In a piece of advertising copy drafted by Jean-Luc Godard for Pierrot le Fou, he describes the film as “Stuart Heisler reworked by Raymond Queneau”. He could only have been referring to I Died a Thousand Times, whose use of CinemaScope and what Godard liked to call “the intrusion of the crime thriller into the tragedy of cinema painting” could also have been an inspiration for Pierrot and Le Mepris. It may also have been Heisler’s hero Roy Earle, played by Jack Palance, who Godard had in mind when he mentioned the “solitary dreamer”. After describing the sky with tender observation, Earle is called a poet – the kind Godard elsewhere referred to as “a poet after a gun”. Just released from jail, Earle is planning one last heist, despite the doubts he has about the rookies his ailing boss has picked for the job. Along the way, he meets good girl Velma, in need of an operation for her club foot (which Earle intends to pay for, only to be turned down by her later) and bad girl Marie (the reliable, to-die-with type, at first ignored by Earle) before calmly meeting his fate. Heisler’s take on W.R. Burnett’s story, previously filmed twice by Raoul Walsh – as a crime thriller in High Sierra, 1941, and as a western in Colorado Territory, 1949, both masterpieces – doesn’t differ much from earlier versions but leaves more room for character studies. Caught up in emotional deadlocks, the characters talk more openly, to the point that it feels, as is the case with the best of Heisler, that they belong more to the world of melodrama than crime. Palance’s performance, a mix of tenderness and intelligence, contradicts his tough appearance, the kind often reserved for ‘heavies’. And as the unglamorous Shelley Winters brings a light-hearted and laidback touch to the character of Marie, Heisler intensifies the vulnerability of the two. As a result, the sense of restlessness and the deathwish felt in the earlier versions is substituted for a man searching for something that he doesn’t yet know.
Cast and Credits
Sog.: from the novel High Sierra (1940) by W.R. Burnett. Scen.: W.R. Burnett. F.: Ted D. McCord. M.: Clarence Kolster. Scgf.: Edward Carrere. Mus.: David Buttolph. Int.: Jack Palance (Roy Earle/Roy Collins), Shelley Winters (Marie Garson), Lori Nelson (Velma), Lee Marvin (Babe), Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (Chico), Lon Chaney Jr. (Big Mac), Earl Holliman (Red), Perry Lopez (Louis Mendoza). Prod.: Willis Goldbeck per Warner Bros. Pictures. 35mm
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