Richard Lutz goes gunning for the baddest cat in the west while in search of the TV movie of the week.
The dude was bad, the baddest, with a sneer that could peel paint off a wall, rip the smile from even the bravest cowpoke’s face.
Jack Palance (or Vladimir Palahniuk as he was known on his Pennsylvania birth certificate) was the business. By his 21st birthday he had won 15 professional fights in the ring. Then he signed up for the army, left with a couple of WWII medals, graduated from Stanford University and headed for Hollywood with his iron-pumping body, his taut angular face like a Terminator’s and his 6’ 4” body lording it over mere mortals. His eyes were tight little laser weapons and directors saw him as a natural bad guy.
Of course, he wasn’t. He was a jobbing actor who knew that evil paid the mortgage and many times threw you the best roles in a mediocre script. Ironically, he copped his Oscar not for being Bad ut for being Funny – in the 1991 town-meets-the west comedy City Slickers. He used his downtime to paint, inscribing poems on the back of each picture. Ahhhh.
And he crafted a great little role in the 1987 quirky masterpiece Baghdad Cafe where he was the aptly named Rudi Cox who lives in a desert trailer, loves women and is a loveable geriatric hippy.
But still, Palance had his moments. His inner boxer surfaced during a movie fight with good guy Burt Lancaster. He floored Our Burt with a sucker punch. Lancaster got off the floor and socked Our Jack in the gut. Movie work isn’t so much fun any more.
So, to this week and Palance is evil incarnate Jack Wilson in Shane (Thurs, 12.55pm, Film4). He’s the gunfighter hired in to wipe out pesky farmers who won’t sell their land to land grabbing cattlemen. Palance is all black leather, tight nasty sneery face, inevitable black hat and jangly spurs on his boots. You’d walk across the Mojave Desert barefoot to get away from him.
He threatens the farming folk. But Christ-like Alan Ladd (a mere 5’ 6” by the way) is there to save the day.
It’s a beautiful film with some fine sub-plots (the farmer’s wife is in love with good guy Shane) and stunning Wyoming scenery. It’s classic Western territory: how one man, that lad Alan Ladd, gotta do what he gotta do… and then when he does it, the lone man (re-created in Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider twenty years later) rides into the darkening sunset with the farmer’s little boy crying after him.
But it’s Palance who really steals the show, as great bad guys sometimes do in big movies. Too bad, the hulky bad guy star was nervous round horses and had trouble mounting his steed. But if you wanted real evil, wait for the scene when Palance just smiles with nasty contempt when confronted with a fatally good-hearted youngster who tries to stop him with a gun.
There is no mercy in Palance’s eyes in that scene. Only pleasure.