Jack Palance: 10 essential films

From iconic villainy in Shane and Le Mépris to his Oscar-winning turn in City Slickers, we celebrate the finest performances by Jack Palance, who was born 100 years ago this month.

Le Mépris (1963)

His was a career won by a nose. The nose belonged to Marlon Brando; the fist that broke it to his understudy, Jack Palance. It was a fortuitous sparring accident that saw Palance take over the lead in Elia Kazan’s Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire (having understudied Anthony Quinn out of town), a role that quickly landed him a contract at Fox.

That performance may be lost to history, but you only need jump ahead some 40-odd years to a different stage – the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in LA – to see the irrepressible machismo that fuelled Stanley Kowalski undiminished, as the 72-year-old actor performed one-handed push-ups while collecting his first Oscar.

He was born Volodymyr Palahniuk, 100 years ago, on 18 February 1919, the son of Ukrainian immigrants who’d settled in Pennsylvania. Before the acting career (and the Palance) he was Jack Brazzo, professional boxer – earning 12 knockouts before landing the defining punch on Brando’s kisser.

War came, and with it the accident that led to major reconstructive surgery on his face. Or so the legend goes. A legend Palance would later deny.

More than 100 screen credits – and one country album – followed, before his death at 87 in 2006. While he made his name as one of cinema’s greatest screen villains, Palance was an actor of far greater range than he’s often credited for, despite the insistent typecasting, as our list of 10 favourites hopefully goes some way to show.

Panic in the Streets (1950)

Director: Elia Kazan

Panic in the Streets (1950)

It’s a towering entrance: 6ft4 of him in an oversized suit, cheekbones that could cut diamonds. “I want that money,” he snarls, before a one-shot railyard robbery earns him more than he bargained for. “I got a hunch he brought something in and they’re looking for it.”

That ‘something’ is pneumonic plague, Palance’s Blackie one of three scrappy hoods unwittingly carrying the disease. It was his first film role, having been tapped by Kazan following their Streetcar collaboration. The two would fall out when the director went with Anthony Quinn for Viva Zapata! (1952), but not before Palance’s first flag had been planted in the annals of screen villainy.

Sudden Fear (1952)

Director: David Miller

Sudden Fear (1952)

“He’s just not my idea of a romantic leading man,” says playwright Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) of the actor she’s just fired from her latest Broadway smash. It’s a wry gag at Palance’s expense, his Kowalski seemingly forgotten by just his third film. Sudden Fear did see him upgraded to leading man status though (the Academy disagreed, with a supporting actor nomination), even if he’s every bit the villain of David Miller’s obscenely entertaining slice of gaslit hokum, seducing his leading lady as a ruse to bump her off and inherit her fortune.

Crawford, as was her wont, dials up the hysterics for one spectacular breakdown, but Palance more than gives her a run for her money as his plan unravels.

Shane (1953)

Director: George Stevens

Shane (1953)

Palance may not have won the Oscar in 1952, losing out to Anthony Quinn for the Viva Zapata! role he thought was his, but he was back in the same seat a year later with another nomination for George Stevens’ Shane. He doesn’t turn up till an hour in, speaking few words when he does, but his hired gun Jack Wilson would prove one of his most iconic roles. He’s western villainy incarnate; black hat and casually murderous ways carved from archetype, his massive frame towering over Alan Ladd Jr’s diminutive hero in denim.

Legend has it Palance couldn’t ride a horse, so Stevens had him walk his mule into shot. No such compromise was needed for his send-off though, just Shane’s antagonising refrain and Palance’s immortal, “Prove it.”

Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956)

Director: Ralph Nelson

Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956)

“You raged, kid. That’s the trouble, you raged.” The Mountain is down. TKO in the 7th, a 14-year professional career over. “He may have been no good, but he never took a dive.” Palance is Harlan ‘Mountain’ McLintock – “A lit fuse on each fist” – knocked out before Rod Serling’s TV wonder even begins.

Requiem for a Heavyweight is 73 minutes of television, performed and broadcast live on 11 October 1956. Emmy awards rained on it, including best actor for Palance, giving arguably his greatest screen performance as the dim, down-on-his-luck slugger, exploited and humiliated by his no-good manager. The big screen adaptation (Blood Money, 1962) wasn’t to be for Palance, the gig stolen by – who else? – Anthony Quinn. Suffice to say if the performances went toe to toe, Quinn would be down before the first bell.

The Lonely Man (1957)

Director: Henry Levin

The Lonely Man (1957)

Three years before he was working out some mummy issues in Psycho (1960), Anthony Perkins had a no-good old man to contend with in the form of Jack Palance’s Jacob Wade. The absent father returns, accused of bumping off Perkins’ mum, while trying to make amends for a violent past that’s determined to catch up with him. The truth will out, of course, as father and son team up to fend off Lee van Cleef’s band of scoundrels.

