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!