Monday 18 February 2019

I Died a Thousand Times (1955)

Director: Stuart Heisler
Writer: W. R. Burnett, from his novel, High Sierra
Stars: Jack Palance, Shelley Winters, Lori Nelson, Lee Marvin and Gonzalez Gonzalez

Index: 2019 Centennials.

One of the most common complaints about Hollywood nowadays is that every movie they release seems to be a remake, a sequel or a reboot. As I write, Alita: Battle Angel, an American remake of a Japanese anime, is at the top of the box office, and The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, the fourth film in a franchise based on a toy, is in second place in its second week. The highest grossing film on the list, Glass, with $104.6m to its credit in five weeks, is the third in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable trilogy. However, remakes and sequels are hardly new concepts and many would be surprised at just how prevalent this sort of behaviour has always been. Case in point: I Died a Thousand Times might appear to be an original picture with an impressive cast, but it’s actually the third adaptation of a novel, High Sierra, to the big screen. The novelist, W. R. Burnett, wrote the screenplay for the first in 1941 (with John Huston) and returned to do a very similar job on this one in 1955. The director of the first, Raoul Walsh, also directed the second in 1949.

While sequels need their own justification, there have been plenty of historical reasons to remake movies because the industry has rarely stood still and the times have always been a-changin’. When Walsh made High Sierra in 1941, he did so using a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio in black and white, as was the norm at the time. When Burnett returned to rewrite his script only fourteen years later, the resulting film was shot in CinemaScope and WarnerColor. It looks completely different and much more appropriate, given that it’s set in the countryside around Mount Whitney, the highest peak in California, and colour and widescreen help with that a great deal. Back in 1941, High Sierra, by comparison, looks best in its indoor scenes with criminals arguing and planning. Each, however, told the same story and in a very similar way, right down to dialogue and choreography. They’re gangster films; the version made in between them, Colorado Territory, was, at least, a western, the story translated to that of an outlaw sprung from jail to rob a train.

Bringing black and white films into the colour era and translating them into other genres are only two reasons to remake films, but those aren’t the only reasons. The original High Sierra marked the first lead role for Humphrey Bogart, who talked George Raft into turning the role down. The reason that we all know Bogart’s name today but most of us haven’t heard of Raft is because the former took two further parts that the latter ill advisedly turned down; High Sierra made him a leading man, The Maltese Falcon made him a star and Casablanca made him immortal; the fact that Raft’s last film was The Man with Bogart’s Face is brutal irony. While Casablanca was made from an original script, The Maltese Falcon, one of the best films ever made, wasn’t; it was also the third screen version of a novel. Its first remake was to translate crime into comedy, but the second was all about timing. The original was released in 1931 during the pre-code era, before the Production Code restricted content; there was no way it could be re-released under the Code.

I bring all this up because it’s hard to watch I Died a Thousand Times without acknowledging that it’s a remake. It’s generally seen as a lesser film all around, but I’m not buying that. Sure, it’s a lesser film but it relishes the outdoors and revels in the way it can show it to us on a wide screen in vibrant colour. High Sierra begins with plot detail—criminal Roy Earle being pardoned by the governor, being met at the prison gates by a colleague, taking a moment to enjoy the park. By comparison, I Died a Thousand Times begins with Earle in his car, driving through the wide open desert landscape of California with mountains looming about him. The implication, though we don’t know it yet, is that he’s free and should relish the experience, because that’s all for which he yearns after his eight years inside. The problem is that a crook called Big Mac orchestrated his pardon so that Earle can lead a crew of his to rob the safe deposit boxes at the Tropico Resort and the rest of the film could easily be described as an exercise in sad inevitability.

While the vast and vivid landscape is the first and most obvious improvement here, there’s a lot to be said too for the performance of Jack Palance. Bogart did a good job as Roy Earle and he emphatically proved his worth as a leading man with at least three great scenes and many good ones, but he spends too much of the picture calm and composed; the only time where he demonstrates that he’s still haunted by his imprisonment is when he’s asleep and caught up in a nightmare. Palance can be calm too, eerily so, but he’s also an angry man, a resentful man and quite obviously a dangerous man too. We can believe that he’s spent time inside for murder and we can believe that he’ll kill again if he needs to. Bogart shows experience when he first meets his crew, a pair of rookies called Red and Babe, but Palance scares the crap out of them too. They don’t just respect him and his reputation, they fear him as well. It has to be said that Lee Marvin is a much better Babe than Alan Curtis was and it’s telling when Lee Marvin is believably scared!

