Tag Archives: Eli Wallach

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, Sergio Leone)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly ends up being about three criminals–of varying type–hunting down some stolen Confederate gold. But that Confederate gold story line takes a break after getting setup in the first ten minutes–for almost an hour of the two and a half hour plus film–so Good, the Bad and the Ugly can introduce its protagonist and his antagonist. Eli Wallach, playing the Ugly, is the protagonist. Clint Eastwood, the Good, is the antagonist. Lee Van Cleef is the Bad, but he doesn’t really figure in until the second hour.

Wallach’s a criminal. Eastwood’s a bounty hunter. Only they’ve got a scheme worked out where Eastwood will bring Wallach in, collect the bounty, then save him from hanging. Only things go bad in their partnership, partially because Wallach’s such a scumbag, partially because Eastwood’s greedy. The film follows Wallach, with Eastwood getting maybe five scenes to himself away from Wallach. And at least two of them are Eastwood with Van Cleef. Eastwood’s practically a special guest star in the film, despite being top-billed.

The film opens with vingettes setting up the three characters. Well, not Eastwood. His setup vingette is a continuation of Wallach’s. Van Cleef’s vingette introduces the missing Confederate gold. He then gets some occasional investigation scenes before disappearing for a half hour or so. The film’s got to move Wallach and Eastwood into position to intersect with the missing gold plot line. Through exceptional plot contrivance.

It’s fine though, because Good, the Bad and the Ugly can get away with plot contrivance. Director Leone’s style and Wallach and Eastwood’s performances (more Wallach, Eastwood just has to be charming) can carry it through. There’s a lot of humor–Wallach’s such an abject bastard he’s lovable–and some rather excellent action scenes.

But then, in the second hour, Good, the Bad and the Ugly changes completely. It’s no longer a Western with Civil War trappings, it’s a Civil War picture with Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef shoehorned in. Even if Van Cleef’s working as a Union prison camp sergeant hoping to get a line on that missing gold. During that sequence, which involves Van Cleef’s enforcer (Mario Brega) viciously beating Wallach for information, while the Confederate soldiers play a song to cover the noise, Leone transitions from making that Western to the Civil War picture.

Only he still then follows the plot of that Western quest for gold, gunfighters, bandits, doublecrosses. But until the end of the film, none of the non-Civil War stuff (save Wallach’s solo hilarities) can compare to what Leone’s doing with the Civil War stuff. The prison camp sequence is jarring and affecting, it’s also nothing compared to what Leone’s got coming.

There’s a shorter sequence involving Eastwood and Wallach coming upon a Union encampment. They’re on one side of the river, the Confederates are on the other. They’re fighting over the bridge. The Union captain (Aldo Giuffrè, in what’s got to be one of the best dubbed performances ever) is a drunk, crushed under the weight of sending his men to needlessly die twice a day for a bridge he wishes he could destroy.

If Eastwood had a real character arc, this sequence would kick off its final stage. He doesn’t though, but the movie uses him like he does and–for a while–gets to pretend it’s a thoughtful look at the two bandits encountering an entirely different kind of violence than they’re used to experiencing. It doesn’t even last as long as Eastwood and Wallach are at the Union camp, but it’s spectacular. It picks up again a little when they continue on their way to the inevitable showdown over the gold; just for Eastwood though. The film’s back to treating Wallach as the lovable bastard.

The Civil War material is passionate–with the Ennio Morricone score having a different, more romantic tone than the Western action sequences–and technically ambitious in terms of scale. The Western action sequences (for the most part, Eastwood and Wallach taking on Van Cleef’s thugs is a confused mix of the two styles) are a glorious mix of composition, editing, music, and photography. The cemetery-set finale, with Van Cleef, Eastwood, and Wallach in a standoff, the cuts getting more rapid between their faces, the tension (and music) intensifying with each cut, is a fantastic style culmination.

It’d be even better if Leone could’ve somehow figured a way to integrate the film’s differing tones. He doesn’t even try. He toggles away from the war rumination and back to the Western action. It’s great action. It’s just nowhere near as special (or as ambitious) as that war rumination.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a technical marvel, with some great performances–Wallach, Van Cleef, Giuffrè–and superior photography, editing, and music. Eastwood’s perfectly good, he just doesn’t get any material. Visually, Wallach’s his stooge. Narratively, with the two Civil War reaction exceptions towards the end, Eastwood’s Wallach’s stooge. Van Cleef isn’t in it enough to be distinct to the narrative, his vicious, brutal performance does wonders what little he does get.

