The Unchosen One

I picked up BARABBAS on DVD from a charity shop along with KING OF KINGS, £1 each, and was amazed at how good it was. I mean, this is Richard Fleischer’s widescreen period and I was pretty disappointed by 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. But Fleischer was good at widescreen and 3D and stuff, at least sometimes. I don’t quite know how to account for his patchiness.

But BARABBAS is based on an acclaimed novel by Pär Lagerkvist and adapted by Christopher Fry (The Lady’s Not for Burning) with an uncredited assist by Nigel Balchin (The Small Back Room). It has De Laurentiis’ millions behind it — but used with a winning combination of intelligence and taste and sheer vulgarity. When we first see the Coliseum, for instance, it’s a massive great set, with real extras in every row, not foosball figures rising and falling in rows, and the area is packed with brawling gladiators, some of them little people, with elephants, a tiger pit, flaming waters — absolutely crazy excess. And that’s basically just an establishing shot, though it’s about twenty shots.

This is one of those BEN-HUR jobs, biblical maginalia — take a character who’s around at the time of Christ and follow his wacky misadventures. Here it’s the thief who was spared crucifixion, played by Anthony Quinn in a boldly sullen, bovine manner — remarkable to have such an epic built around such an uningratiating figure. He’s surrounded by a good, eclectic cast that includes Katy Jurado, Silvana Mangano, Ernest Borgnine, Arthur Kennedy. Strongest impressions are made by Jack Palance as a sadistic gladiator — terrifying! — Harry Andrews, once described by Richard Burton as the world’s greatest wearer of costumes — and Michael Gwynn, building on his REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN experience by playing an eerie Lazarus.

(I bought the Burton diaries, btw. He also OUTS Harry A., thus rocking my world. NEVER would have guessed that.)

They shot a genuine solar eclipse for the crucifixion, but the jaw-dropping set pieces and beautiful compositions and lighting by Aldo Tonti (NIGHTS OF CABIRIA) make that a mere sideshow. Look at this shot (below) — the figures seem like hanging garlands dropping from the central hub, and the different skin tones of the various faces give it a floral look too.

Here we see the guy making the crown of thorns — unsung artisan of torture — and he pricks his finger making it. I said it was vulgar. They want to make you feel the sharpness of the thorns because we’re so used to the image we’re numb to it, but it’s pretty cheap. Still, I prefer it to the Mel Gibson solution which would just be to show graphic penetrative skin-ripping detail in close-up. And where would a biblical epic be without at least a bit of trivialising vulgarity?

It’s all amplified hugely by Mario Nascimbene’s score — his favourite trick is to sit down on the low notes of his piano in some reverberant cavern, creating an awesome slam. Sometimes we don’t even get the slam, just the dead echo of its passing. Spooky.

Barabbas has an encounter with the early Christians in Rome’s catacombs — it has a phantasmal quality that reminds me of Philip K Dick’s hallucinatory musings — “The Empire Never Ended” — anything taking place that far back in time should give us temporal vertigo, but so few movies pull it off — SATYRICON does, and so do bits of this.

Just when I thought I couldn’t like the film any more, for what it is, along comes the ANSWER TO A MYSTERY — beautiful depth-composed tracking shots of mass crucifixion — as used as stock footage with a lava overlay by Ken Russell in ALTERED STATES. I told you I really really wanted to know where that stuff came from. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I can die happy — I just had my second Covid jab and I want to get the benefit — but I’m absurdly pleased to have sorted that out.

16 Responses to “The Unchosen One”

  1. What else did this Director create for us? Did he direct Soylent Green?

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Fleischer is seriously underrated. I rather like “20.00 Leagues” (whose auteur is James Mason) but Fleischer is at his best with such diverse offerings as “Compulsion,” “The Vikings” and “Mandingo”

    Harry Andrews was a surprise t me too but among other things it explains his easy adaptation to the ultra-gay sensibility of Losey’s “Modesty Blaise”

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    I remember the thorn pricking scene that stayed in my mind ever since I saw the film theatrically, never since. Palance’s sadistic gladiator is unforgettable and David E. hits the nail on the head again (excuse unintentional pun) with his reference to “Mandingo”.

    Didn’t Barbara Ferris eventually end up with Harry Andrews in A NICE GIRL LIKE ME?

