Two film noir remakes in living color

Jim Lundstrom

Despite looking like an alien, Jack Palance proves to be one of the most human of characters in I Died a Thousand Times, a 1955 remake of the 1941 movie that made a star out of Humphrey Bogart, High Sierra. Director Stuart Heisler presented the Sierra Mountains in widescreen CinemaScope/WarnerColor glory.

Last week I introduced a new color film noir collection on the Criterion Channel, and noted that at least five of the 15 films in the collection were completely unknown to me. I tackled one of those last week, the very unusual Desert Fury, which has been described as the gayest movie to ever come out of the golden age of Hollywood.

This week I’ll take on two more, two that surprisingly are remakes of two very different classic film noir.

First up is I Died a Thousand Times, a remake of the movie that propelled Humphrey Bogart into the upper echelons at Warner Bros., the 1941 High Sierra, directed by he-man Raoul Walsh from a poetic screenplay by John Huston and W. R. Burnett, from Burnett’s 1941 novel.

 Died is a word-for-word remake of High Sierra, but instead of Bogie as Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, Jack Palance plays the doomed gangster in brilliant CinemaScope (widescreen) WarnerColor (the Warner Bros. studio’s color process – real name,Eastmancolor, a single-strip color process less cumbersome than the three-strip Technicolor process).

I’ve always thought of High Sierra as the official end of the gangster picture that thrived in the 1930s (Little Caesar, Scarface, Public Enemy, etc.), and the start of noir.

Bogart’s next movie after High Sierra, under the direction of freshman director John Huston, was The Maltese Falcon, which is the very definition of noir.

Bogart got second billing to Ida Lupina in High Sierra, but he never played second banana again. His Roy Earle was that good.

Palance also makes that role work for him in an amazing way. In his actions with other human beings, you begin to see that Roy Earle is a man of real character who just happens to be a criminal.

That was the magic Bogart brought to the role – humanizing a criminal so ruthless he is labeled “Mad Dog” by the press. But Bogart had an attribute that had to make it easier than it is for Palance – Bogart looked like a human being.

Jack Palance always had a sharp, chiseled look, but in I Died he looks positively alien. I swear at one point his flat, angular features look exactly like depictions of the alien grays. All of these things were going through my mind as I watched Palance in the role that changed Bogart’s life. How could someone who looks so alien fit into society?

Yes, he does connect with some people, and when he does, he’s more human than the humans around him. Somehow, Palance does the impossible and convinces you that not only is he not an alien, but he’s a purer human than most folks.

The Ida Lupino role of gun moll is played here by Shelley Winters, and the two criminal jokers who bring her into Earle’s life are played by Earl Holliman and Lee Marvin, in an early role playing low man on the totem pole.

Shelley Winters appeared to be typecast by this point in her career – her role as the unappreciated and pathetic gun moll Marie does not seem much different from her roles as doomed factory worker Alice Tripp in A Place in the Sun (1951), bakery worker Peg Dobbs in He Ran All the Way (1951 – John Garfield’s last film), doomed single mom Willa Harper in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and harpy starlet Dixie Evans in The Big Knife (1955 – also starring Palance).

The panoramic telling of this tale is beautiful. And it makes a human being of Jack Palance, even though, like Bogey in the role before him, he is gunned down on Mt. Whitney.

One thing consistent in both versions – the idea of either Bogey or Palance falling for the club-footed granddaughter who turns out to be a shrew, well, the conceit stretches believability, no mater how much we might believe either character is seeking goodness in an otherwise pus-filled life. While Earle’s interest in the girl and her family helps move the plot, I can’t see either of these men falling for such an uninspiring young woman.

A little pooch named Pard has a role in both movies, but the second Pard is the cuter of the two.
Asked to name my favorite John Huston film noir, I would have a hard time choosing between The Maltese Falcon. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo and The Asphalt Jungle. All are great in their own ways, but there’s something special about the menagerie of characters and their weaknesses in The Ashphalt Jungle – again from a novel by W. R. Burnett – so I was happy to find that one of the 15 films in Criterion’s Color Noir collection is a 1958 remake of The Asphalt Jungle, converted to a Western setting and called The Badlanders.

Alan Ladd stars as The Dutchman, a geologist and mining engineer who we first meeting doing time after being framed fora gold robbery in Prescott, Az. That’s where he meets McBain (ernest Borgnine) who was cheated out of the land where the gold mine stands. The Dutchman spent his time in prison developing a plan for revenge on those who framed him.

Playing the part of the ever-suave and greedy heist financier role so beautifully played in the original by Louis Calhern is Kent Smith, who exudes the same unctuous charm as Calhern’s character, and like the original, the married Smith keeps a second home (in this case a hotel room) for his kept woman, here played by Claire Kelly. Marilyn Monroe played the kept woman in The Asphalt Jungle, one of her earliest film roles.

Borgnine gets to show off his brute strength early in the movie when he saves a Mexican woman (Katy Jurado) from sexual assault by three men. His actions spark a love affair between the two that apparently was happening for real off-screen as well, for they married the year after this film was released (and divorced a few years later, reportedly because of Borgnine’s violent jealousy).

Instead of the jewel heist of The Asphalt Jungle, Ladd has devised a plan to mine a streak of gold as “thick as your arm” from a gold mine owned by the people who set him up.

Prolific character actor Nehemiah Persoff is the third member of the heist crew, the so-called powder monkey who is needed to blow the gold out of the rock.

And just as in the original, Mr.  Moneybags has planned a double cross of Ladd and his crew. He was supposed to pay them $100,000 for the gold, but he does not have it.

The trio are outmanned when a gunfight ensues, but Katy Jurado’s character enlists the aid of her Mexican friends, and suddenly the plaza where the gunfight is taking place erupts in fireworks for a festival the villagers were planning, allowing the good guys to prevail.

Director Delmer Daves had couple of great Westerns on his resume by the time he got to The Badlanders – Cowboy (1958), 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Jubal (1956, also with Ernest Borgnine) Drum Beat (1954, and also starring Alan Ladd) and the 1950 James Stewart vehicle Broken Arrow, which is often cited as the first Western to portray Indians sympathetically, even though they were not played by actual Native Americans – for example, Brooklyn-born Jeff Chandler played Cochise. The Badlanders is not his best Western.

A couple of times in The Badlanders I had to wonder if this was the last 3-D movie of the 1950s with all the rocks and guns and things being thrown at characters, but I don’t think it was a 3-D release.
Not a bad film, The Badlanders just doesn’t have what it takes to stand alongside The Asphalt Jungle.