Guest Post – Sweaty Men in Film
Greetings, all and sundry!
It isn’t often that circumstances, however odd fall into place so serendipitously. As to nudge a thought from the back of my head to the fore. Starts gears turning amongst gray matter and sends that thought forward. And the more forward that thought travels. The more it can be fleshed out and be brought to fruition and light.
The initial idea was broached over at Eric’s “Warning Sign” while commenting and discussing ‘On The Waterfront’. I’d mentioned how oily and sweaty Rod Steiger appeared as Terry’s older brother, Charley. And a few days ago, Michael’s friend, J.D.of “Radiator Heaven” critiqued Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ and serendipity fell into place.
Giving me an idea worthy of running with. And to that end, allow me to introduce.
Sweaty Men in Film
An idea and concept so anathema to male stars today. Yet was a staple of countless dramas, thrillers and westerns of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Worn like a bold suit of shine and sheen by a very few who could easily manipulate it and make it part of their character’s personality. Or lack of it.
My list is admittedly short, but rather obvious, given some thought. Since this trait or accessory is present in a rather large batch of memorable to iconic films.
#3: Rod Steiger
Achieved fame in his role of criminal toady, near stooge prating to be a minion, Charley Malloy in Lee J. Cobb’s inner circle of corrupt dock managers in On the Waterfront in 1954. Of medium height, though barrel chested. Charley suffered from a constantly denigrated, ruptured ego. Carefully hiding this flaw behind expensive finery and dressing far above his station. Though a visible sheen of oily sweat above his brow and across his forehead revealed his true inner nature. That of a flunky willing to do almost anything to achieve status.
Traits that would return in Steiger’s role of Hollywood bigwig, Stanley Shriner Hoff in Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife a year later. Steiger’s Hoff has no lack of self importance or over inflated ego running a fledgling studio and trying to keep his biggest earning actor, Charles Castle (Jack Palance) in line and out of the spotlight of bad publicity. Constantly barking orders to his subordinate lawyers and agents. Using his size and voice to intimidate. When not resorting to blustering, humiliating extortion to keep Castle under contract and under his often crushing thumb. In a scathing adaptation of Clifford Odets award winning play.
It’s in Otto Preminger’s The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell the same year. Where I think Mr. Steiger began to accept the sheen on his face and adapt it to his character. Looking absolutely resplendent in a tailored Army Air Corps Class-A uniform as prosecuting attorney, Major Alan Guillion. Waxing eloquent and jovial one moment. Then going for the throat the next. Yet looking like he’d plowed the South Forty before lunch. Without damaging his politely disguised, adversarial disposition.
Civility and gentility of any sort are tossed out the window for Mr. Steiger’s starring role Richard Wilson’s Al Capone from 1959. Where Steiger’s Capone enters Jonny Torrio’s south side Chicago numbers and protection bank in full blown hungry slob mode during its opening credits. Taking a bite from pieces of fruit and tossing the rest away. Building a sandwich and devouring most of it before seeing The Man. But not for long. Capone has long range plans that will keep his New York thug in check. Making deals and reneging on them as the competition falls singularly and collectively. Letting his slovenly freak flag fly as the law and other gangs close in and power begins slipping away. In a little, somewhat grainy, shadowy B&W gem. That is every bit as good as Roger Corman’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre eight years later. And better than De Palma’s The Untouchables a quarter century later.
Mr. Steiger’s sweat stains come back full force and en masse as Chief Gillespie in Norman Jewison’s racial thriller In the Heat of the Night from 1967. Steiger’s Gillespie is old, set in his and his sleepy southern town’s ways. And doesn’t want his just cleared primary suspect, Philadelphia homicide detective, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) helping him investigate the murder of a prominent white business man. Watching Steiger’s Gillespie sweat and chew gum loudly as he watches Poitier’s Tibbs subtly show him up is fun to watch. Until a tete a tete comes to a head and explodes. The dust settles and the two begin working their sides of the street to find the killer.
Leaving plenty of room for Mr. Steiger to stretch and romp and wallow in the 1973 back woods feud flick Lolly Madonna XXX. With Mr. Steiger playing Laban Feather, the patriarch of one family opposite Robert Ryan’s Pap Gutshall and their respective families. Who go to war in the hills outside Knoxville, Tennessee over a prank gone bad that destroys the reputation of an innocent girl. In a surprisingly decent, well cast and executed, long handle and bib overalls allegory to war in general, and Vietnam in particular.
