Wednesday, June 25, 2014

My favourite Eli Wallach role (besides Tuco)

When people live (and continue working!) well into their 90's, their deaths don't seem so sad; they made it as far as any human being could be expected to, and the inclination is more to celebrate their lives than mourn. So I'm going to tell you my favourite Eli Wallach moment in a film other than The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.
It occurs in a rather cheesy Zen-Buddhist-inspired kung fu movie called Circle of Iron, AKA The Silent Flute. That was the title of the original story, co-written by Bruce Lee, James Coburn, and Stirling Silliphant, and completed for filming in 1978, after Bruce Lee's death, by Silliphant and Stanley Mann. The film boasts not only an appearance by Eli Wallach, but small parts for Christopher Lee and Roddy McDowall, and something like four roles for David Carradine, including the part of a kung-fu-fighting ape. It's sort of a variant on the education of an idiot theme: a young, impetuous fighter, Cord (hammily played by Jeff Cooper, a TV actor who hailed from Hamilton, Ontario) goes on a quest for enlightenment, and encounters various trials along the way, as well as various teachers, many of whom are played by Carradine. Carradine - whose main role is that of a blind shakuhachi player - delivers some highly corny bon mots during the movie - the screenplay is sprinkled liberally with Zen koans and such, which produce something more akin to stupefaction than satori. There's a ripoff of Heraclitus' line about not being able to step into the same river twice (phrased differently, but it's the same idea). There's the observation, used to describe Cord's reluctant apprenticeship with his blind teacher, that you can tie two birds together, but though they have four wings, they cannot fly. The funniest sequence, however, dispenses with Carradine altogether, and occurs when Cord encounters Wallach in the desert, half-submerged in a giant vat.
Cord approaches with open curiosity, and Wallach - whose character is billed, as I recall, as "man dissolving himself in oil," asks if "that terrible thing between my legs" is almost gone. Turns out he's on a quest for enlightenment, too, but finds himself constantly distracted by his sexual urges; he hasn't the gumption to castrate himself, so he's spending his days in a vat of oil, hoping the lower half of his body will painlessly dissolve, and along with it, his sex drive. He urges Cord to join him, for his own good; Cord laughs, and - rejecting such extreme asceticism - declines.
It's a silly moment in a silly movie, and it's obvious Wallach isn't taking it too seriously (how in the hell could you?). But it's still kind of charming, and as many good movies as I've seen Wallach in - peruse his filmography here - for me, it's the second most memorable appearance by him, after, of course, Tuco. As often happens with Ernest Borgnine, you're struck by the fact that even in 1978, Wallach looked old; pretty amazing that he would continue to live and work for another three decades (his final film, the Wall Street sequel, was completed in 2010). My respects to Eli Wallach and condolences to his family and friends. Viva Tuco!

1 comment:

Allan MacInnis said...

Funny - went to a preview screening of Words and Pictures tonight, was passably entertained, but kept thinking throughout that with his chin stubble and big front teeth that Clive Owen looked like Eli Wallach!