Archive for The Greatest Story Ever Told

Moses strikes poses

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2021 by dcairns

An amusing irony: Howard Hawks said he learned what NOT to do by looking at DeMille’s films, then when he made his own ancient world epic, LAND OF THE PHARAOHS, he ran into the famous “I don’t know how a pharaoh talks” problem, which DeMille had, you could say, solved: in DeMille films, pharaohs talk like characters in Cecil B. DeMille films.

Never more so that in the 1956 TEN COMMANDMENTS where Yul Brunner is at his Yul Brynneriest throughout. (Yet Cedric Hardwicke comes within shouting distance of humanity at times.) But the one, true biscuit is taken by Chuckles Heston, who starts out in his version of naturalism — declamatory, gravelly, planting his feet wide apart, flexing, heaving the words up from his solar plexus — but becomes something wholly other once Moses gets religion…

In prophet mode, Heston produces a form of “acting” I’m not sure we’ve really seen before. Maybe it’s what D.W. Griffith would have sounded like if his 1908 semaphore could be translated into spoken form. It has something in common with the ghosts in Japanese movies — think RASHOMON. It has nothing in common with human speech.

The best example is when Rameses finally frees the Israelites: we have to blame the script for some of it, though DeMille in his intro claims that history is really to blame. Moses starts speechifying — then walks out of the scene, still declaiming. You can hear his voice diminishing in the distance for close to a minute. Who does that? Rod Steiger does it in THE BIG KNIFE, playing a lunatic film producer of the L.B. Mayer variety. Charles Haid does it in ALTERED STATES, to hilarious effect. In the first case, a character point is being made, in the second, Ken Russell was forced to include a lot of talk he didn’t particularly care for, so he tried to dispose of it in novel ways. No such excuse exists here. Moses is just being written as a nutjob, unintentionally.

If you’re inclined to laugh at infant mortality, this film has much to offer, but this scene is the finest example, because the army of scribes has taken care to insert between Heston’s wooden lips pointed references to the liberation of the CHILDREN of Israel (DeMille has made the whole story an anti-commie tract), timed to coincide/clash with Anne Baxter descending a grand staircase with her divinely slain son in her arms. Which tends to make Moses seem every bit as crass as Heston giving one of his NRA speeches in the wake of a school shooting.

This moment, jaw-dropping though it is, is just a preliminary to Moses’ Big Hair acting in the film’s third act. Chuckles has looked in the mirror and asked himself, what would a guy who looks like THIS talk like? Big mistake. I can’t describe what he does. It involves BOOMING. The oratorical style might be defensible when Moses is speaking to the masses, as he so often is in this section. But he keeps it up for casual conversation. Booming banter. Supremely confident terrible acting.

For a few minutes, I thought I was going to find the film’s weird non-naturalism fascinating, the stiffness of its blocking and delivery hypnotic and kind of impressive. But it’s not quite rigid ENOUGH. The tableau style of GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is more my bag — genuinely experimental.

When Scorsese talks about the power of DeMille’s images, he seems to mainly be talking about the effects shots, and I think maybe we should credit the storyboard artists and John P. Fulton and his team, though I guess DeMille is responsible for approving everything. But I think it’s fair to say that none of the film’s undeniably impressive images have any good acting in them. (Only Edward G. Robinson is good in this, though I wish he’d played it at a Warner pre-code pace. As the only Jewish actor, naturally he plays the Bad Jew. Oh, and Yvonne DeCarlo, gamely battling her dialogue like Jason struggling with the hydra: whenever one terrible line is defeated, two more rise to take its place.)

I can understand Scorsese’s residual affection for a film he was impressed by as a kid. But I don’t think it’s objectively better than the Marvel and DC films he rightly dismisses.

Touchingly, Moses waves goodbye to us/his people at the end of the film, which was DeMille’s last as director. He clearly wanted to get the most out of it, which is why he narrates huge swathes, patiently describing what we can already see, sometimes sneakily suggesting debauchery and wickedness he’s not allowed to show us, much though he would love to.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS stars Major Dundee; King Mongkut of Siam; Lucy Morgan; Caesar Enrico ‘Rico’ Bandello; Lily Munster; Shila – Cleopatra’s Daughter; Hajji Baba; Arthur Winslow; Julia Ross; Ellie Hilliard; Mrs. Danvers; Prince Prospero; Hatfield; Athos; The Black-Bearded One; Actor on DeMille’s ‘Samson & Delilah’ Set; Jesus – the Christ; John Miljan – Actor in Bedroom Scene; 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge; Scar / Cicatriz; Hatfield; Donald Pecos – aka The Pecos Kid; Dr. Franz Edlemann; Samson Posey; Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis; Judas; Norman Frink; Alvin Straight; Mary Todd Lincoln; Chubby Bannister; Lucifer Jr; Alfalfa; Napoleon Solo; and Herb Alpert as himself.

