Archive for Sodom und Gomorrah

Nile Bodgers

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2015 by dcairns

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Marvelous Mary came to tea and she had just seen THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD on the big screen and enjoyed it apart from Errol’s wig (which he designed himself) and expressed an interest in Michael Curtiz. Unfortunately for her, I had recently acquired some late Curtiz which I was curious about but also somewhat afraid of, and took this opportunity to plonk THE EGYPTIAN in the Panasonic. My intention had been merely to sample it, assess how boring, stiff and laboured it was, and then move onto something fun, but it was SO life-sappingly dull and devoid of humanity that we found ourselves subjugated to it. It crept by like an anamorphic Sunday afternoon, and we were pinned to the couch, helpless to escape the hieroglyphic onslaught.

Afterwards, to inject some vim back into the Shadowplayhouse, I ran THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE, a 1935 Perry Mason romp helmed by Curtiz in happier days, but by then both MM and Fiona were exhausted, and become probably the only audience in history to sit through THE EGYPTIAN, wide awake, and then fall asleep during the peppy post-code, which stars Warren William and Allen Jenkins and is a lot of fun. Perry Mason never actually makes it into a courtroom in any of the Warner Bros. films, doing all his lawyering on the hoof. This is maybe the snappiest and silliest of them all, with a particularly cheerful coroner and even a helpful man in a condemned cell (put there by Mason but philosophical about it) who doesn’t let his impending execution stop him adding to the general high spirits.

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Levity is in short supply in THE EGYPTIAN, a movie Brando busted out of, which gives you some idea. He was happy to play Napoleon, happy to don yellowface (as “Sakini”), but he couldn’t see himself as an ancient Egyptian doctor, breaking his contract and hightailing it and forcing them to recast. But was Edmund Purdom really necessary? To say that Purdom is no Brando is not to say much. But he’s barely even Edmund Purdom. Where other actors have presence, he offers only absence. His infallible technique for raising the dramatic interest in a scene is to exit it.

But in fairness, nobody else is particularly good. Jean Simmons can make no impression as a saintly tavern wench, a combination of personality and job description which may possible be playable but is no fun to play. Peter Ustinov has the only good lines, giving a dozen different explanations of how he lost his eye, and gives a masterclass in gruesome ham when he has to remove a ruby concealed in his empty socket. Gene Tierney is glamorous but glacial. Only John Carradine — weirdly — suggests a human being, even as his appearance suggests an articulated scarecrow on wires. Did he look at what everyone else was doing and decide that his usual declamatory mode wouldn’t cut it, and a conversational tone would allow him to stand out, a breath of fresh air in the Cinemascope desert? Did Curtiz terrorize him into new-found naturalism (unlikely: Ustinov thought his director was pretty out of it, not only linguistically challenged but mentally, after too many years of unquestioned, murderous tyranny). Or did Purdom’s suffusing tedium simply rob him of the bluster and gusto that powered his thespian excesses and leave him no option but simply to talk, like a person?

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John Carradine holding a shovel is better than Edmund Purdom holding anything.

Photography by Leon Shamroy, the Queen of Technicolor, was gorgeous — much better than his work on ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA which is curiously pallid. His usual complimentary colour schemes (gold and cobalt blue, the orange and teal of their day) are perhaps more muted than in the lusciously lurid LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, but still saturated enough to provide some relief from the soporific Nile-based  shenanigans.

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In a sense, Curtiz was coming full circle with his late epics — this and FRANCIS OF ASSISSI, which I haven’t steeled myself to — echo silent works from his German period like SODOM UND GOMORRHA and DIE SKLAVENKONEGIN, which likewise brought out his more turgid side but which are a walk in the park compared to THE EGYPTIAN. At least he still had good work to do — he followed this with two Christmas flicks (he was born on Christmas Eve), the boring WHITE CHRISTMAS and the snappy, black-hearted WE’RE NO ANGELS, which is maybe his best colour film after DR. X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM… oh, and THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.

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The Pentecost Sunday Intertitle: Moses Supposes

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , on May 27, 2012 by dcairns

Bloke goes up mountain for forty days (and nights), comes back with a couple of stone slabs, claims they’ve been inscribed by the finger of God. So, what’s he been doing up there? Waiting? Why couldn’t God show up in a more timely fashion?

If I were of a more suspicious nature, I’d suggest that Ol’ Mose might have spent at least some of that time with a chisel, and the rest of it rehearsing a convincing story. As George Harrison says in HELP! (while being pursued by a faux-Hindu death cult), “I don’t want to knock anyone’s religion, but…”

Mind you, Cecil B. DeMille and his collaborators have knocked up some smashing compositions here.

