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In the decade following World War II, the filmic style which came to be known as "film noir" was transforming to adapt to a completely different country than the one that created it. Suburbia was taking over, businesses were burgeoning, and the nuclear family was becoming the center of popular culture. Therefore, dark crime films had to shift their focus to the dark underbelly of the American dream, often found in the bad parts of town where smart people decided not to go after dark.
Nowhere can this transition be seen more clearly than with I Died a Thousand Times, a 1955 remake of the Humphrey Bogart crime classic High Sierra (1941) made fourteen years earlier. Here Jack Palance takes on the role of Roy Earle, who's hired by gangsters to knock over a mountain casino as soon as he's released on parole from prison. He winds up entangled with "dime-a-dance" girlfriend Marie (Shelley Winters) who's less than thrilled when Roy seems more interested in using his cash to help clubfooted Velma (Lori Nelson), a situation that gets worse when the robbery doesn't go as planned.
Taking a story already familiar to movie audiences (including another 1949 version in between, albeit outfitted as a western, called Colorado Territory), I Died a Thousand Times does little to alter the original script by screenwriter W.R. Burnett (who also penned the source novel); however, the additions of blazing Warnercolor and expansive CinemaScope give the film a far more '50s ambience as the foul deeds contrast with the pictorial beauty of the scenery around them. Cinematographer Ted D. McCord was already proving to be a pro with the newly popular super-widescreen formats of the mid-'50s thanks to his work on the same year's East of Eden, and he would go on to outstanding scope work the following decade with Two for the Seesaw (1962) and The Sound of Music (1965).
Director Stuart Heisler was more of an old school black-and-white fellow, best known for such monochromatic dramas as Storm Warning (1951) and The Star (1952) as well as one of the best Paramount noirs, The Glass Key (1942). After this film he largely worked on TV western series, using some of the same visual affinity for pictorial landscapes he displayed with this film.
Despite the emphasis on locations here, the film was never intended to retain the name of High Sierra. Instead other titles like Jagged Edge and A Handful of Clouds were considered throughout production before settling on the final one. Perhaps even more strangely, another Warner Bros. production released the following year, Walter Doniger's The Steel Jungle (1956), was originally going to be titled I Died a Thousand Times and went through other permutations including I Died a Thousand Deaths, Marked for Life, and once again, Handful of Clouds, a title someone at Warner must have liked a great deal.
A former boxer and World War II veteran, the Ukrainian-American Jack Palance began acting in the late '40s after a successful stage career, including understudying and eventually taking over for Marlon Brando in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. His physicality made him a natural for imposing bad guys and the occasional good-hearted lug, including trademark roles in westerns such as his memorable villain in Shane (1953). By the time he made this film, Palance was already a veteran of hard-boiled thrillers with credits like Sudden Fear (1952), Man in the Attic (1953), and the same year's The Big Knife (also co-starring Shelley Winters) under his belt. Of course he went on to appear in many films and TV shows both in America and Europe into the next millennium and even scored an Oscar® for Best Supporting Actor thanks to his memorable turn as Curly in City Slickers (1991).
Stepping into the starring role originally played by Ida Lupino, Winters was already a specialist at playing down-on-their-luck women in films like A Place in the Sun (1951). 1955 proved to be one of the busiest years in her career as she also played deeply flawed women in I Am a Camera, The Treasure of Pancho Villa, and one of her most memorable roles as the ill-fated Willa Harper in The Night of the Hunter. In the next decade she would also go on to win a pair of Academy Awards as Supporting Actress for her roles in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and A Patch of Blue (1965). Though she and Palance never made another film together after their two 1955 noirs, they were seen together on numerous occasions in 1965 for multiple episodes of The Hollywood Squares (during which Palance famously dozed off next to Michael Landon).
Completing the Oscar®-winning star trio of this film is Lee Marvin, who went on to win Best Actor for Cat Ballou (1965). Taking over the role of Babe originated by Alan Curtis, this was the first of four action-packed collaborations between Marvin and Palance, followed by Attack (1956), The Professionals (1966), and Monte Walsh (1970). Marvin and Winters would also reunite in 1986 under very different circumstances for the all-star Cannon Films action cult favorite, The Delta Force.
The most dimensional role of Velma went to Lori Nelson, a relative newcomer under contract to Universal who was also extremely busy that year with other projects like her famous bathing suit turn in Revenge of the Creature, the campy Liberace vehicle Sincerely Yours, and Roger Corman's post-apocalyptic drive-in favorite, Day the World Ended. The rest of the cast is rounded out with a number of other familiar faces like Lon Chaney, Jr. (who made this back to back with Big House, U.S.A.), Latin comedy specialist Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, rugged character actor Earl Holliman (who would co-star in Forbidden Planet and Giant the following year and went on to play Angie Dickinson's partner on Police Woman), Frankenstein (1931) leading lady Mae Clarke, and even fleeting roles for grizzled Dub Taylor, physique model Ed Fury, and two young actors who appeared more famously the same year in Rebel without a Cause, Dennis Hopper and Nick Adams. Even those who know this film's story backwards and forwards from the Bogart version can find plenty of entertainment value just watching for little surprises like these before the big, violent finale.
Producer: Willis Goldbeck
Director: Stuart Heisler
Screenplay: W.R. Burnett (writer and novel [uncredited])
Cinematography: Ted D. McCord
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Music: David Buttolph
Film Editing: Clarence Kolster
Cast: Jack Palance (Roy Earle/Roy Collins), Shelley Winters (Marie Garson), Lori Nelson (Velma), Lee Marvin (Babe Kossuck), Gonzalez Gonzalez (Chico), Lon Chaney (Big Mac), Earl Holliman (Red), Perry Lopez (Louis Mendoza), Richard Davalos (Lon Preisser), Howard St. John (Doc Banton)