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The One You Love to Hate

Is Jack Palance the best movie villain?

Jul. 17, 2013
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Who are the all-time best movie villains—actors we love to hate on the big screen? This is a challenging question even for dedicated film aficionados.

Quickly coming to my mind are Charles Laughton in 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty; Brian Donlevy in Beau Geste (1939); Hume Cronyn, Brute Force (1947); Lee J. Cobb, On the Waterfront (1954); Ernest Borgnine, From Here to Eternity (1953); Humphrey Bogart, The Caine Mutiny (1954); Andy Griffith, A Face in the Crowd (1957); Robert Ryan, Billy Budd (1962); Karl Malden, Nevada Smith (1966); and Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

For me, the late Jack Palance was tops. This gaunt, 6-foot-4 Method actor lent his scary snarl to films such as Panic in the Streets (1950); Sudden Fear (1952); Shane (1953); Man in the Attic (1953) as Jack the Ripper and Sign of the Pagan (1954) as Attila the Hun; The Big Knife (1955); Once a Thief (1965); The Professionals (1966); and Oklahoma Crude (1973).

Appreciative screenwriters made sure costars pointed out his daunting demeanor to audiences. During a pivotal moment in Shane, character actor Elisha Cook Jr. offered this description of the menacing Jack Wilson, chillingly portrayed by Palance:

“Stranger decked out like a gunfighter. Packs two guns. Kinda lean. Wears a black hat…”

Following a dramatic, fast-draw shootout in the penultimate scene, a telling exchange occurred between wide-eyed, 11-year-old Brandon deWilde, and a wounded Alan Ladd:

DeWilde: “Was that him, Shane? Was that Wilson?”

Ladd: “That was him. That was Wilson, alright. He was fast. Fast on the draw…”

Palance’s stunning work for a scant eight minutes in Shane earned him an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. And it was typical of the brooding tension he brought to many showy roles as a “heavy” over the years.

Initially billed as Walter Jack Palance, his understated intensity and striking physical features took Hollywood by storm. The authoritative Filmgoers Companion accurately notes: “His face, a triumph of plastic surgery after war action, made him a natural for villainous roles.”

Indeed, the camera loved Palance’s craggy countenance. Prior to Shane, he was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for 1952’s Sudden Fear as the jilted husband-turned-stalker of Joan Crawford. Nearly 40 years later, at 73, the then-leathery actor was voted Best Supporting Actor in City Slickers (1991).

The rough-and-tumble Palance first used his muscularly angular physique as a heavyweight boxer under the name Jack Brazzo. During World War II, he was a B-24 bomber pilot and suffered facial injuries in a crash. Reconstructive surgery provided the distinctive features that helped define him as the ultimate screen heavy.

After a brief career on Broadway—he understudied Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire—Palance broke into movies in 1950 as a New Orleans gangster-victim of bubonic plague in Panic in the Streets. This was followed by five decades of often-memorable roles in a host of other films and bravura television performances.

Palance distinguished himself on live TV in 1956 for his Emmy-winning work in the “Playhouse 90” production of Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” In 1968, he startled viewers in the title role in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and was terrifying as Count Dracula in a 1973 TV movie of the same name.

As a lifelong film fan awed by Palance from the beginning, I feel this great actor’s finest role was as an embittered Army lieutenant in Attack (1956). Directed by Robert Aldrich and co-starring Lee Marvin, Eddie Albert, Buddy Ebsen and William Smithers, this scalding, controversial movie depicted cowardice by a frontline officer (Albert). As a result, the Department of Defense did not cooperate in its production.

Palance’s eye-popping work in this gritty, black-and-white vehicle includes a death scene approaching Shakespearean tragedy. His arm crushed by a huge German tank, a blood-soaked Palance staggers into a cellar in which his men are holed up. The sight of him crawling along the floor taunted by Albert is one for the books.

A truly fine actor and nonpareil movie villain, Palance passed away at 87, in 2006. For more than five decades, his presence in films was, indeed, the stuff dreams are made of.

Richard G. Carter was a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter, Milwaukee Journal columnist, local radio commentator, New York Daily News columnist, and has appeared on “Larry King Live” and “Donahue.”

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