Archive for March 3, 2023

Chalice in Wonderland

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2023 by dcairns

“There’s no place like Rome!” effuses Albert Dekker, barging back into THE SILVER CHALICE with wholly inappropriate gusto. “Someone actually wrote that?” asked Fiona, wandering into the living room to find me numbed to somnolence by the movie’s relentless onslaught of leaden verbiage and gaucherie.

A servant of two masters, Paul Newman as Basil is sculpting Jesus and Nero at the same time, rendering unto Caesar I suppose. We then get, by way of climax, Jack Palance — as Simon Magus, a “real” biblical figure — trying to prove the superiority of his magic over that of the Christians. He causes to be built — by enslaved Christians, adding insult to injury — a Great Tower, from the top of which he promises to fly. This is initially going to be done via a concealed contraption, a bronze wheel and rod arrangement. A meaty assistant will crank a lever causing Palance to orbit the tower on the end of this rod, which will be invisible to the audience and emperor below because, as we all know, bronze cannot be seen when held up to the sky. It’s absolutely foolproof, at least enough to convince Virginia Mayo, and we all know what a stickler she is.

I can’t really be bothered with anything Paul Newman does from here on in because he’s a complete bystander in the film’s rivetting concluslion. Palance, crosseyed with hubris, decides that he’s going to fly for real, wearing a bat-cape (which may be why he was cast in the Burton BATMAN) and a leotard printed for some reason with tadpoles or black spermatozoa. I guess the idea really is a phallic one — our man is, after all, going to come popping out the top of a great erection, his skintight cossie alive with little swimmers. Costume design is credited jointly to Rolf Gerard (also the fiend responsible for prod des) and Marjorie Best on the IMDb, but in the film she has a mysterious “Wardrobe Executed by” credit and he has only Production Design. If both are true, then the film’s great achievements in Stylistic Unity can certainly be laid at Rolf’s wardrobe door, while Best, a very experienced movie costumier, was presumably forced at gunpoint to carry out the schemes.

The script has promised us a magical duel between Saint Peter and Simon Magus (who is annoyingly never referred to by that really cool name). But we don’t get a fun Merlin-Madame Mim battle, nor a Dr. Craven vs. Dr. Scarabus one. Peter sits this one out. Various biblical apocrypha describe Simon actually flying, and Peter sabotaging his maiden flight with a well-aimed prayer, causing the soaring sinner to crash to earth in several pieces. (Accounts vary: one bloodthirsty version has Simon smashed up by the fall, then stoned by his disappointed fans, and finally bled to death by the surgeons labouring to save him. But this is act three, we’re in a hurry, folks.)

I would have liked to see that ending, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy what Victor Saville and Lesser Samuels served up. Palance, going fully off his rocker (and, to be fair, this can be used to retroactively justify JP’s very eccentric performance up to this point), mounts the tower. Virginia Mayo sends the chunky flunky after him to stop him breaking his neck. Good high and low angles. Jack executes a magnificent swan dive into the studio floor.

Various species of chaos now erupt. Nero, for no particular reason, orders Mayo thrown off the tower. “If she can fly, her life will be spared.” Fiona at this point reasoned that since the hefty bronze rod operator is already up the tower, Virginia ought to be able to pull off Palance’s planned levitation trick. But we never see this and the assumption has to be that she dies. It would make a great reveal in a sequel, THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF HELENA FROM THE SILVER CHALICE, but alas it was not to be.

Screenwriter Lesser Samuels’ talent may have deserted him, but his brain — alas! — is still working. As Basil and Deborah sail off into a brown sort of sunset, St. Pete (Lorne Green of Bonanza!) gives a big speech in which he predicts the rise of skyscrapers and electric light bulbs. This ties in with the curious panelled design of Simon’s tower of power — it’s a prophetic sculpture of a skyscraper. The story COULD have enlisted Basil to work on it — a silver rod for Palance might have made more sense than a bronze one — but making him entirely passive was thought preferable. Peter’s bizarre monologue about the twentieth century is needed to explain how the Holy Grail vanishing could possibly be a positive thing — apparently it’s going to turn up sometime soon and maybe do some good. Keep watching the shelves!