Of course, if everyone in the cast was better then the film ought to be too and it isn’t. The weakest link is Shelley Winters as Marie Garson, though it’s not all her fault. Marie enters the story as Babe’s girl, a young lady attempting to escape her life but not being at all picky about how. We know, of course, that she’ll end up as Roy’s girl by the end of the film, even though there’s a whole subplot about another young lady called Velma, but the transition makes a lot more sense in the 1941 version. Winters makes Marie whiny and annoying and Burnett’s script seems happy to let her be both. Why Roy Earle would shift, even on the rebound, from Velma to Marie, makes no sense to me. A decade and change earlier, however, Marie Garson was played instead by Ida Lupino, who’s a savvy creature, knowing and enticing. The attraction is there from the outset, though it’s ignored for a while. We can believe them being together and frankly expect it, even if Marie’s final scenes are a bit too much. Lupino was top billed and we understand that too.

That subplot with Velma is an important one because it serves as a contrast. Marie might not be a career criminal but she’s walking on the dark side before she joins the film. Because 1955 was firmly within the era of the Production Code, we’re never told whether she did more at a dime a dance club than the job description calls for, but it’s not hard to believe. Velma, on the other hand, is from a completely different world, one into which Roy almost has to literally crash. On that California desert road at the beginning of the picture, he pulls out to pass a rickety old vehicle at the moment it swerves to avoid a jackrabbit. Everyone’s fine, but they introduce themselves at the next gas station and everyone hits it off. On one side, there’s the Goodhue family: Pa and Ma and granddaughter Velma, nineteen years old. On the other, because he’s cautious, there’s Roy Collins, an alias that hints at a possible future. Roy Earle is free, pardoned and clear but he has a new job to tarnish that record again. Roy Collins has no such albatross around his neck.

It’s fun to watch Roy Earle and Roy Collins co-exist. After Earle scopes out the Tropico, he leaves to find the Goodhues outside in a literal scrape. Collins sorts it out, discovering in the process that Velma, who’s a pretty young thing, has a club foot. He brings in a doctor to look at it and, when surgery is determined to be viable, pays for it. He likes her from moment one and he likes her all the more as time passes. Velma seems to like him too and the age difference isn’t as overt as it was in 1941. Jack Palance was 36 when I Died a Thousand Times was released and Lori Nelson, who plays Velma, was 22. Bogart was 41 when he played Earle and Joan Leslie, an up and coming young starlet, was amazingly only fifteen, though she was believably playing twenty. That seems unbelievable to us today, though it has to be highlighted that, only three years later, while making To Have and Have Not, Bogart met Lauren Bacall, who was nineteen to his 44. They fell in love, married and remained so until the day he died. They also made four films together.

Ignoring outrageous age differences, which were hardly rare in classic Hollywood movies, where male stars stayed famous as they aged and female ones often vanished from the screeen when they hit thirty, we have two stories here, one for each Roy. Roy Earle sets up the Tropico job for Big Mac, who’s been confined to his bed by his doctor; he may be a criminal mastermind but he still has to hide the booze when the doc shows up. Roy scopes out the target, plans the heist and tries to keep the idiots working for him in line. Meanwhile, Roy Collins pursues Velma with genuine kindness. It’s not all about getting her the surgery she needs to fix a club foot; it’s about holding her hand while she talks about the stars and it’s about shooting the breeze with Pa Goodhue, even when he gets a twinkle in his eye and asks if Roy plans on marrying his granddaughter. It’s even about not getting upset when he mentions her boy Lon Preisser back home, the bad egg they brought her to L.A. to keep away from.

Without attempting to spoil the picture, everything goes wrong for Roy. He starts the film free but that freedom has a price firmly attached and it’s the price of inevitable doom. Hey, it’s a Production Code picture—criminals were never allowed to get away with their crimes—but Burnett does float some ideas in the other direction. For a start, it isn’t really Roy’s crime, though he goes along with it from the standpoint of honour; it’s Big Mac’s crime and he got Roy out of stir, so it’s the least he can do to thank him. And, while he’s very much a dangerous man, he shows a heart and pays for that surgery. The whole Velma subplot is Roy dreaming of going straight and living a decent life, but the Production Code wouldn’t let him have it. Don’t get me wrong, Roy goes into this job with his eyes open and he’s guilty by any interpretation, but Burnett aims for us to sympathise with him to at least some degree. I think he’d have done better if the whole operation wasn’t so obviously doomed to failure.

Lon Chaney, Jr., credited here without the Jr., has fun with this situation; he’s playing a dying man but he’s having a blast anyway, enjoying this one last job vicariously through his friend. He trusts Roy Earle because he’s the only other old pro in the story, but he sticks him with an awful crew and Roy should have never gone along with it as it stands. Kranmer, Big Mac’s assistant, is an ex-cop whom Earle immediately distrusts. Red and Babe, his hired hands, are mere small timers who know it (“I don’t feel big,” says Babe at one point; “Roy feels big,” replies Red). Big Mac himself isn’t allowed to do much of anything any more, for medical reasons. And, just in case he doesn’t make it, he gives Roy written instructions on what to do with the jewels. When the boss could check out any time you leave his room and the boss is the only reason you’re on board to begin with, maybe you should think twice. Add in Marie, who’s a disaster just waiting to happen to someone else, and there are more red flags here than in a sailing race.

