Jack Palance Centennial

18 Feb

Today, February 18, 2019, would have been Jack Palance’s 100th birthday. He died in 2006 at the age of 87. He acted in films for the entire second half of the 20th century and his TV roles continued into the 21st century. The son of a Ukrainian coal miner, he had unusually taut facial features, a result of reconstructive surgery after his face was burned in a plane crash during a test flight in WWII, giving his face a dramatic look that made him a natural for villain roles, most notably the gunslinger Jack Wilson in SHANE, or various historical ethnic roles such as Attila the Hun (SIGN OF THE PAGAN), the Mongol chieftain Ogatai, son of Genghis Khan (THE MONGOLS), the Apache rebel Toriano (ARROWHEAD), Mexican revolutionary Raza (THE PROFESSIONALS), the biblical character Simon the Magician (THE SILVER CHALICE) and even Fidel Castro (CHE!).

In my opinion, his best decade was the 1950s, the only time he had a long run of leading roles, both heroic and villainous, and worked with top directors like Robert Aldrich, Elia Kazan, Douglas Sirk, George Stevens and Lewis Milestone. He got two Supporting Actor Oscar nominations back then, for his third and fourth films, SUDDEN FEAR (1952) and SHANE (1953). By the 1960s, however, he had joined the migration of many Hollywood stars to Italy, where Palance starred in swashbucklers, war movies, and historical mini-epics and later in spaghetti westerns and crime films. He also turned up in France to appear as a rapacious Hollywood studio head opposite Brigitte Bardot in Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave classic, CONTEMPT (1963). He continued to shuttle back and forth to Hollywood during this period, co-starring in Richard Brooks’ all-star men-on-a-mission-in-Mexico western, THE PROFESSIONALS (1966) and Richard Fleischer’s misfire, CHE! (1969), in which he played Castro to Omar Sharif’s Che Guevara.

He made regular trips out of the country in the 1970s and ‘’80s, making films in Italy, England, West Germany, Canada, and other locales, while also appearing in low-budget American drive-in movies like THE ONE-MAN JURY, ANGELS’ BRIGADE, ALONE IN THE DARK and WITHOUT WARNING and the occasional mainstream Hollywood film like MONTE WALSH, THE HORSEMEN, OKLAHOMA CRUDE, YOUNG GUNS, BATMAN and TANGO AND CASH. His co-starring role in CITY SLICKERS (1991) as a grizzled old cowboy who takes a group of comical yuppies on an extreme vacation-style cattle drive earned him his third Oscar nomination and his only Oscar win—for Best Supporting Actor. He made history during his acceptance speech at the 1992 ceremony, hosted by his CITY SLICKERS co-star Billy Crystal, when he did one-armed push-ups on the stage to show producers how fit he was at 72 and capable of taking on more vigorous roles.

I enjoyed Palance in everything I saw him in, no matter how trashy, but, in my view, he was best in his early sympathetic and heroic roles, where he was often deeply sensitive and vulnerable, but angered by corruption. I’m thinking particularly of the three roles he did for director Robert Aldrich: Charlie Castle, the conflicted movie star forced to sell out in THE BIG KNIFE (1955); Lt. Joe Costa, the infantry platoon leader who tries to call out a captain for cowardice in the midst of battle in Europe, in ATTACK (1956); and Erich Koertner, a former architect and German soldier who leads a bomb disposal unit in Berlin right after the war in TEN SECONDS TO HELL (1959) and must confront a partner in the unit (Jeff Chandler) who’s only out for himself, all shot on location amidst the rubble of Berlin. He also has a convincing romantic relationship with his French landlady, played by Martine Carol (LOLA MONTES).

