Archive for March 1, 2023

Absence of Chalice

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2023 by dcairns

“Why do I do these foolish things?” asks Pier Angeli in what I am choosing to call Part Three of THE SILVER CHALICE, and Paul Newman misses a trick by not replying, “Because they remind you of me?”

Meanwhile the art direction takes a quick step sideways from Gerald McBoing-Boing and lands amid Terry Gilliam’s Python cut-outs.

Imagine, a film about the Holy Grail in which the hero’s quest is to find Albert Dekker. Well, it’s different, you gotta say.

Asides from that, Paul “Basil” Newman is torn between good girl Angeli and bad girl Virginia Mayo — who was also his childhood sweetheart back when she was Natalie Wood, which is unusual for a bad girl. Another way in which TSC is different.

“He’s as gentle as a lamb when he’s lamb-like,” says Mayo, speaking of JACK FUCKING PALANCE. It’s dialogue that straddles the line subsequently identified by David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel as separating clever from stupid. On the face of it, it’s a stupid thing to say, but it’s possible some higher wisdom lurks within. But not the way she says it. The way she says it is while wearing ludicrous false eyebrows, like a glam metal Groucho.

There may be circumstances under which a line like “Be comforted, my Basil,” could be gotten away with, but this film does not provide such circumstances. It doesn’t even hint that they may be arriving anytime soon.

“Why waste such a trophy on a multitude of sun-baked barbarians in Jerusalem?” Mayo is getting all the memorable lines. She should have gone on strike for less memorable lines.

Pier Angeli’s difficulty is her English, which is occasionally uncertain. “Jerusalem held a great ac-traction for you,” she manages to say. Since her father and grandfather are played by Americans, it’s hard to see why her character should be struggling with the language. If it weren’t for that, occasional flubs would be human and amusing, and Basil Newman could point them out and they could both laugh, which might be nice. Like when George Brent teases Kay Fwancis about her lisp in LIVING ON VELVET. Also, her name is Deborah, so it’s Basil and Deborah.

They get married in the next scene, a sham marriage (in a sham film) amid much rumbling and clanking from the camera dolly and the crew. “Rubber-soled shoes, what did I tell ya!” It’s not quite on a level with Mel Brooks’ parodic camera moves in HIGH ANXIETY, but shading towards it.

A character refers to Newman as “the artist who is called Basil,” which gives me Prince vibes. Then the Christ cup gets stolen so the film can finally be a grail quest. Although hopefully Albert Dekker will also turn up.

Then there’s a dramatic camel-mounted fight scene. Which has a few well-staged moments, a few lapses of basic continuity, and is sabotaged from below — it’s hard to look like you’re fighting for your life while mounted on something that persists in making Kenneth Williams faces. Joseph Wiseman has been making those faces all through this movie, and now, adding to the confusion, he’s atop a camel. A Wiseman on a camel is very fitting for a biblical-marginalia epic, but if I blinked rapidly I could convince myself the camel was atop Joseph Wiseman.

Rome! And a pretty fun orgy — sex can only be suggested by having vaguely exotic dancers, but the great trays of bizarre foodstuffs being hefted past an indifferent Nero (indifferently played by Jacques Aubuchon) get the idea over. Who but a colossal perv would eat “succulent dormice, saturated with poppy juice”? This is the biggest set yet, advancing designer Rolf Gerard’s Big Idea — expansive yet simple. The Muppet Show type niches create a not quite convincing impression of the lavish — I presume the statues within are repeating sets of photographs.

Special guest star Norma Varden (above, right) — the lady Robert Walker nearly chokes to death at a party in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN turns up here and avoids getting the same treatment from Jack Palance. Amazing that a bit player could have regular work as party guests, back in the day. Not actually the best job to have, since you don’t get to eat the food or drink the booze (which isn’t booze). Still, at least that allowed Norma to skip the dormice.

(On LES VISITEURS DU SOIR, filmed during WWII with serious food shortages, director Marcel Carne was so concerned that his starving extras would destroy the banquet by eating it before he could get all his shots, he had the food sprayed with poison before their very eyes. A props man friend tells me that today, to stop extras drinking from their glasses, he’s seen the “wine” distributed with fingers stuck in the liquid. A less disturbing variation of the same device.)

Palance’s magic tricks on this occasion consist mainly of producing large quantities of snakes, which reduce Nero to hysteria. I’m not sure snakes are THAT funny. The tricks depend more heavily on jump cuts than any illusion since the days of Melies — how Palance is supposed to be editing the film while he’s in it is a trick unexplained. Obviously, short of actually training Palance in legerdemain — and it would take a ballsy magician to attempt such a feat — David Blaine ain’t gonna cut it — the filmmakers could have used hidden cuts to create the illusion of stage magic, instead of conveying so blatantly to us that either Palance is the real messiah (“And what rough beast” indeed) or that he has the assistance of a member of ACE, which he has. The man’s name is George White, and I guess these are his scandals.

SILVER CHALICE is populated by people on their way up or on their way down (and out) — like any film, I guess, only more so. White cut THE NAKED SPUR and numerous films of Vincente Minnelli, from THE CLOCK on. If the film seems indifferently put together, I’m inclined to blame weaknesses in the material. White went straight from this into TV and B pictures: WOMEN OF THE PREHISTORIC PLANET and MUTINY IN OUTER SPACE lie ahead.

Magical duel! Palance is to challenge the apostle Peter to a battle of the wands, commissioned by Nero. I am definitely down for that: it promises to be terrible. Since Palance’s slight-of-hand is augmented by jump-cuts, what special effects wizardry will be drafted in on Peter’s side?