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Warners must have needed to get a film into production quickly, because 1955's I Died a Thousand Times is an almost shot-by-shot remake of Raoul Walsh's High Sierra from only fourteen years earlier. All that's changed is the cast, a few updatings of details and a high-speed chase at the finish with the cars actually speeding. Oh, and WarnerColor and CinemaScope, which makes all the difference to many viewers. Between 1960 and 1995 the film was more or less viewable only in pan-scan TV prints and the wide screen makes quite a bit of difference to its appeal. Screenwriter W.R. Burnett adapted his novel a second time, although there's little sign than any work was needed beyond a dialogue polish. The result is fine if you haven't seen the original, otherwise the movie carries a weird sense of deja vu. 1
As hardly needs repeating, the once-notorious robber Roy Earle is the role that officially boosted Humphrey Bogart into leading man status. The equally luckless Marie Garson was played to an emotional high pitch by Ida Lupino. Paroled from prison, Roy crosses the desert and holes up in a mountain cabin while preparing to rob a new desert casino hotel for his gangster employers in Los Angeles; on the way he falls in love with farmer's daughter Velma (orginally Joan Leslie), and advances her the money to have her club foot surgically corrected. But Earle is also drawn to the unhappy Marie, as they both are in search of the means to "crash out" into a better life. Thanks to the incompetence of the punks hired to aid Roy in the robbery (originally Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy and Cornel Wilde) the heist ends in disaster. As if fulfilling a fated destiny, Roy is cornered by the state police up in the "clean, cold" Sierra Nevada mountains.
Burnett and Walsh's original film was an interesting mix of tough-guy realism and old-fashioned sentiment. Despite the melodramatics, it rates as an early film noir by dint of Roy Earle's disillusionment over the affections of Velma, the gee-whiz country girl who becomes a real user once her club foot is repaired. Various double-crosses and a blabbing accomplice do the rest. Poor Marie is forced to watch her lover's tragic end, as radio announcers trumpet the manhunt for "Mad Dog Roy Earle". Only she will understand.
At first glance the remake I Died a Thousand Times is a nice package. Although he doesn't carry the same charge of world-weary fatalism, young Jack Palance is sympathetic as the new Roy, and definitely more menacing in physical terms. Earl Holliman and Lee Marvin, the new punks assigned as his side men, look righteously terrified of him. The color and widescreen give the film a new edge, with those mountain peaks looking lonelier than ever and the camp exteriors more convincing. Roy Earle seems a man out of time, a 30s gangster caught in the age of stereophonic sound.
As the new Marie, Shelley Winters naturally makes a different impact than Ida Lupino, who was the actual star of the first film. Unfortunately, Winters approaches the role as the same kind of sad sack female loser she played in A Place in the Sun, He Ran All the Way, Night of the Hunter and The Big Knife (also with Palance). One look at Winter's downcast face and we know she's going to be miserable -- she doesn't brighten our spirits the way Ms. Lupino did.
As I said before, viewers unfamiliar with High Sierra will surely be very impressed with I Died a Thousand Times -- the story has classic contours and the ending has a brutal finality. The rest of us are more likely to play a comparison game. The family of farmers still behave like Steinbeck Oakies, two decades later; Olive Carey and Ralph Moody don't seem as sympathetic, and their old flivver looks like a ghost car from The Grapes of Wrath. Velma's new friends come from the Warner pool of delinquents: Richard Davalos (East of Eden), and Dennis Hopper (Rebel without a Cause). Why 1955 kids with money would be wearing suits and dancing the mambo in the afternoon seems a little odd, but the movie sticks to the old script like glue.
Young Lori Nelson (Revenge of the Creature) is perhaps a good update casting choice. Bright, sweet blue moon in June-type Joan Leslie fit the idealistic innocent image of 1941, while Nelson both looks and acts like she's not afraid to grab what she wants, no matter whose feelings are hurt. The Velma character is the stickiest thing in both versions -- the robbery seems to be timed around her recovery -- but Ms. Nelson keeps that subplot from falling down.
The location shoot out by Lone Pine is a big improvement, with Roy's car and the pursuing cops fishtailing around treacherous mountain curves instead of being artificially sped up by under-cranking the camera. The film crews probably found the same anchoring spikes in the ground from 14 years before, because most of the angles seem absolutely identical, even with the same pans. A motorcycle stuntman takes a spill on his bike (twice) to add some juice to the chase. As this second version doesn't try for as big an emotional finish (probably considered too corny), the show wraps up sooner, without making as big of a bang.
Comparing Palance and Bogart shows how movies are changing in the 'fifties. Palance shows his sensitivity less and is more explosive in the violence department; he refuses to serve as a father figure to his punk cohorts. When he chooses Marie and sets his mind on getting the dough and escaping, he seems much more out of control than Bogart ever did. Roy's final dash from his hiding place to call to Marie felt much more tragic the first time around; as Bogie finally lets his emotions go. Already at the end of his rope, Palance's final gesture is performed just as well, but has less impact.
Also in the cast is a young Nick Adams, who proves he can rattle a tray of glasses better than anyone. Handsome Perry Lopez (Chinatown) does a mean mambo with Shelley Winters, who's still in great shape. Lon Chaney Jr. is okay as Roy's friendly boss and Pedro Gonzalez Gonzales has a part big enough to overcome the insensitive "brainless Mexican" stereotype of the script. Mae Clark, Myrna Fahey and Dub Taylor also make brief appearances.
The ASPCA wouldn't be amused by a stunt in the first scene. A car swerves to avoid a jackrabbit on the highway, a shot apparently achieved by springing a live stunt bunny onto the roadway right in its path. The rabbit escapes injury, but not by much. I wonder how many they ran over before they got the shot?
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of I Died a Thousand Times is a bright enhanced widescreen transfer of this very wide early CinemaScope film, with good color values. The picture is sharp enough to suggest a recent transfer, but the encoding allows items like Venetian blinds to buzz a little. Yet the picture looks much better than compressed NTSC airings on the TCM channel -- viewers won't be disappointed.
The trailer ignores the remake angle and promises big dramatic scenes and violent confrontations. It also shows most of the movie's action, including both of those wacky motorcycle falls.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
I Died a Thousand Times rates:
1. I've been reminded by friend Dick Dinman that I Died a Thousand Times is actually a second remake of High Sierra. As everyone knows but I forgot, 1949's Colorado Territory is director Raoul Walsh's own western take on the same story. Of the three Dick prefers Colorado Territory: "I Died Three Times but the second was best".
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