Jack Palance: The Badest of the Bad
As stated before when I was a kid we loved villains. Always identified with them in the movies. Villains were the bad asses of society and we found them exciting.
Now ninety nine percent of the villains were men, but there were a few female villains as well. The only problem is that generally they were led to their villainous ways by some guy and usually had a change of heart close to the end by doing something noble just before she died (of a bullet in the stomach)in the hero’s arms saying: “I’m sorry Steve, I just didn’t ahh..ahh.” We didn’t like that. Didn’t like that at all. We wanted you to be bad all the way through. So that even with your last dying breath you were telling a lie. Then we would leave the theatre saying: “Did you see that? Even while he (she) was dying. Wow!” That was the highest compliment we could give, an astonished “Wow”.
Another thing about villains in those days (the 1950s) is that they looked different. They all had scars and mustaches. Some even had beards, but most had mustaches. Not a romantic, sexy mustache like Clark Gable. No theirs was a Hitler like kind of thing. Or it was thin and wormlike. But the best thing about those villains is that they all had bad skin. Their cheek was pock-marked and cratered so that when the light hit it in certain way you knew that was a face only a mother could love. So that even at the start of the film before his character was established, when he is with the towns people pretending to be a man of distinction, you knew he was up to shit. Why? Because of his bad skin.
Then of course, there was the scar. He would tell everyone that he got it in the war fighting for the North (or the South). But later it would be revealed that he got it from trying to force his sexual attentions on some innocent woman who attempted to defend her virtue by scratching him. He then would get mad and kill her and run off to another town or state. But to his bad luck the dead woman would turn out to be the sister, wife or sometimes the mother of the hero who would then dedicate his life to finding out who did this horrible deed. And God help him if the hero was somebody big and rough like John Wayne. He would punch him, kick him and stomp him before putting him out of his misery with three, maybe four or even five bullets.
Still in spite of that kind of treatment we all wanted to be villains. And our favorite villain in the 1950s was Jack Palance (1919-2006). He was tall and moved with panther like grace. He spoke in a halting kind of whisper, breaking up his sentences in unexpected ways. He was ugly in a kind of way that fascinated us. He seemed to have bad skin not just on his face but all over his body as well. And to top it off he always seemed to be in a bad mood. The kind of guy you would say “Good morning” to and apologize for it right after just in case he heard it wrong. Jack was so bad that he would sometimes beat up the members of his own gang. Some guy would ask a question or challenge his authority and Jack would deal on him with his fists. We loved that. Loved it a lot.
The movie that set him up as a God for us was Shane ((1952). In it he played Wilson the gunfighter the bad guys brought in from out of town. Wilson rode in slow, got off his horse slow, took his drink slow, went back outside slow, taunted the feisty Southerner slow, pulled on his black glove slow and shot the man face down in the mud slow. An incredible piece of movie villainy that has yet to be matched in the annals of great motion picture moments.
Later Wilson meets Shane and shows him respect. Then when their big confrontation came Shane shoots him down between the barrels. They did that because it was a movie and they had to give it a moral. The bad guy can never win. But we kids knew better. We knew that if it was real life Wilson would’ve totally messed up Shane and the conversation would be over. Either Shane would’ve been dead or he would be drinking clear soup through a straw for the rest of his life.
Later on Jack became the hero in his movies and lost us completely. But when he was bad the man had no peer. See Panic in the Streets (1950) for example. The man had no peer at all. He won an Academy Award later in his career for City Slickers (1991) but I always felt he should’ve gotten it for Shane.
My favorite Palance moment comes in the film where he played Attila the Hun (Sign of the Pagan -1954) where without warning he grabs a headstrong princess, pulls her up against him and kisses her roughly on the mouth then pushes her away. When she says: “How dare you!” He tells her in that wonderful delivery of his: “I know you’ve been kissed by kings and courtiers, now you know what it’s like to be kissed by a … barbarian.”
I have been waiting all my life for an opportunity like that to present itself to me. Some haughty member of a royal family will be standing there, I’ll pull her to me, kiss her hard and say those immortal words: “I know you’ve been kissed by kings and courtiers. Now you know what it’s like to be kissed by a… barbarian.” It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m still hopeful.
The badass Jack Palance was my role model. He still is.