Friday, May 2

Jack Palance

Sudden Fear was my first Jack Palance film and it was a most appropriate title.  He scared me into wide-eyed silence.  Before I could recover I saw him in Shane and shook in my boots.  He was often quiet but his stare seemed to bore a hole in me.  He spoke in a way that was so smarmy and spooky.  His face, which I would come to learn caused a certain angst in many, could make me go cold.  I grew out of this as I got older, of course, but one day as a pedestrian he passed in front of my car while I was stopped at a light at Santa Monica and Wilshire Blvds in Beverly Hills and I sat there rather frozen.  Had sudden fear struck again?

He was baddest of the bad boys.  His face had in fact been damaged and put back together and it looked as if the surgeons hurried. His eyebrows looked as if they had an agenda apart from all else he did.  His voice was deep and imposing, his manner was shifty and he was always so intense (even when playing a good guy) that I could never really relax while watching him. 

I have not seen most of his 79 movies because, as he himself said, most of the stuff I do is garbage.  He claims he never saw his own work.  But I have seen him in 10 or so memorable roles, so memorable, in fact, that I could never forget him.

He was born in 1919 into a Pennsylvania, Ukrainian immigrant, mining family.  He was clear that he didn't want to follow in his father's footsteps and he used his highly-developed athletic prowess, particularly in football, to get him out of town and into the University of North Carolina.  While there he took up boxing and became so good that he turned professional.  Despite mainly impressive wins, his face took a lot of beatings.  It was said more damage was done to it when he bailed out of a burning plane during WWII.  (He would claim toward the end of his life that this was all made up by some over-zealous press agent.)

After the war he returned to college but this time at Stanford.  It was there that the acting bug bit him and there was no looking back.  He did all kinds of menial jobs while pounding the mean streets of Manhattan.  Then he was hired by Elia Kazan to understudy Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.  He would eventually replace Brando in the role. 

Kazan then cast Palance in his first film, 1950's Panic in the Streets, most effective as a killer with pneumonic plague.  Twentieth Century Fox took notice and put him under contract.  But it was on two loanouts that Palance would establish himself as a performer to be reckoned with and would receive supporting Oscar nominations for both films.

Joan Crawford definitely needed to hit a home run with 1952's Sudden Fear, her first film as an independent, having just ended her contract with Warner Bros.  It was a stylish film noir with an excellent role for the actress and she wasn't about to let anything go wrong.  She desperately wanted her old lover and frequent costar, Clark Gable, for the role of the husband who enlists the help of his mistress to kill his rich, actress wife.  The studio offered Marlon Brando the role, but neither actor worked out.  When Crawford heard that Palance was being considered for the role, she went into a diva mode, stomped her little cfm pump on the floor and screamed that he was too ugly and no, no, no. 

With Gloria Grahame in "Sudden Fear"

Neither was she crazy about that mistress, played winningly by Gloria Grahame, who orchestrated little taunts to rile the controlling Crawford.  But not only did Crawford take a shine to Palance and approved his hiring, but she bedded him as well.  He also handled those same chores with Grahame.  What a crazy set that must have been.  Sudden Fear remains a taut, stylish and entertaining noir, not perfect but oh so pleasing, with a slightly implausible but heart-racing finale involving the three leads.

Then came Shane, George Stevens's 1953 acclaimed western about a gunfighter's friendship with a homesteading family involved in a conflict with cattlemen.  Alan Ladd turned in his best performance as the gunfighter but Palance was evil incarnate as a hired gun.  No one who has seen the film could forget how sinister he was in shooting down Elisha Cook Jr. in the street and later his own death and the events leading up to it in the saloon. 

The same year as Shane he turned in another menacing performance as a hired hood stalking Linda Darnell and Robert Mitchum in Second Chance.  It was a B-effort but made so compelling by the male leads, ending in an exciting fight on a cable car.  Also the same year he was one mean Indian in Arrowhead, a routine western elevated by Palance's gritty acting.  He was also a perfect fit for Man in the Attic about a woman who suspects her lodger is Jack the Ripper.

Another film with a decided noir quality was 1955's The Big Knife, Clifford Odets angry opus about the morals of 1950's Hollywood.
Palance had a rare good guy role as a movie star who is at a crossroads in life, in more ways than one.  His character is planning not to renew his contract which incites hysteria from the minions around him, he's been involved in a pointless affair and his wife is about to leave him.  The role provided Palance with a tour-de-force opportunity.  He followed it up the same year as the good-hearted criminal in I Died a Thousand Times, in the role Bogie played in High Sierra.

I didn't catch up to him for 11 more years.  He made movies, a goodly number were foreign, but none interested me.   He did television and would even headline a couple of series.  I heard about him in the news or in movie magazines.  There would be stories on how exasperating in his relentless quest for perfection as he saw it.  He wanted to shoot a scene again, to see if he could get it better.  He had contempt for most of his directors and didn't always see eye-to-eye with his cast mates.

In 1966 and 1970 he made two superb westerns, both costarring Lee Marvin.  The first was The Professionals, Richard Brooks's richly entertaining tale about four men (Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode) hired by a rich man (Ralph Bellamy) to bring back his kidnapped wife (Claudia Cardinale) from the hands of a vicious, murdering band headed by Palance.  It was a rollicking, ass-kicking, testosterone-laden oater impossible not to please at some level.

With Lee Marvin in "Monte Walsh"


The second was a thoughtful tale about a cowboy dealing with the end of the west as he's known it.  Marvin played Monte Walsh (1970) and Palance his sidekick-pal.  Both were enormously touching in their understated renderings of men dealing with the passing of time and their usefulness.  Having Jeanne Moreau in the cast didn't hurt either.

By the late 80s a new generation was discovering Palance in such films as Young Guns, Tango and Cash and Batman.  In 1991, things changed for the actor when he signed on for City Slickers, a self-parody role in which he plays Curly, an ornery cowboy who teaches the title characters how to be real cowboys, with a little mirth and mayhem thrown in.  Who knew Jack Palance could do comedy?  Well, it seemed that everyone was impressed and the old curmudgeon copped Oscar's supporting actor statuette.  If that wasn't enough, as he accepted, holding the Oscar in one hand, he did one-handed push-ups.  The dude was 72 years old!

What else didn't we know about him?  He was a rather prolific painter, occasionally enjoying exhibits of his work.  He was a published poet.  Snarky, menacing Jack Palance wrote poetry?  He spoke six languages.  He was promised he could play Marlon Brando's brother in Viva Zapata, but the role went to Anthony Quinn who won an Oscar.  Palance never spoke to director Elia Kazan again.  He wanted to play the dual role that his pal Lee Marvin eventually won an Oscar for in Cat Ballou.  He was author Stephen King's choice to play the role that eventually went to Jack Nicholson in The Shining.  Palance and Elizabeth Taylor shared three grandchildren since one of his daughters married one of her sons. 

I thought he was a wonderful actor who raised the bar on playing movie villains.  Jack Palance died seven years ago at age 87 in Montecito, California.

Lilli Palmer

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