Jack Palance - The Big KnifeSaturday, October 04, 2014
It only takes one film to remind us of an actor’s talents; to send us on a quick search through a forgotten filmography and confirm that, yes, he was that good. This happened recently to my friend Alex when he screened director Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1962) and encountered Jack Palance. In fact he was so impressed with Palance he asked me to write a short appreciation. Thanks, Alex.
Jack Palance was born Volodymyr Jack Palahniuk in 1919. Like fellow tough guy Charles Bronson he grew up in mining towns in Pennsylvania, and like Bronson, Lee Marvin, Richard Boone and Lee Van Cleef, Palance fought in World War II. His career paralleled Marvin’s in many ways: both gained fame as villains (The Big Heat, Shane), played cops in series television (M-Squad, Bronk), and eventually mocked their personas in later-career comedies (Cat Ballou, City Slickers). But Palance’s sharp, oddly angular features and brooding screen presence parked him in exotic, often ethnic parts and unlike Marvin, he never quite became a star. He disappeared during most of the 1960s-70s in Euro-junk (The Mongols, The Barbarians, Sword of the Conqueror) and domestic VHS-fodder (Portrait of a Hitman and Hawk the Slayer).
I knew that my friend Rick Staehling would dig up stuff and put it succinctly as he has here. For years I had to listen, and thoroughly enjoyed him on CBC Radio as "Our Man of the Movies". I loved his identifiable Michigan accent which was almost deadpan but full of insight.
My first knowledge of Jack Palance came from an awful film, The Silver Chalice (1954, Victor Saville) that almost killed Paul Newman's early career. The film was based on a novel, same title as film, by Thomas B. Costain a favourite of my mother's. She took me to see the film in 1954 explaining to me the revolutionary fact that in the novel Christ was described as not having a beard. Palance plays Simon the Magician who is out to prove that Christ and his miracles are all phony. He then tells Rome, and Nero that he, Simon the Magician, will fly. He arranges for a system of pulleys and wires to make it seem like he can indeed fly. At the last moment he believes his own words, that he is the Messiah and decides to fly without any of the paraphernalia. He jumps off a balcony and goes straight down. I think I can still remember the thud.