Eli Wallach did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Tuco Benedicto Pacífico Juan María Ramírez best known as just Tuco in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
The title of the film refers to the three principal players of the film the good most often referred to as the man with no name although referred to Tuco as Blondie is played by Clint Eastwood. The good is hardly perfect but definitely has a sense of compassion. There is also the bad named Angel Eyes played by Lee Van Cleef who is assassin who will commit any immoral act to get the gold, and then there is the Ugly played by Wallach. The ugly refers to more than just Wallach nontraditional leading man style of appearance, but also his stance in terms of morality which is definitely not good but he is not pure evil by any measure either. Tuco's personality and morality is best described as ugly.
Although I don't wish to disrespect those who feel that Eli Wallach's performance in this film is supporting but I can't see him in any way other than co-lead with Eastwood in fact if for some reason you had to put one in supporting I would put Eastwood there before Wallach, although I would never do that. Wallach has the most speaking lines in the film which I suppose is a bit of a given considering Clint Eastwood never plays that talkative of a character. He also has the most screen time and Tuco's story is always just as important as Blondie if not more important in that we find out more about Tuco's past and whenever we drift from the two together we tend to follow Tuco more often than Blondie.
Eli Wallach wanted to play the Toshiro Mifune equivalent in the Magnificent Seven before he was cast as the main villain Calvera. I bring this up again because Wallach's on screen style reminds me of Mifune in the best possible way. Wallach has a daring of performance like Mifune where every physical action even the most unimportant motion seems to have some some significance. Wallach uses this style to utter brilliance here as Tuco who is a bandit with a seemingly unending number of crimes on his name at least according to his would be executioners. Wallach early on make Tuco hard to peg exactly his nature as he doesn't seem to deny his crimes he definitely has a liveliness you will not find in the cold blooded Angel Eyes.
Tuco early on the film though actually is a bit of a villain himself as he tries to track down and kill Blondie after Blondie left in the desert after Tuco wanted too much money in their extortion scheme together. Wallach does something very special in that he makes Tuco extremely likable for some reason despite Tuco's actions being less than admirable particularly in the early stages of the film. How Wallach does this is perhaps through his humorous manner he brings to the part. Wallach gives Tuco just the right kind of flamboyance it never seems like too much, but instead just makes every scene he is in all the more entertaining because of his style. Wallach brings in just the right way though never becoming just a cartoon even though he is very funny here.
Wallach approach is a bit of a scatter shot in the way he switches around in scenes and the way he never seems to stop talking or moving in any scene. Wallach approach is no doubt risky as any part of Tuco's character could fall flat, seem like too much, or just have certain elements of his character seem out of place but Wallach brings it all together in a single brilliant character. In his early rival scenes with Blondie Wallach balancing act involves having the appropriate menace when he traps Blondie with the attempt to kill him yet still is completely enjoyable in his style. One of my favorite moments of Wallach's performance is when Tuco and a few men try to take get Blondie. When he corners Blondie Wallach makes the threat real in Tuco's grudge holding eyes, but still has a moment for comedy when he sorta mourns his men who Blondie has killed with his trademark serious yet false sign of the cross.
Wallach makes Tuco a most peculiar yet completely winning character to follow along through the film. What drives Tuco throughout the film is intense greed as all Tuco really does want is to find the man desperately. A man filled with greed yet just a purely endearing man filled with greed in that there in that Wallach never makes this greed explicitly devious even though it technically is. Wallach just wins you over even though through his portrayal of Tuco who is indeed the ugly one thing is his energy in the part which never seizes and never stops entertaining but there is something else that makes it so the audience can overlook Tuco's faults and there are a lot of faults to be looked over through the course of the film.
The something else I think comes in the more vulnerable scenes with Tuco. One of them being when we find out a little of the past of Tuco as he meets with his brother who is a priest. Wallach is absolutely perfect in this scene because he does not let up on Tuco's flamboyant behavior except for brief moments using just the right subtle indications that there is a softer side to the bandit. Wallach doesn't dwell on it though showing that Tuco's behavior to at least some degree is a defense mechanism of sorts to hide Tuco's very real pains in his past. Wallach expression when Tuco is told the death of his father is very moving because it is just a slight change in Tuco's face and we see that there is more to this man than just the list of crimes and a bounty to his name.
Another important thing about Tuco compared to the other men is the genuine character that Wallach gives Tuco that makes him infinitely more likable than the truly evil men around him. By giving this color to Tuco Wallach makes the right difference between Tuco and Angel Eyes and the men like him. One of the best scenes of the film is when Tuco is being tortured by Angel Eyes and a henchman. It might seem odd to make a scene in which we are to sympathize with a criminal bandit, but it is Wallach performance that doesn't make it seem odd at all. Firstly Wallach delivers in painful detail how they break Tuco, but as well Wallach in all the scenes before this point made the Tuco character so rich in life that it is hard to see him treated with such extreme brutality.
One of trademarks of Sergio Leone's direction is his attention to faces in his films. There are never just random nameless men he uses but there is something notable about just about everyone he sets in frame. Wallach's face is one of his most intriguing in this film. Wallach is the wild card of this film as Angel Eyes and Blondie are technically both mysterious men but mysterious men with a distinct nature. Tuco doesn't stand exactly any where exactly in fact in the way Wallach plays him he rarely ever just stands still. Wallach's performance is flamboyance at its very best. It is a wild performance filled with life and humor at all times yet with just the right barriers within this insanity to ground Tuco in just the right way allowing there to be a heartfelt interior within the exceedingly entertaining exterior of this incredible performance.