Day 10 of Noirvember: Palance Noir
Of Jack Palance’s chiseled, high-cheekboned visage, it was once written: “Some faces are masks, others are like architecture. Jack Palance – now, there’s a face! A face like the side of a cliff. A face with geography!”
And there was no scarcity of explanations on how Palance’s striking features came to be; according to most accounts, the actor was involved in an airplane crash during World War II that severely damaged his face and required numerous surgeries. One reporter even claimed, with considerable drama and pathos, that the accident left Palance a “shell of a man who, burned almost beyond recognition, wanted to die until psychiatrists convinced him that life still offered him something special.” Palance later denied the reports, but even he served up differing accounts, stating in 1954 that he’d undergone five operations on his nose because of numerous breaks, but claiming 30 years later that “the only plastic surgery I’ve ever had in my life was a 10-minute operation to open my nasal passages.”
Palance’s visual characteristics aside, there’s no denying that the actor was an acclaimed star of television, stage, and screen, and enjoyed a career that spanned seven decades. Along the way, Palance (whose name rhymes with “balance”) was seen in such screen gems as Shane (1953), earned an Emmy Award for his performance in the 1957 Playhouse 90 presentation of “Requiem for a Heavyweight”; landed three Academy Award nominations; and won the golden statue in 1992 for his role in City Slickers. He was also a memorable presence in four films from the noir era: Panic in the Streets (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), The Big Knife (1955), and I Died a Thousand Times (1955).
Today, on the 10-year anniversary of Palance’s death, I’m celebrating his life by taking a closer look at his noir features and what the critics of the day thought of them. Come on along!
Panic in the Streets
In this film, Palance was billed as Walter Jack Palance and played Blackie, a brutish thug who is unknowingly carrying a deadly virus that could lead to a widespread plague. For his performance, Palance was hailed by critics; in a typical review, the critic for the L.A. Times raved, “In the extraordinary rogues’ gallery of types, none is more fascinating than Walter Palance, a hulking giant with a catlike grace and a caressing voice.”
I love this movie. It tells the story of a stage actor (Palance) who woos and weds a wealthy playwright (Joan Crawford), but before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” he’s engaged in an affair with his former lover (Gloria Grahame) and plotting his wife’s murder. Not a nice guy. After the film’s release, one reviewer wrote that Palance was the “ugliest man on the screen,” but she nonetheless lauded the actor for this “outstanding acting ability.” Palance was nominated for a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but he lost to Anthony Quinn in Viva Zapata.
The Big Knife
Here, Palance played Charlie Castle, a hard-drinking, philandering film star whose life is complicated by his sadistic studio head (Rod Steiger), his estrangement from his wife (Ida Lupino), and the possible exposure of his involvement in a hit-and-run accident that killed a child. This dark (even for noir!) feature proved distasteful to many of the critics of the day; the reviewer from Variety found that the film was “sometimes so brittle and brutal as to prove disturbing.”
I Died a Thousand Times
Released one day after The Big Knife, this film was the remake of High Sierra (1941). Palance starred as ex-convict Roy Earle (the part played by Humphrey Bogart in the original), who teams with two small-time hoods to knock over a Callifornia resort hotel. The film suffered in comparison with High Sierra – New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote: “Somehow it isn’t quite as touching as it was 14 years ago.” (I kinda agree with Bosley, but it’s still worth a look.)
If you haven’t seen a Jack Palance noir, I highly recommend that you check out one of these.
And join me tomorrow for Day 11 of Noirvember!