I did a quick internet search and came across the claim that Moses was forty when he left Egypt. Theodore Roberts, who plays him here, was over sixty, and looks older. If that’s Moses at forty, I’m skeptical of the Bible’s claim that he lived to be a hundred and twenty.

Interesting that in 1922 we get Michael Curtiz’s SODOM AND GOMORRAH in ’23 we get the DeMille, and in 1928 Curtiz makes NOAH’S ARK, each of which embeds a bible tale within a contemporary narrative it’s supposed to reflect upon. What’s interesting is that this form, explicitly intended to show the continuing relevance of the Old Testament, has disappeared from the cinema. Can you think of another example since the silent era? It seems to me that by concentrating on purely period bible yarns, Hollywood was treating the stories as escapism, without contemporary relevance…

In a very different way, Kieslowski’s DEKALOG may have a similar mission to the silent spectaculars, I guess.

Buy — The Ten Commandments (Two-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

The Sunday Intertitle: Exterminating Angel

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2011 by dcairns

Strange, isn’t it, how little-seen the early work of Michael Curtiz is? Or perhaps not so much strange as symptomatic — the desire of the auteur movement to see filmmakers justify their seriousness by exploring recurring themes tends to exclude Curtiz, whose reputation is that of a guy mainly interested in shiny floors. There’s the sadism, which turns up frequently in the Errol Flynn movies and also in his on-set behaviour, but sadism and shiny floors are apparently not enough to build an auteur reputation.

Of course, CASABLANCA is revered, as are a number of other MC movies, including his pre-code work almost en masse. But much of that is credited to “the genius of the system” and the kind of film buffs who most often praise CASABLANCA are those who don’t care so much about directors. The fact that the film was shot without a clear ending in mind is used to suggest that great films just happen as freakish accidents. I don’t want to insult the movie gods by suggesting they don’t play a key role, but the skills of a director like Curtiz count for something too.

You will never in a million years guess who this is. Scroll to bottom of page to find out.

To embrace Curtiz as artist, you need to accept his concentration on the visual surface as his work as neither strength nor weakness, but simply fact: it’s the kind of filmmaker he was.

A ragged angel arrives to kick some ass.

And so to SODOM AND GOMORRAH, made in 1922 in Germany when Mike Curtiz was Mihaly Kertesz, even though he was born Mano Kertesz Kaminer. It’s a historically very revealing work, and still quite enjoyable.

Since Curtiz’s Hollywood biblical spectacular NOAH’S ARK has just enjoyed an American DVD release, it’s interesting to compare it with the earlier silent epic. Like ARK, and DeMille’s first version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, it folds its Old Testament folderol into a contemporary narrative designed to show the continuing relevance of the yarn. You need a mega-budget for this, as such continuing relevance may not be obvious unless you have a fortune to throw at it.

A single boudoir scene of S&G contains enough sheer beauty to supply the town of Bedford for a year.

In S&G, we meet a sleazy oligarch, Georg Reimers, fresh from wiping out his competitors on the stock exchange, who throws a colossal orgiastic party (it’s pretty mild, really) to celebrate his engagement. His son arrives, with friendly priest Victor Varconi in tow, and immediately falls for dad’s betrothed (the interesting Lucy Doraine, real-life wife of Curtiz), who’s just provoked a suicide attempt by her former lover, a sculptor who’s been working on a statue of her entitled “Sodom” (secretly, I believe she may have been justified in calling it off on this basis alone).

As the events reach an anti-climax, the femme fatale takes a nap and has a dream in which she provokes one man to murder the other, is sentenced to hang, and then has another dream within the dream in which she’s in ancient Sodom. The dramatis personae of the modern movie are recast as biblical, or at least epic movie, personalities, with the priest as the destructive angel come to demolish the sinning cities (as in Robert Aldrich’s SODOM AND GOMORRAH, the second city of the title never actually shows up). Doraine finds herself playing, with Lynchian ease, both Lot’s wife and the Queen of Syria.

It’s what I call an epic!

Apart from its seemingly influential narrative structure (I mean the embedded bible tale, not the loopy dream-within-a-dream bit) S&G looks forward to later German mega-productions like METROPOLIS, and even stuff like RAN where no direct influence is likely — check out the final destruction of the city, above.

Did this movie influence DeMille’s TEN COMMANDMENTS, released the following year? Or was the idea of bible tales with modern bookends something in the air? At any rate, it’s useful to see a film like S&G, which fills in some blanks in film history, as well as being a peculiar and impressive piece of work in its own right.

Now, the answer to the mystery posed above —

Who’d have thought the slender, puppyish youth in S&G could be Walter Slezak?