#2: Eli Wallach
Who buried his flag deeply after a five year apprenticeship in television. As Silva Vacarro in the Tennessee Williams’ screen played and Elia Kazan directed, Baby Doll in 1956. Loud, sharp tones and often vile, Wallach’s Silva is the embodiment of the Wife Beater under shirt. As he blusters and tries to steal the heart of Karl Malden’s live in, common law wife, Baby Doll (Caroll Baker. Hypnotically naive and sultry!). Who’ll have none of it. All set against the cramped 1920s Industrialized south of
Which created some time for Mr. Wallach to share some film and screen time with Rod Steiger and Edward G. Robinson in a compact little B&W caper film, Seven Thieves from 1960 and directed by Henry Hathaway. That bears more than a small similarity to the George Clooney, Ocean’s Eleven franchise decades later. Notable for watching Wallach and Steiger create tension in suits that always appear shabby and a size or two too small.
Leaving Mr. Wallach’s dance card empty and righteously filled with the role of bandit chief, Calvera in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven the same year. Ruling between a monstrous black sombrero and a silver saddle as he and his men fleece local villages of money, food and grain. Regaling in bad, sometimes ruthless behavior within a thin veil of invulnerability. Until a group of peasants go looking for some protective gunslingers. And Calvera slowly begins to meet his match. In an iconic, character driven adaptation and update of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai.
Returning around five years later as Tuco in Sergio Leone’s wondrously dusty and dirty The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The creme de la creme of Spaghetti Westerns and crowning glory of director, Leone. Assembling a top of the line cast of Clint Eastwood and the always reliable, man of few words, Lee Van Cleef. Working together and later, independently to find buried Civil War gold somewhere in a middle of no where, Boot Hill cemetery. To get there, a rather roundabout route is taken. With Eastwood’s bounty hunting Blondie (The Good) turns in Tuco (The Ugly). Collecting the bounty and hanging around through the trail. Then picking a spot to shoot through the rope as Tuco is hanged. A touchy way to make a dollar, but a profitable one. As Van Cleef’s “Angel Eyes” Sentenza (The Bad) hangs back as a clue to the cemetery’s whereabouts are revealed by a dying man. Amidst arguments, stand offs and Mr. Wallach’squickly tearing apart a general store with more dust than still air to assemble a Dragoon revolver. Then testing it in its back alley range. Well before what could be the longest shared stare down before a final showdown in cinematic history.
#1: Warren Oates
The superlative, yet oddly under rated character actor. Who seemed to have been born with a glistening of shiny perspiration and wet packed down hair. Who began making his mark in many slimy to creepy roles in television before catching attentions in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country in 1962. As Henry Hammond, who obstinately refuses to take a bath for his older brother, Billy’s (James Drury) upcoming wedding. The kind of sweat stained Union Suit or long handles and blue jeans kind of custom fitted, ride upwind western roles that Peckinpah and Oates knew and embraced all too well. Making the most of Mr. Oates physical presence.And a voice that made everything he said sound dirty. In a business marriage of sorts. That Mr. Oates would revel in as amnestied confederate soldier, O.W. Hadley to in Major Dundee three years later.
Returning to the well once again as racist patrolman, Sam Wood in In the Heat of the Night. Where he excels in slimy creepiness as a cop whose town is his own private playpen. Getting way with quite a lot before the walls start closing in. Which opened the flood gates to return under Peckinpah’s reins. As Lyle Gorch. Younger brother of Ben Johnson’s wizened, Tector. Who ride with William Holden’s Pike Bishop and Ernest Borgnine’s Dutch Engstom. In The Wild Bunch. Ia dust and sweat, south of the border eulogy to the fading west through changing times and technology. From its first failed bank robbery. Through a full blown taking of a train and the explosive destruction of its trestle bridge and weapons hijack. Mr. Oates’ Lyle is more than along for the ride. Not saying a lot while being the low man in the power structure. He is where he has to be. And quick to fall in line and prep his pistols and shotgun as the bunch assembles for its final showdown. Very heady stuff, indeed!
That is taken down just a notch for Mr. Oates’ G.T.O. in Monte Hellman’s cross country race and road trip film, Two Lane Blacktop in 1971. Where G.T.O. challenges James Taylor’s “The Diver”, Dennis Wilson’s “Mechanic” and his ’55 Chevy in a race to Washington, DC. Where the loser’s pink slip will be surrendered. Oates is in his element weaving through highway traffic and staying ahead of Taylor’s ’55. In a film with Harry Dean Stanton and Laurie Bird as hitchhikers. That was the direct competition to Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry in the very early 1970s.
