REMEMBERING JACK (IN BLACK)
“So you’re Jack Wilson.” “What’s that mean to you, Shane?” “I’ve heard about you.” “What’ve you heard, Shane?”
Alan Ladd: (squaring his shoulders and rising to his full height of approximately five feet seven inches) “I’ve heard that you’re a lowdown Yankee liar.”
Jack Palance: (a smile breaking across his dark visage) “Prove it.”
Such were Jack Wilson’s last words, the last of only sixteen lines he would deliver in the greatest Western of all time. Seconds later the hired gunslinger from Cheyenne, along with the two Ryker brothers, lay dead on the floor of Grafton’s saloon, and of course we in the moviegoing audience were happy to see them go. Now at last the beleaguered homesteaders of Jackson Hole could go about stringing fences, planting crops and raising up strong, law-abiding families.
I was only ten years old when I first saw “Shane,” and just like young Brandon De Wilde, I was swept away. I would spend the next several months roaming the foothills under darkening skies, Daisy air rifle in hand, ever on the lookout for bad guys wearing black hats. In my head played the unforgettable Victor Young musical score, along with snatches of equally unforgettable dialogue by A.B. Guthrie.
“Are you speakin’ to me?” “I don’t see nobody else standin’ there.”
“Which one of them tater pickers are you workin’ for, or are you just squattin’ on the range?” “I’m workin for Starret, if it’s any of your business.”
“Suppose’n I make it my business?”
“You ain’t gonna drink that in here.”
“You guessed it.”
Was there ever a more menacing barroom bully than Ben Johnson? Never! A more sincere sodbuster than Van Heflin? Absolutely not! A more beautiful woman in homespun than Jean Arthur? I think not!
Interesting that her name should evoke Arthurian Legend, which in fact is the film’s underlying mythology. Alan Ladd is the knight errant in service to King Joe Starret and his fair lady Marion—who of course is romantically attracted to Shane. But Shane is a knight, not a homewrecker, and thus their relationship culminates in a firm handshake accompanied by prolonged eye contact. For a ten-year-old boy, that was plenty in the way of romance. What I yearned for was not the fair hand of Marion but the fast hands of Shane. I wanted first to knock out bullies like Ben Johnson, then slay the dragon Jack Wilson.
In subsequent films, Jack Walter Palance would be called upon to play variations on the villain theme. I remember he spent a lot of time chasing terrified women up and down stairways. Because he was on the run so much, my father dubbed him “Jack Ants-In-His-Palance.”
He had an amazing ability to cock his scalp forward, something I worked at for hours on end, without much success. Ditto the one-handed push-up, something I could never accomplish even as a lithesome teen. Obviously he worked out, and perhaps that’s how he managed to outlive everybody else who played a part in the film.
According to the newspapers, he’ll be best remembered by his Academy Award performance as trail boss Curly in “City Slickers.” Maybe so, but only because so much water has gone under the bridge since 1953, when he burst upon the scene as Jack Wilson, baddest bad guy of all time.