In the supporting roles, Giuffrè is the standout, but there are some other strong ones. Despite a large cast, the supporting players don’t get a lot of material. Brega’s a great villain, Antonio Molino Rojo has a good scene as Van Cleef’s knowing commanding officer, and Enzo Petito has a swell single scene as one of the unfortunates who encounters Wallach. And Luigi Pistilli has a good scene as Wallach’s brother; it’s the two and a half hour film’s single attempt at character development.

Morricone’s score, both for the Western action and Civil War sequences, is singular. Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli’s editing is glorious. Leone’s composition, ably facilitated by Tonino Delli Colli, is excellent. Good, the Bad and the Ugly is an outstanding success.

It’s just nowhere near as ambitious as it ought to be, as Leone seems to want to make it to be.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sergio Leone; screenplay by Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Leone, based on a story by Vincenzoni and Leone; director of photography, Tonino Delli Colli; edited by Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Carlo Simi; produced by Alberto Grimaldi; released by Produzioni Europee Associate.

Starring Eli Wallach (Tuco), Clint Eastwood (Blondie), Lee Van Cleef (Angel Eyes), Aldo Giuffrè (Captain Clinton), Mario Brega (Cpl. Wallace), Luigi Pistilli (Father Pablo Ramirez), Antonio Molino Rojo (Capt. Harper), Enzo Petito (Storekeeper), and Antonio Casale (Bill Carson).


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Night and the City (1992, Irwin Winkler)

Night and the City ends on a comic note. Given the film deals with struggling and desperation–with no humor–having a funny line for a finish doesn’t just feel wrong, it invalidates all the work Robert De Niro does in the film. It turns his performance into a comedic one, which it had not been until that final moment.

Not to mention it undoes a bunch of Jessica Lange’s excellent work. She plays his love interest; she has a husband too. City seems complicated but it really isn’t. Richard Price’s script is full of great dialogue and great parts for actors–Cliff Gorman (as Lange’s husband), Alan King and Jack Warden are all excellent–but it doesn’t move very well. Even though Lange painfully explains why she likes De Niro, it’s not convincing. His ne’er-do-well ambulance chasing lawyer turned boxing promotor isn’t an entirely weak character, but he can’t hold up the entire picture.

Director Winkler is a lot of the problem too. The third act is a disaster, but these terrible music montage choices start somewhere in the second half. City never has much of a style–Winkler apes other New York directors–but it does have amazing editing from David Brenner to distinguish it. Not even Brenner can make the music choices work.

With a better director–and De Niro sharing more of the runtime with the supporting cast–City might have been a decent little picture. Instead, the film is an almost competent misfire.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Irwin Winkler; screenplay by Richard Price, based on the novel by Gerald Kersh; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by David Brenner; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Peter S. Larkin; produced by Jane Rosenthal and Winkler; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Robert De Niro (Harry Fabian), Jessica Lange (Helen Nasseros), Cliff Gorman (Phil Nasseros), Alan King (Boom Boom), Jack Warden (Al Grossman), Eli Wallach (Peck), Barry Primus (Tommy Tessler) and Gene Kirkwood (Resnick).


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The Deep (1977, Peter Yates)

I’m a little surprised Donna Summer did the theme song for The Deep, seeing as how she’s black and, according to The Deep, every black person is a villain of some kind or another.

Even with his blond locks, I’ve never thought of Nick Nolte as particularly aryan (maybe because his eyes are so brown), but he really comes off like a, well, honky in this one. He calls Louis Gossett Jr. a basketball player as a euphemism for black. Seriously. I think, the last time I tried watching it, I turned it off at that point.

But I struggled through this time and, for that last shot, it’s almost worth the torture. It’s an awful conclusion, maybe the second worst I can think of (after the second Planet of the Apes).

Yates’s Panavision composition is boring, seemingly ready for the TV version (since The Deep was pre-video). John Barry contributes a wholly inappropriate but exceeding lovely score. It’s hard to say if it’s all Yates’s fault or if it’s just a bad production. I’m sure Peter Benchley’s novel wasn’t good, so his screenplay would be similarly dubious. But there’s nothing thrilling about it, there’s no excitement. In fact, it might be the only big Hollywood picture I can think of without a single likable character.

It’s a long two hours, mostly because of the lengthy exposition and then the boring underwater scenes. It’s an anti-thriller film, almost worth examining.