Which gave way for Mr. Oates to have top billing and star in the John Milius written and directed Dillinger in 1973. In a strongly cast and more historically honest depiction of the legend. With Ben Johnson’s Melvin Purvis and local city and back hills law in pursuit. Then taking a brief side step as the disgustingly abusing Father in Terrance Mallick’s groundbreaking take on Charley Starkweather’s cross country shooting spree, Badlands in 1973.
Setting the stage for Mr. Oates’ Magnum Opus to “Sweaty Men” films. As three time loser, hit rock bottom expatriate, Bennie. In Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Which was universally panned and slammed when first released. Yet has grown in credibility and well earned stature through the years. A film that could easily be mistaken for a turn of the century Western for its first twenty minutes. Yet, holds that mystique throughout. With classic convertibles and long black limos replacing horses. Deals and double crosses pile on top of deals and double crosses. With elegant hired hit men close behind. And Bennie looking three miles of bad road rumpled, unkempt and sweat soaked through countless scenes. As he strives to complete his ghastly task and get its million dollar reward.
Very familiar and well used soil to return to for Thomas McGuane’s written and directed, Key West fishing feud, 92 in the Shade. Where Mr. Oates’ well established charter captain, Nichol Dance barely tolerates Peter Fonda’s transplanted upstart, Tom Skelton. In an intriguing, shot on location, backyard gem that seethes with South Florida temper taunting heat and humidity. Along with Steve Carver’s medium budgeted, 1976 take on Kyle Onstett and Lance Horner’s “Falconhurst” series of novels in Drum. With Oates as Maxwell Hammond, owner of the Falconhurst plantation. Pam Grier, Jim Norton, Yaphett Kotto and all its unseen inner workings. In a film that is a lot more honest than the recently raved, Django Unchained, but could never be made today!
33 Responses to “Guest Post – Sweaty Men in Film”
I’d add Mickey Rourke in “Angel Heart” to this list. He just looks dirty all the way through the movie. Unconfortably so. Great post by the way.
Excellent catch on Mickey Rourke and ‘Angel Heart’!
I’d not thought of him or that humid, grimy film. But it certainly fits the template.
You’re also correct about it making people uncomfortable. Steiger and Ryan’s ‘Lolly Madonna XXX’ has that category covered for its first thirty or so minutes. While in ‘Angel Heart’, that desire to take a shower feel runs throughout.
Thanks for a great start to the conversation!
Oh, yes he does. Thanks, Mark.
Great list! I’d also add Paul Newman if for none other reason than COOL HAND LUKE which features an impressive number of sweaty thespians. But you also see Newman sweat it out in films like HUD, THE HUSTLER and, of course, SLAP SHOT!
Thanks for the impetus in getting this article moving in force. Your excellent critique of ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ got me thinking of other actors and films.
Your inclusion of Paul Newman is a worthy add on. Rocking out loud opposite Patricia Neal in ‘Hud’. And Arthur Kennedy, et al in ‘Cool Hand Luke’. Though Newman’s sweat opposite Jackie Gleason semed more from pressure. It did add a lot to a film positively seething with atmosphere!
COOL HAND LUKE is the first film I thought of when I read the title. But Rod Steiger probably deserves the Lifetime Achievement Academy Award for Sweatiest Actor. I can’t think of any movie where he ~isn’t~ sweaty.
Thanks for dropping by and offering a woman’s perspective.
‘Cool Hand Luke’ does have its lion’s share of sweat stained and sheened men. Upon a recent viewing, I noticed the only man not sporting sweat stains or beads is the tall and silent ‘No Talking Boss’. Who let his rifle do his speaking for him.
And you are not alone in your thoughts regarding Mr. Steiger. Eric and I discussed this and who was the bigger louse. Charley Malloy or Johnny Friendly, earlier in his critique on ‘On The Waterfront’. Which brought this
Yep, Steiger well-earned that particular award, Paulette. Thanks for that.
Sweaty thespians indeed for ‘Cool Hand Luke’! Can’t forget about ‘Slap Shot’, either. Great additions, J.D. Many thanks for amping this further, my friend.
Superb list and piece, Kevin. Yeah, it’s a unique category that you see very little of in today’s cinema — though I’ve heard last year’s ‘The Paperboy’ wrung out enough sweat among its cast to get a honorable mention ;-). I think if he continues his recent steady rise, Matthew McConaughey may qualify. His work in ‘Killer Joe’ was almost a testament in the Robert Mitchum-Cape Fear-kind of work. I’d certainly second Mark’s suggestion of Mickey Rourke in ‘Angel Heart’. Of course, Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen could sweat with the best of them in ‘Apocalypse Now’ (Brando’s water volume I tend to ignore, though ;-)). Great contribution and writing, my friend. Thanks so much for this guest post.
