After his first significant big screen role (1964’s A Fistful of Dollars), Eastwood averaged better than one lead role a year until the mid-90’s when he finally started to slow down a little (at least in front of the camera) and in the same way as very few directors have as strong a hit-rate as Eastwood over that long a career, so is the case for his acting output. Although he was dismissed in some quarters for years as a grizzled, taciturn performer he has always had range and genuine ability.
As some of the roles featured below demonstrate, he has often come full circle with certain archetypal characters, with The Man With No Name eventually becoming William Munny, or Harry Callahan growing up to be Walt Kowalski – often those films feel as much a commentary on those characters as films in their own right, adding rich layers of subtext to what are already superlative films. But enough with the prelude, let’s look at the work.
1. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Sergio Leone has given us some genuinely outstanding westerns and can be thanked for making a big screen star of Eastwood, who was (until Leone’s Dollars trilogy kicked off with Fistful) best known for TV’s Rawhide. It could be argued that any of Eastwood’s roles in that trilogy could be inserted here and although Eastwood does play a distinct character in each film, there are certain similarities across the three roles. Here, as Blondie/The Good, Eastwood is towering and iconic, the poncho, hat, six shooter and cigar coming to define what a Western (anti-) hero looks like for a generation and more.
The sweaty, tense atmosphere is all down to Leone, but Eastwood brings enough of his own work to the party to warrant praise. Laconic characters can seem thinly drawn in less capable hands and it is therefore to Eastwood’s credit that he succeeds in balancing moments of quiet with more expressive character beats, so as to avoid being an enigma and instead feel like a fully-fledged character. His ribbing of Eli Wallach’s Tuco (“it says see you soon idiots”, “it’s for you”), his unyielding squinting stare, his precision in the concluding Mexican stand-off, his dismay at the wasteful carnage of the Civil War – all of it is engineered to great and compelling effect. To create an archetype that half a century later manages to not feel clichéd is impressive indeed.