My Two Centurions

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , on March 17, 2021 by dcairns

There didn’t seem to be any reason for it to happen, but while discussing 55 DAYS AT PEKING with Shadowplayer Randall William Cook yesterday, I flashed on the quite unrelated idea that George Stevens should have cast his old chums Laurel & Hardy in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD.

After all, everyone else was in it. The boys had to have felt left out. And they wouldn’t have been any more absurdly distracting than John Wayne.

We started imagining dialogue: “Well, Stanlius, this is another great story you’ve gotten me into.”

Randy topped that: “Truly, this man was the son of God.” “He certainly was.”

I imagined Ollie stepping on a nail. Randy supplied the line: “OOOH HOO HOOO!”

Max Von Sydow looks down compassionately.

Then I realized that Stevens would never have cast Stan and Max in the same film owing to the danger of audience confusion.

It was only this morning that I realized that Ollie died in 1957 and TGSET was made in 1965. But anything’s possible if you have imagination. Use out-takes from THE BOHEMIAN GIRL? The costumes are close enough. I mean, if the audience is bothered by the sudden switch to academy ratio and black and white and the appearance of a dead comedian in the wrong clothes, I think it’s fair to say you’ve already lost them.

(In fairness to Stevens, he DID cast Ed Wynn in a dramatic role, and the guy’s good, too. I kind of like TGSET as an experimental film: the tableau style is really radical. It’s kind of boring to watch, but so are a lot of experimental films if you’re looking for the wrong things in them.)

Clodbusters

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2013 by dcairns

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It’s pretty rare for me to find a movie I haven’t seen since I was a kid — when I do, it sometimes comes with a rush of nostalgic emotion. SHANE was like that — as part of my all-too-slow trek through the films of George Stevens, I ran it with Fiona, who had read the book at school but couldn’t recall if she had watched the movie. When I last saw it, I was probably the age of Brandon de Wilde in the film.

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In some George Stevens films, the long-standing belief that “he shoots in a circle” — covering the whole action from every possible angle and distance — is hard to reconcile with the evidence of the finished film. The tableau staging of THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is one example, with the director content to let scenes play out in long shot. A PLACE IN THE SUN is almost as striking when it does the same thing — there’s a truly bold scene when Monty Clift turns up late for Shelley Winters’ birthday, where Stevens keeps his camera outside the window looking in throughout the three minute forty second sequence shot, with both his stars quite small in frame, and for a key part of the scene their faces turned so we can’t actually see either of them (he back is to camera and he’s hidden behind her). The effect of awkwardness and tension is palpable. If he did shoot that scene from nine different angles, I’m even more impressed by his courage in going with that one.

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SHANE shows the extreme coverage style more clearly — it’s cut FAST, and nearly every cut reveals a new angle, rather than intercutting two repeated compositions. Veteran editor William Hornbeck collaborated new hand Tom McAdoo, and their cutting does a few quite modern things. Firstly, it compresses time — we’re frequently changing angle to jump out pauses and longeurs, violating continuity just enough to energize the movie, not enough to be glaring or disturb the audience. Secondly, the cutting is deliberately disruptive during fight scenes, surprising the viewer with unexpected angles and juxtapositions of compositions, making the eye work hard to increase the sense of dynamism (the bar-fight uses exaggerated sounds of breaking glass and crashing furniture to increase the violence; a punch-up at the farm is accompanied by all kinds of bucking and thrashing animals). In other words, the cutting is deliberately obfuscating the action, creating a sense of confusion and a feeling that we have to stay alert or we might miss the key punch. This chaos effect isn’t pursued to Christopher Nolan BATMAN BEGINS levels (thank Christ) but it shows a more intelligent and sensitive application of a similar idea.

By contrast, there are also scenes reminiscent of that PLACE IN THE SUN scene where Stevens holds a shot for longer than you can believe he’d dare. When the death of a supporting character is reported, Stevens films from a great distance, through foreground horses, with foreground horse noise drowning out most of the dialogue. I’m not even sure why — maybe the same impulse that had Brueghel portray the fall of Icarus as a single detail in a broad landscape.

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Finally, the film contains not only dialogue that almost recurs in TAXI DRIVER — “You speakin’ to me?” “Well I don’t see nobody else standing there” — but also a visual trick. What I call a jump dissolve removes the middle of a shot of Jack Palance crossing a room, so that he melts through space in a strange, dreamlike and menacing manner. Compare to Travis Bickle’s walk up the street after his job interview…

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Stevens plays with film grammar in the fifties — those languorous lap dissolves that make the kissing faces of Clift and Taylor melt into one another in A PLACE IN THE SUN — in a way that practically no other Hollywood filmmaker was doing, save Hitchcock. Nicholas Ray had a more iconoclastic tone, but his style was actually more formal. Discuss.