Having seen the Paperboy, i can attest to the sweatiness of its cast members 😉
I want to see ‘The Paperboy’. Did you enjoy that one, Julian? Thanks.
Yeah, although unfortunately it falls short of greatness
Okay. Thanks :-).
Thanks for the chance to tap a very unique vein. And for your very insightful comments!
Mitchum was treading fine fine line of depraved human and raw, sweaty anger in ‘Cape Fear’. Also good catches on Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen in ‘Apocalypse Now’. And Matthew McConaughey is definitely one to watch now that he is branching out and growing up.
Great potential to be a tough guy for the 21st century. Always liked his a little bit too enthusiastic Denton Van Zan in ‘Reign of Fire’, because it took me a while to recognize McConaughey.
What’s cool about all of this are all the other worthy suggestions and add ons. Which makes for a better, more diverse discussion.
I remember fondly McConaughey’s Denton Van Zan in ‘Reign of Fire’. He was ferocious in the role. Thanks, Kevin.
Good post Jack. The westerns seem to bring out the sweatiness in many a man!
It’s always a treat when you drop by!
Westerns are the vehicle where I first noticed a lot of talent. There is something virile, near primal, yet dignified about them. Bringing out the worst and the best in men. And women. If an actor can pull of a western hero or villain. There’s not much else he cannot pull off.
Thanks, Iba :-).
WOW, Jack’s been busy! Another great list here, a very manly post, ahah. Speaking of sweaty men in film, Gregory Peck fits that description perfectly in The Purple Plain. A total departure from his usual dapper and composed look of his famous films, but I definitely welcome that 😉
You know that the ladies are always welcome to opine here.
And yours it quite good!
With Sri Lanka filling in for Burma and its humidity highlighting his lean, ropy build. Caring for his men and taking out the enemy in a very non Peck role.
Oh, yes he has. Good for all of us, though. Thanks, Ruth.
Hi Jack, I am honored to have helped inspire this great post! Loved your writeup on Warren Oates, especially this line:
“Who seemed to have been born with a glistening of shiny perspiration and wet packed down hair.”
I have only seen a couple of his films, but that sounds pretty damn accurate. 😀
Got another one for ya: Orson Welles, particularly his role as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil. He seems to have sweat dripping from his forehead in every scene.
Also, Sly Stallone could be another good fit. Between Rocky and Rambo, he always seems to be drenched in perspiration!
Thank you for starting to get this ball rolling!
Steiger was shoo in for ‘On The Waterfront’. Which lead to Eli Wallach. But the Grand Old Man has to be Warren Oates. And yes, my description is damn accurate, Because I haven’t seen him any role where he doesn’t appear oily and sweaty. I also get a kick out of Adam Baldwin channeling Wallach’s sweat and Oates’ dirty voice for his character of Jayne Cobb in both ‘Firefly’ and ‘Serenity’.
Great catches on Orson Welles’ doughy, sweaty, corrupt, bent as barbed wire Hank Quinlan in ‘Touch of Evil’. Russell Metty’s odd angles and often close ups in cramped quarters makes Welles seethe with sweat!
And Sly Stallone could definitely be a contender for ‘Rocky’ and Rambo’.
Another great and sweaty one to join in this, Eric. Thanks.
Fun post. I see Sticky Mickey Rourke is getting his due in the comments field. I’ve been contemplating a post honoring Bruce Spence for his pioneering work in Periodontal Horror Roles, such as the Mouth of Sauron and whatever the hell that gray-toothed alien was called in “Revenge of the Sith.” I can’t write it until I get a good screen capture of his mossy-toothed Gyro Captain in “The Road Warrior.”
Glad you enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun putting together.
Bruce Spence is another oddity who flew in and out and then hovered around after ‘Road Warrior’. Hard to recognize him without his flying coat, leather helmet and goggles.
Always great to see and read your comments, Steven. Many thanks.
As for Steiger, I recall his inspired perspiration early in “The Amityville Horror.” It was only a cameo role, but he made the most of his time. By the time he was gone, there were tooth marks on every bit of scenery.
If Steiger doesn’t sweat in a scene. He chews scenery magnificently and memorably. His closing scene in ‘Al Capone’ is a hallmark in that arena.
It’s odd, the one scene I remember him fondly in is as the amiable destroyer captain on the eve of D-Day in ‘The Longest Day’. He’s only on for a moment, or two, but the cameo is heart warming and lingers long afterwards.
Didn’t Richard Pryor do a riff on Steiger as the priest in The Amityville Horror in one of his classic bits? I seem to recall that. Thanks, Steven.
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