  4. roberthorton Says:

    I want to see this again. Fleischer came to Seattle once when I was in college and talked to a small group of people after showing 10 RILLINGTON PLACE – he was very knowledgeable, precise, articulate. Got very specific about why the camera was doing this or that at any given time, unlike those directors who either don’t care about that or avoid talking about it for fear of being exposed as some kinda “artiste.”

  5. ukjarry Says:

    Fleisherhad a nice little line in gritty real life murder films with “Boston Strangler” and “10 Rillington Place”at the end of the 60s. Maybe it took an American to really capture the squalor of London, as it took an Englishman to capture the sordidness of NYC in “Midnight Cowboy”. “The Narrow Margin” is a great little thriller, and the middle section of “See No Evil” as the blind Mia Farrow stumbles around the family home oblivious to the corpses of her family with the camera providing some great surprises really deserves more attention. It’s at least a decade since I saw “The Last Centurions” but I think I was more impressed by the lead performances by George C. Scott and Stacy Keach than what the direction was doing, but it’s probably due a rewatch.

    Harry Andrews is the only actor whose homosexuality ever came as a real surprise. But he played a few gay roles. The brother in “Entertaining Mr Sloan” directed by Douglas (“Theatre of Blood”) Hickox. He also plays a hyper-misogynist suggesting depths of repressed homosexuality in “The Internecine Project”, a 1974 film whose ending really anticipates Bob Hoskin’s final scene in “Long Good Friday”

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

    That’s one of the greatest of all last scenes (Note: Pierce Brosnan as the gay hit-man)

  7. Hoskins was directed to replay the whole film in his head as his closeup lingered, a brilliant touch. And just right for him: in the Ken Campbell Roadshow he played a man with an earworm eating its way through his brain. “You could tell exactly where in his brain it was at any moment,” enthused Campbell, “just by the acting.”

    The Narrow Margin is a favourite, but yes, his true crime jobs are terrific. Impossible to accept that the same producer/director combo gave us Barabbas and Red Sonja.

    Harry Andrews hanging himself in a tutu in The Ruling Class might be some kind of clue also.

  8. 20,000 LEAGUES isn’t a favorite, but BARABBAS isn’t a lonely eminence for Fleischer: try BANDIDO, THE GIRL IN THE RED VELVET SWING, VIOLENT SATURDAY, MANDINGO. I even feel like recommending AMITYVILLE 3-D.

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I love Chabrol’s remake of “The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing” — “A Girl Cut in Two”

  10. bensondonald Says:

    Fleischer also did “Doctor Dolittle”, one of those Big Honking Musicals chasing after “Sound of Music”, “Mary Poppins” and “My Fair Lady”. It lumbers at epic length, and STILL feels like stuff is missing (Richard Attenborough’s not-too-trustworthy circus owner is abruptly forgotten). Worth seeing if only for the old-school excess, but would advise extending the intermission to a day or so.

    He wrote a book, “Out of the Inkwell” in 2005. That focused on his father Max, and details the shenanigans behind Paramount grabbing the Fleischer studio and all its assets (just as Paramount and King Features were realizing the huge television value of the cartoons). The approximate happy ending is Max finally reclaiming legal ownership of Betty Boop, who became a hot licensing property (ironically, merchandised as a 1950s icon).

  11. ukjarry Says:

    This quote from Miles Davis’s autobiography crops up every few months online:

    “Around this time, Columbia wanted Gil and me to do a jazz version of the music from the film Doctor Dolittle. See, ‘Porgy and Bess’ had been my best-selling album, and so some real dumb motherfucker over there thought that this Doctor Dolittle would be a great seller. After listening to that shit I said, “No way, Jose.””

  12. Amityville 3 has a nothing script but the 3D and Fleischer’s handling of it is lovely.

    Fleischer’s memoir of his own career is pretty good.

    I foolishly didn’t go to see The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing at Bologna, having seen it on TV, but found myself catching a glimpse of its Cinemascope loveliness and immediately regretted not seeing the whole thing. Made a point of seeing Fantastic Voyage, though.

  13. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing” is one of Joan’s few non-camp performances. She’s seriously wonderful in it as is Farley Granger as the ba-shit Cray Harry K. Thaw

  14. The movie omits the extreme weirdness of the Stanford White character, whose habit was to drug his mistress unconscious before sex — or so she later claimed.

  15. By the way, there’s another good movie of the Lagerqvist novel BARABBAS, by Alf Sjöberg in 1953.

  16. Wow! Looks impressive!

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