Even Robert Shaw is phoning it in here.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Yates; screenplay by Peter Benchley and Tracy Keenan Wynn, based on the novel by Benchley; director of photography, Christopher Challis; edited by David Berlatsky; music by John Barry; production designer, Anthony Masters; produced by Peter Guber; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Robert Shaw (Romer Treece), Jacqueline Bisset (Gail Berke), Nick Nolte (David Sanders), Louis Gossett Jr. (Henri Cloche), Eli Wallach (Adam Coffin), Dick Anthony Williams (Slake), Earl Maynard (Ronald), Bob Minor (Wiley), Teddy Tucker (the harbor master), Robert Tessier (Kevin) and Lee McClain (Johnson).


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Article 99 (1992, Howard Deutch)

Director of not one, not two, but three 1980s John Hughes movies, Howard Deutch applies those hard-earned skills to remaking M*A*S*H and, shockingly, doesn’t do too bad of a job. Sure, Article 99 is absurd and Lea Thompson as a doctor is a hoot, but its well-intentioned and sensitive to its characters. I’d heard of the movie before–I think I even have an Article 99 scrub shirt–but I thought it was a period piece, set either during Vietnam or just after. Instead, it’s set in modernity, which allows for the villains to be Republicans without military service who are trying to save a buck at the expense of veterans. Kind of eerie, isn’t it?

Even with a terrible opening–after a moderately classy, if way too forced Americana title sequence–pissed off vet Leo Burmester (nicknamed Shooter) tries to take the hospital hostage. It’s a loony sequence, but it introduces all of the characters pretty well and is one of the few times Article 99 is trying to be its own thing, instead of that M*A*S*H remake. It’s also the first time Danny Elfman reuses some of his more famous scores in Article 99 (though his love theme for the film, which seems to be an original, is nice). Following that sequence, Article 99 calms down a bit. There are hijinks, evil bureaucrats and so on, but it doesn’t jar the viewer’s suspension of disbelief until the end.

The reason Article 99 succeeds, even with the cartoonishness, is its actors. Kiefer Sutherland is earnest (even if his character making it through medical school seems unlikely) and likable. Forest Whitaker and John C. McGinley are good in supporting roles. I already mentioned the unbearably terrible Thompson, but Deutch seemed to realize it and only kept ten of her lines in the picture. But there’s Eli Wallach and Keith David to make up for it. Wallach has some great scenes with Sutherland and some great dialogue too (the script’s got a bunch of good one liners). David’s the all-knowing vet and even though the character’s goofy, David makes it work. John Mahoney’s villain is a solid John Mahoney villain, if a little less ruthless (he doesn’t get to kill anyone) than the usual.

I saved this paragraph just for Ray Liotta and Kathy Baker. Liotta’s performance–a leading man performance–is fantastic. It’s hard to believe he couldn’t make it as a lead, just because he’s so obvious great at it. Except then there’s the romance with Baker. Their courtship–and Elfman’s score for it–is one of the best things about Article 99, even if it seems totally out of place, both in terms of plot and quality.

Article 99 has its highs and lows, but wisely starts at its lowest point (the silly plot development at the end is more palatable after Burmester driving his car into the hospital in the opening). There’s a real sincerity to it, not just in the approach to the content, but also in the presentation of it. Liotta has a scene where he lectures amoral boss Mahoney on the duties of VA doctors and makes it work. It shouldn’t work, but it really does.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Deutch; written by Ron Cutler; director of photography, Richard Bowen; edited by Richard Halsey; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Virginia L. Randolph; produced by Michael Gruskoff and Michael I. Levy; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Ray Liotta (Dr. Richard Sturgess), Kiefer Sutherland (Dr. Peter Morgan), Forest Whitaker (Dr. Sid Handleman), Lea Thompson (Dr. Robin Van Dorn), John C. McGinley (Dr. Rudy Bobrick), John Mahoney (Dr. Henry Dreyfoos), Keith David (Luther Jermoe), Kathy Baker (Dr. Diana Walton), Eli Wallach (Sam Abrams), Noble Willingham (Inspector General), Julie Bovasso (Amelia Sturdeyvant), Troy Evans (Pat Travis), Lynne Thigpen (Nurse White), Jeffrey Tambor (Dr. Leo Krutz), Leo Burmester (Shooter Polaski), Ernest Abuba (Ikiro Tenabe) and Rutanya Alda (Ann Travis).


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