The Art of the Film Still, Pt. 3: I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES (1955)

25 Mar

I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES is a 1955 remake, in color and Cinemascope, of the 1941 crime classic HIGH SIERRA. It’s about a career heist artist who gets paroled from prison in the Midwest through the machinations of an ailing crime boss in order to engineer the robbery of jewels from the safe deposit boxes of a Palm Springs-type resort. Jack Palance plays the criminal, Roy Earle, a part originated by Humphrey Bogart. Palance’s character is quieter, less talkative than Bogart and less ruminative. He’s more tightly wound and quicker to anger and reduces other tough guys in the film, including Lee Marvin, to a quivering jumble of nerves.

In the scene pictured in the still, Roy is on the lam after the caper and has stopped to pay a last visit to a family he’d befriended in a chance encounter on the journey west, a pair of dust bowl refugees (20 years after the fact) and their pretty granddaughter, Velma, who’d attracted Roy’s interest, to the point of his paying for an operation to fix her club foot. In the visit here, Velma is up and about after her recuperation and has invited her hometown boyfriend, Lon, out to join her, much to Roy’s consternation. Velma, Lon, and their friends are having a little party when Roy enters.

In the still, Lon (Richard Davalos) is on the left, and Roy is next to him in the center. In front of Roy is one of Lon’s jitterbug friends, played by Dennis Hopper, and in front of Hopper, her back to us, is Velma, played by Lori Nelson. I bought this still because it shows us a scene made memorable simply by virtue of documenting Hopper’s film debut. Hopper would, of course, go on that same year to appear with James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, at the same studio, Warner Bros.  Hopper would have a long career, primarily as a character actor (APOCALYPSE NOW, BLUE VELVET, TRUE ROMANCE, to name three), but also as a director (EASY RIDER, COLORS, THE HOT SPOT). He died in 2010, 55 years after his debut, working right up until his death.

In the film, there’s no shot exactly like the still. The closest approximation is found in this shot from the film (forgive the VHS quality: this is from Turner Classic Movies’ letter-boxed cablecast of the film):

(That’s Ralph Moody as Pa Goodhue, Velma’s grandpa, on the far right.)  Hopper never interacts with Velma as depicted in the black-and-white still. Instead, he dances with Marie (Shelley Winters), Roy’s companion, and she shows him how to do the mambo. Hopper’s character, clearly high on something, gets too close to Marie (“Man, is this chick something. Wowie”) prompting the jealous Roy to shove him aside, to which Hopper responds, “Holy Mack! Temper, temper,” and then fades from the scene. Lon tries to cozy up to Roy, offering to pay him back for the operation and urging him to stay for a drink, going so far as to put his arm around him.  Roy angrily shoves his hand away and tells him bluntly, “I don’t like you, I don’t like the way you talk, and I don’t like your friends. And I don’t think that Velma should get married to anyone like you.” An indignant Velma tells Roy off and he stalks out, grinning (an excellent touch), while Marie stops to tell the stunned group, “It’s better it turned out this way,” before following Roy out.

I actually remembered the scene from my last viewing, many years ago, as being closer to what happens in the still. I remember Velma showing Roy how she can dance and then Hopper leaping forward and saying something like “Who lets a lady dance alone,” and then dancing with her. I could actually be confusing that memory with a scene from HIGH SIERRA. Maybe they shot the scene that way for the remake, hence the existence of this still, but opted for a different version in the editing.

The film generally follows the screenplay of the original very closely, although a number of things change the tone a great deal, not least of which is Palance’s performance. Palance is best when he says little. He’s clearly less reflective than Bogart’s Roy Earle and more socially awkward and inarticulate, more a man of action. They should have cut back on his dialogue. When Bogart makes the comment about what a prize sap he is for starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog, you believe that he’d still do it, that he’s somehow okay with it. We never believe that with Palance. He simply would not have taken them along.

Also, the film’s use of color and widescreen gives the story a whole new look and gives the characters a more direct relationship to the landscape around them, especially since the Sierras are visible in so many shots throughout the film.

Shelley Winters in the role of Marie is a shrewder casting choice than the original’s Ida Lupino. Marie’s a dance hall girl from the wrong side of the tracks and too often finds herself the plaything of whatever men are available. The English-born Lupino was too classy for the role, with her clipped speech and precise diction. She was also way too pretty to be believable in such a part. She was a great actress and drew us in emotionally, but you needed someone who looked and sounded like she’d been around the track a few times.  Winters gets the vocal inflections and movements of her character just right. You believe her hard luck stories. And you believe she’d stay with a hard case like Roy Earle. And it’s obvious when there’s a fadeout on their clinch that they spend the night together in Roy’s cabin, something that couldn’t be so easily implied in the 1941 film.

Also in the cast of the remake: Earl Holliman and Lee Marvin as Roy’s two assigned henchmen for the job; Perry Lopez, a budding Latino star of the time, as the inside man at the resort; Lon Chaney Jr. as Big Mac, the crime boss who sponsors the caper; and James Millican as Kranmer, the treacherous ex-cop working for Big Mac. The aforementioned Richard Davalos, who plays Lon, appeared as James Dean’s brother in EAST OF EDEN the same year. Lori Nelson, who plays Velma, was also in REVENGE OF THE CREATURE and Roger Corman’s THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED that same year. Mae Clarke, who plays Velma’s mother, was James Cagney’s squeeze in PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) and was the one who got the grapefruit in her face. Nick Adams, who would also appear in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, has a bit part as a waiter at the resort. Dub Taylor plays the gas station attendant who chats with Roy in an early scene and gets treated a whole lot better than he was in CRIME WAVE (see my March 2nd entry), where he was also a gas station attendant, but got roughed up and robbed by Charles Bronson & company.

HIGH SIERRA, directed by Raoul Walsh, is one of Hollywood’s greatest crime movies. Based on a novel by W.R. Burnett (which I’ve read) with a screenplay by Burnett and John Huston, it was informed by the whole wave of Depression-era crime sprees and includes a reference to “Johnny Dillinger,” the first Hollywood film to acknowledge Depression-era criminals by name (something that had been forbidden by the Production Code, even though thinly-veiled fictionalizations of Depression-era crime figures had been produced). Roy Earle, in the novel and original film, was a farm boy with better-than-average intelligence and some sensitivity who allowed himself to get sucked into criminal life and finds it hard to “crash out” of it. I believe he was deliberately patterned after Dillinger. Walsh directed such other crime classics as THE ROARING 20S (1939) and WHITE HEAT (1949).

The remake was directed by Stuart Heisler, with the screenplay credited only to W.R. Burnett, with no mention of his novel or the original film. The story was 15 years out of date and wisely dropped the Dillinger reference, but is still a tight-knit crime caper, given a whole new slant by Palance’s performance and the widescreen landscapes. Each star brings something unique to the story. No reason we can’t have both films.

I still don’t get the meaning of the remake’s title. It is dramatic, though, and looks great in red letters, in a ’50s pulp magazine kind of way:

(Incidentally, Walsh remade the film himself as a western, COLORADO TERRITORY, in 1949 and starring Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo. It’s been too long since I’ve seen it to be able to make a comparison today. It had great western landscapes, though, and a perfectly cast Mayo as a saloon girl.)

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