Co-written by Sudden Fear’s Robert Smith, The Lonely Man’s filial drama carries real heft, amplified by Henry Levin’s VistaVision spectacle, which becomes supercharged during a wild horse chase through Echo Canyon. While Perkins goes full James Dean, Palance quietly steals the show. Slowly going blind, his bid to drag his son into manhood is tempered by full knowledge of his own inadequacies as a father.

Ten Seconds to Hell (1959)

Director: Robert Aldrich

Ten Seconds to Hell (1959)

Palance made three pictures in the 1950s with the great Robert Aldrich, beginning with Tinseltown shakedown The Big Knife in 1955. Attack! (1956) may be the best of the three, but their final collaboration, Ten Seconds to Hell (1959), proves a masterclass in knuckle-biting suspense.

Palance plays Eric Koertner, “A man whom other men followed instinctively. A strange, brooding mixture of passion and compassion.” He’s one of six soldiers on postwar bomb disposal duty in the Allied section of Berlin. A wager is set, half the men’s pay pooled for three months; last man standing takes the pot. Ernest Laszlo, on location photography duties, brings chiaroscuro textures, but it’s Aldrich’s step-by-step elucidation of the disposal mechanics that puts us in Palance’s shoes for the bullet-sweating finale.

Le Mépris (1963)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Le Mépris (1963)

If you were to list all the reasons for the greatness of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris, chances are that Jack Palance’s performance wouldn’t be at the top of the list. Not that it matters. It’s still his greatest film; one of the all-time great films, even.

Palance is Jeremiah Prokosch, an American film producer tasked with getting an adaptation of The Odyssey out of Fritz Lang (“The one who did the western with Dietrich.”) It’s not much of a stretch to read Godard’s own contempt for the Hollywood machine into Palance’s characterisation of the crass, mermaid-loving money man. “Oh, gods,” he beams, “I like gods, very much. I know exactly how they feel,” before proceeding to trash the screening room with a film-can discus-throw and use his female assistant as a table. As for Godard, “He was smug and conceited,” said Palance, “But one hell of a director.”

The Mercenary (1968)

Director: Sergio Corbucci

The Mercenary (1968)

Palance spent much of the 60s and 70s working in Europe, often on the most unapologetic genre fare, finding regular work in Spain, shooting westerns on the Almerían plains, and in Italy on various poliziotteschi or low-rent historical epics. If many of his films during this period could hardly be considered top tier, there remains the odd gem to be found. One such film is Sergio Corbucci’s The Mercenary, featuring Palance as villain (natch) to Franco Nero’s hired gun-cum-revolutionary.

Marvellously bewigged (and playing the first Curly on his CV), his effete, nattily dressed sadist is milked to high-camp effect, not least when stripped and giving Nero an eyeful. Ennio Morricone provides the fab score for one of the best spaghetti westerns this side of Leone, with a final showdown (or two) to die for.

Monte Walsh (1970)

Director: William A. Fraker

Monte Walsh (1970)

“Way things are going, a cowboy doesn’t make enough money to live right… I don’t know what else I can do.” Seventeen years after Shane, Palance starred in another great western adapted from the work of Jack Schaefer. Monte Walsh is a far cry from the mytho-heroics of the earlier film, dealing as it does with the dying days of the cowboy (and by extension, the western) and the profession’s economic realities in the face of big business.

Elegiac in the Peckinpah mode, and nimbly balanced between classicism and New Hollywood revisionism, erstwhile cinematographer William Fraker’s film boasts a widescreen majesty that nicely counterpoints its keenly felt, individual struggles. Lee Marvin may have the eponymous lead, but Palance’s supporting role defines the term in the best possible sense. Theirs is a touching – finally heartbreaking – friendship; two pals forging divergent paths through the only world they know, even as it crumbles around them.

City Slickers (1991)

Director: Ron Underwood

City Slickers (1991)

“That was the toughest man I’ve ever seen in my life! Did you see how leathery he was? He was like a saddle-bag with eyes.” Following two supporting actor nominations in the early 50s, third time proved the charm for Jack Palance, who took home the Oscar for his grizzled cowpoke, Curly.

Clearly having a grand ol’ time, Palance sends himself up as the trail-tough cattle-driver, tasked with leading Billy Crystal and co on a two-week escape from the pressures of job and family. Funny and heartfelt, it’s a better film than its sequel, which saw Palance resurrected as his twin brother, Duke. “This guy’s a cowboy, one of the last real men; untamed, a mustang,” says Crystal’s ad-man, “We’re trained ponies, it’ll do us good to be in his world for a while.”

City Slickers may finally rubbish such notions of Marlboro Man masculinity, but with those twinkle-eyed, one-armed push-ups on Oscar night, Palance held no qualms living up to what his Curly calls, “A dying breed.”

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