips from his dystopian science fiction period: the finales of Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green, the latter an aesthetic predecessor to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner. You can also go here, here, and here for some rather wonderful and eloquent pieces on this true colossus of Hollywood.