What all this means is that we might have some sympathy for Roy, as he ponders the possibility of going straight, but we lose it all when he goes along with such a clearly doomed operation. In fact, we start to wonder if he isn’t trying subconsciously to sabotage his own future. Why else would he hook up with Marie? When the job goes south and bad things happen to his colleagues, there’s a telling line from Roy: “Bunch of amateurs,” he mutters. The point, of course, is that he knew this going in and went along with it all the way. Suddenly he deserves all he gets in our minds, not because he’s a criminal but because he’s an idiot. And, after long scenes of Jack Palance doing what Jack Palance does best, it becomes a movie about Mount Whitney and how great it looks draped in snow in WarnerColor and CinemaScope. Suddenly, we think back to Dennis Hopper, who spent a single day on set to dance with Marie at Velma’s party and utter three lines of dialogue. Blink and he’s gone.

After it’s done, though, we think back to Jack Palance because he was such a dominant leading man and it takes someone with real power to play a tough role better than Humphrey Bogart. He was an American, born in Hazleton, PA, but to Ukrainian immigrants who named him Volodymyr Palahniuk. He had a suitably tough upbringing, following in his father’s footsteps by mining coal. He became a professional boxer, racking up an impressive record under the name of Jack Brazzo, quitting after losing a Pier Six Brawl to Joe Baksi, another former coal miner who became a world heavyweight contender. A Pier Sixer, by the way, is an unsanctioned fight, meaning more danger, and Palance later explained that he retired as “you must be nuts to get your head beat in for $200.” A variety of jobs later, from short order cook and soda jerk to lifeguard and student pilot, the latter during World War II for the U.S. Army Air Forces, he found his way onto the stage, debuting on Broadway in 1947 as a Russian soldier in The Big Two.

With such instantly recognisable looks, it was inevitable that he’d end up on the screen. He debuted on television in 1949 and film in 1950, in Elia Kazan’s Panic on the Streets. His fame was almost immediate, landing both second billing under Joan Crawford and a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in only his third film, Sudden Fear. The following year, he received a second Oscar nod for an iconic role that’s still perhaps his most famous, as the soft spoken gunfighter Jack Wilson in Shane. I’ve seen a lot of his work in the fifties and he’s always impressed me, albeit often in remakes like this one and 1953’s Man in the Attic, yet another adaptation of The Lodger, a novel first filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927. Then again, I haven’t yet seen him as Attila the Hun in Sign of the Pagan, an odd role on paper, though Palance was versatile enough to play more than westerns, war movies and thrillers. He ended up in a lot of period epics over the years, from The Silver Chalice through The Mongols to Barabbas.

In fact, while we might think of him as having only played certain types of roles, like cruel heavies in westerns, he went out of his way to vary them and, looking back, I’m appreciative of his versatility. He played Fidel Castro in Che! and the Jabberwock in a TV version of Alice Through the Looking Glass. He made a horror flick in the UK, Torture Garden; a sexploitation picture in Italy, Marquis de Sade: Justine; and an arthouse film back in the States, Bagdad Cafe. He made fantasies like Gor and Hawk the Slayer. He presented Ripley’s Believe It or Not and lent his voice talents to projects as different as The Swan Princess and Roger Waters’s album The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking. And, of course, after years spent making movies in Italy, he eventually won his Academy Award for a comedy, City Slickers, which came amidst a number of Hollywood blockbusters, including Batman and Tango & Cash. Each generation knows him for something different, even if it’s for doing one handed press-ups on the Academy Awards stage at the age of 73.

What’s maybe most amazing is that he was just as varied off screen. He painted landscapes and collected art, published poetry and even recorded an album of country music, which included a parody of his stereotype called The Meanest Guy That Ever Lived. There are those who know him well from just one role, whichever one it happens to be, but he’s one of those fascinating people who are clad in so many layers that each individual encounter uncovers another. He died in 2006 at the age of 87, but he left behind a wild career encompassing 85 feature films, a brace of TV movies, starring roles on TV shows The Greatest Show on Earth and Bronk, guest appearances everywhere and memories that are as diverse as the people who own them. This isn’t his best film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it highlights what he did best: own a role that had previously been owned, feel dangerous just by walking on screen and dominate everyone around him, even if that includes people like Lee Marvin. To paraphrase Red, “Jack feels big.”

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