Over his half century in Hollywood, Jack Palance played villain after villain after villain. He nearly unleashed a plague upon the world in Panic in the Streets (1950). He was Oscar-nominated for terrorizing Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear (1952) and Alan Ladd in Shane (1953). Later on, he was Dracula, Jack the Ripper, Attila the Hun, Jekyll and Hyde, the son of Genghis Khan, Beelzebub…nine times out of ten, if he showed up in a movie, it was not to bring the lead character flowers.
Early in his career, however, Palance made three films with acclaimed director Robert Aldrich—The Big Knife (1955), Attack (1956) and Ten Seconds to Hell (1959)—in which he was the hero. His was a complicated kind of heroism. Aside from his established villainous persona, Palance’s strikingly unusual features and disconcertingly intense manner meant that he was never going to be a traditional leading man. That’s what made these performances so interesting.
In The Big Knife, Palance is Charlie Castle, a successful Hollywood actor who stars in mindless crowd-pleasers for studio boss Stanley Hoff (played with typical scenery-chomping malice by Rod Steiger). The time has come for Charlie to sign a new seven-year contract. He doesn’t want to. He’s yearning for a challenging project, and his beloved but estranged wife Marion (Ida Lupino)—fed up with seeing his soul eroded by the dross in which he’s been acting—has threatened to leave him once and for all if he signs the deal. The problem: Hoff has information on Charlie that could send him to jail, and has no qualms about using it.
There are no easy answers for Charlie. The drama of The Big Knife resides in the tortured contours of Palance’s face as he desperately searches for an escape from this impossible situation. The film is a noir, and Charlie is every inch the antihero. We can see that he’s an essentially decent man; he’s kind to his wife, his friends and the people who work for him. But he’s in a mess of his own making. He’s imprisoned himself in his own gilded cage, and wrecked several other lives in the process. By multiple measures, he’s not exactly worthy of our sympathy.
And yet he gets it, chiefly thanks to the acute physicality of Palance’s performance. At 6’4”, his hulking frame was often used to add another layer of intimidation to his already threatening presence. In The Big Knife, it has the opposite effect. Because there is so much of him, it makes even more of an impact when he curls up in anguish, or paces his opulent living room in cornered-animal distress. Other noir antiheroes—your Mitchums and Bogarts—emoted as little as possible, doing most of their acting with arched eyebrows and drawled witticisms; the less they spoke, the less they’d give away. Palance gives everything away. He’s so nakedly vulnerable, you almost want to drape a coat over his shoulders and tell the cameraman to go pick on someone his own size.
The Big Knife is based on a play by Clifford Odets, and Palance is, in a sense, on stage the whole time. Even when another actor is commanding the scene (this is a film brimming with big performances), Aldrich keeps our attention on Palance’s visceral discomfort—so palpable in the way he writhes in almost physical pain as Steiger sears him with a fiery monologue, or fruitlessly tries to swat away the amorous advances of his friend’s wife (Jean Hagen). He’s an active performer playing a passive character; an actor of imposing strength rendered powerless. Aldrich uses the juxtaposition between Palance’s persona and Charlie’s character to add depth to his portrait of a doomed man.
In Attack, Palance’s heroism is more traditional. He’s Lieutenant Joe Costa, the competent and well-liked leader of an American squad fighting in France in WWII. Unfortunately, his immediate superior, Captain Erskine Cooney (Eddie Albert), is weaselly and bungling; in the opening scene we see his cowardice cost the lives of several men, and we soon learn that’s not the first time his poor decisions have come with a body count. But thanks to some stateside political shenanigans, there’s no removing Cooney from his dangerously powerful position.
Palance is terrifying in Attack in the same way he is in his villainous roles. In fact, Aldrich shoots him in such a manner—often in shadowy, tight close-ups—that if you were to watch his confrontations with Cooney on mute, you might well assume that Costa is the bad guy. When he pins the captain with a wild-eyed stare and growls that if his battle plan endangers the lives of his men, “I’ll come back and take this grenade and shove it down your throat and pull the pin,” you believe him. The full, scorching force of Palance’s fury is no joke.
And it becomes a liability. As the film progresses, Costa’s seething hatred of Cooney grows to unsupportable levels; by the closing act, there’s something feral about the way he’s hunting the Captain, willing to risk everything for the chance to tear him to shreds with his bare teeth. He’s lost the level head necessary to do his job, effectively abdicating his duties to the calmer Lieutenant Woodruff (William Smithers), who’s been just as frustrated by Cooney’s incompetence but hasn’t let that frustration overwhelm him. Costa is courageous and decent and capable, yet—as is often the case for Palance’s characters, both heroes and villains—his inability to control himself is his undoing.
In Ten Seconds to Hell, the war is over. Palance plays Eric Koertner, the leader of a group of six German ex-soldiers who defuse the unexploded bombs that still litter the city. Karl Wirtz (Jeff Chandler) bets Eric that he will outlive him—soon, the rest of the men have joined in on this morbid death pool. As the group is brutally whittled down, the rivalry between Eric and Karl heats up.
Palance was never a conventional leading man. In Ten Seconds to Hell, he is cast opposite one. Chandler died at 42, and so never had the chance to make as lasting an impact on Hollywood as Palance. During the 1950s, however, he was a big name. Tall and broad, with a traditionally handsome face, a smooth demeanor and a beautiful mane of prematurely silvered hair, he was usually cast as a romantic lead.
Aldrich uses the differences between his two stars to fascinating effect. The Big Knife and Attack are both tremendously intense movies; Ten Seconds to Hell takes things to a whole other level. One false move, even the slightest inadvertent twitch, could end a life. In this relentlessly fraught environment, Palance’s sweaty intensity—something that intimidates in other films—seems like the only human response. He’s a wreck, but how could any normal person be any other way? Chandler’s comparative smoothness becomes suspect; considering the unimaginable pressures of the job, it’s akin to psychopathy. Palance is a wreck in large part because he has seen his friends die, often in front of him. Chandler’s typical leading man stoicism belies an inexcusable lack of feeling.
A surfeit of feeling is the main link between the three men Palance played for Aldrich. Palance’s villains were always frightening in their forcefulness; though his heroes had just as much vigor, their spectrum of emotions was far broader. They were still angry, but they were scared too. They were conflicted and vulnerable; liable to be overcome by their emotions. He was a world away from the suavity and assuredness of the usual leading man of the 1950s, and that was why these performances were so compelling. The films are given more texture by having Palance in the leading role than if someone the public already associated with heroism—a Cary Grant or a Gary Cooper—had been cast. Since Palance wasn’t bound by the Hollywood hero’s imperative to always be strong and stoic, he was free to act like any regular person would act if they’d been placed in a similar position. Because no one thought of him as a hero, he was free to be a human.
Aldrich and Palance fell out during the making of Ten Seconds to Hell, and didn’t work together again. Once they parted company, Palance’s villainous persona became calcified. His career spanned a number of genres (western, horror, comedy, poliziotteschi) and a number of decades (he’d finally get his Oscar for 1994’s City Slickers, a win the 74-year-old famously celebrated with one-armed push-ups), but he was never again given the opportunity to express such depth and range as in the three movies he made with Robert Aldrich.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.