He’s also quite moving as Roy Earle, a paroled convict leading a heist team in the robbery of a California resort, in I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES (1955), a remake of HIGH SIERRA (1941), which had starred Humphrey Bogart in the role of Earle. Bogart brought a tragic poetry to the part and he and his co-star Ida Lupino infused the crime saga with a high degree of romanticism, which is absent from the more coldly realistic pairing of Palance and Shelley Winters in the remake. I love Bogart’s performance, but I think Palance is more believable in the remake, which was shot in color and widescreen on location in California. Palance doesn’t have that black-and-white movie star glow. He’s not looking up at the stars. He displays more of a hungry, desperate quality, eager to make this his last job and disgusted with the “jitterbugs” he’s stuck with on his team. He’s got a scene late in the film where he angrily shoves young Dennis Hopper (in his film debut) aside in a party scene (as seen in the still below). As I wrote in an earlier entry about the film: “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.”

I think HIGH SIERRA is one of the greatest Hollywood crime films ever, but even though I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES was made with the exact same script, it’s quite a different movie and I’m happy that they both exist.

Palance was also great at playing historical conqueror and rebel figures eager to lead his warrior hordes against the ramparts of western civilization. In Charles Marquis Warren’s ARROWHEAD (1953), he plays Toriano an Apache leader newly arrived from obtaining an education in the west only to find his tribe assigned to an army holding pen before they can ship off to a reservation in Florida. He takes his hat off and lets his hair down and changes out of his western suit and back into tribal wear and declares to his warriors that the revolution has begun; he’s going to lead them in battle against the “white eyes.” It’s quite a powerful scene and he makes a formidable antagonist to the hero, Ed Bannon, a fictional version of the famed army scout Al Sieber, played by Charlton Heston, who matches Palance snarl for snarl and fights him in a duel to the death at the end.

In Douglas Sirk’s SIGN OF THE PAGAN (1954), Palance plays Attila the Hun as he prepares the barbarians’ assault on Rome, now a Christian city, around 452 A.D. He soon faces an opponent that shocks and humbles even his pagan sensibility in this tale of faith versus savagery.

In Andre de Toth’s Italian production, THE MONGOLS (1961), Palance stars as Ogatai, son of Genghis Khan, and he is champing at the bit to rout the Polish king and his allies and conquer eastern Europe, a task complicated by the Poles’ attempt to persuade the elder Khan to talk peace with them. Ogatai wants war no matter what. It’s similar to his role in SIGN OF THE PAGAN, but he spends less time talking and more time plundering and pillaging, even if the outcome is the same. Anita Ekberg plays Ogatai’s lover.

Palance also played outsized historical roles in THE SILVER CHALICE (1954), an odd, highly stylized film in which Palance plays Simon the Magician, who claims supernatural powers, including the ability to fly, leading to disastrous results, and Richard Fleischer’s BARABBAS (1962), in which he plays a vicious gladiator in Rome who brutalizes the title character, played by Anthony Quinn.

I first saw Palance in THE MONGOLS at a neighborhood theater where it was on a triple bill with FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO IN JACK AND THE BEANSTALK in the summer I turned nine. The film was most definitely harder-edged than a typical Hollywood spectacle and really left an impression. Only a few months later, I saw Palance again in the Italian war movie, WARRIORS FIVE (1962), seen with SAMSON AND THE SEVEN MIRACLES OF THE WORLD, a double bill I wrote about here. In WARRIORS FIVE, he plays a lone American commando in German-occupied Italy who recruits some newly-released Italian military prisoners, who are at loose ends, to help him blow up a bridge.

I would next see Palance on the big screen in another Italian film, THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS (1968), a caper film made in Las Vegas that I don’t recall much. This was followed by an excellent Italian western directed by Sergio Corbucci, THE MERCENARY (1968), in which he played the lead villain, a hired killer opposing mercenary Franco Nero and revolutionary Tony Musante. I would next see him on the big screen in a reissue of THE PROFESSIONALS (1966) in 1971, and then in Michael Winner’s made-in-Europe western, CHATO’S LAND (1972), in which Palance plays a deranged former Confederate Army captain who leads a posse after a fugitive Indian, Chato, played by Charles Bronson. Palance and Bronson in one film—does it get better than that?! I would then see him in the sequel to THE MERCENARY, called COMPANEROS (1970), also directed by Corbucci and also with Franco Nero, but with Tomas Milian in the Musante role.

I then began seeing Palance’s older films at repertory theaters in Manhattan, including SHANE, CONTEMPT and all three of his Aldrich movies, as well as on TV where I saw the excellent prison drama, HOUSE OF NUMBERS (1957), in which he plays a dual role as twin brothers, one of whom sneaks into prison to break his brother out, as well as HALLS OF MONTEZUMA, FLIGHT TO TANGIER, KISS OF FIRE, I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES, THE LONELY MAN and Palance’s film debut in PANIC IN THE STREETS, directed by Elia Kazan, in which Palance plays a petty criminal, partnered with Zero Mostel, who came in contact with a merchant seaman carrying the pneumonic plague and is sought after by the public health authorities in New Orleans.

So I got exposed to a lot of prime Palance in my formative film-watching years.

For this piece, I watched a film with Palance that I’d never seen before, David Miller’s SUDDEN FEAR (1952), the first film for which Palance was nominated for an Oscar and one which deserves some detailed discussion. He plays aspiring actor Lester Blaine, who is fired from the cast of a Broadway play by the playwright, Myra Hudson, played by Joan Crawford, when she says he’s not believable as a romantic lead. Outraged at this, he harangues her from the stage with a rant about how funny-looking Casanova, the legendary Italian womanizer, was and how she could see it for herself by visiting such-and-such a museum where a painting of him is displayed. It’s exactly the kind of thing a young, egotistical aspiring actor would do to make a scene in such a situation. They may have fired him, but they won’t forget him.

Blaine winds up on the same train going from New York to San Francisco as Miss Hudson and winds up engaging in a whirlwind courtship, exchanging Shakespeare quotes with her, playing stud poker and refusing to let her pay for anything despite the fact that she’s not only a successful playwright, but also the heiress to one of the largest fortunes in California. After a brief bump in the road, they’ve married and he’s ensconced in her San Francisco mansion living the high life and treating every day like it’s a honeymoon. However, before too long, we discover his real agenda. His girlfriend from New York, Irene (Gloria Grahame), also his partner in a series of cons aimed at rich women, arrives, eager to know why she hasn’t heard from him. She makes a play for one of Myra’s lawyers, played by Mike Connors, all to get info from him on how Myra plans to divide up her estate. Lester and Irene soon get wind of changes planned for Myra’s will, suggested by her legal team, and realize he’s not going to come out as rich as he’d thought, so the two plan to murder Myra and make it look like an accident before she signs the new will. In one ingenious and pivotal scene that I won’t describe, Myra learns of their plans and completely freaks out, her romantic illusions completely shattered. However, she comes out of it and goes on the offense, initiating a plan to turn the tables on the two plotters. From that point on, the third act of the film becomes one of the most suspenseful thrillers I’ve ever seen.

I’ve never seen Palance act like this in any other film. He has to be convincing enough as a romantic lead to make us believe someone as savvy and strong-willed as Crawford would fall for him, but he has to be a formidable villain as well, a foe who can believably succeed at his own nefarious plan. Once Myra begins slyly manipulating him into the position she wants him and he finds her less pliable than she’d been, Palance goes through quite a number of visible shake-ups, almost blowing his cover in surprise and then having to recover his more husbandly demeanor quick enough so she won’t suspect him, a stage which she’s already passed. It’s probably the most layered character Palance has ever played and he has to do it in only his third film and opposite one of the screen’s great powerhouses. He and Crawford and Grahame are all at the top of their game in this film.

It’s also beautifully photographed (much of it on location with the principal actors in San Francisco) by Charles Lang and expertly directed by David Miller with an eye for significant details of a scene, key objects in a room, and long, silent moments that have to be played out in real time to fully appreciate them. The film is 110 minutes long, precisely because it doesn’t speed up the action and allows those moments to accumulate–to splendid effect.

You can see it on YouTube.


Also, here’s Palance’s Oscar acceptance speech from 1992:


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