The Ten Commandments
50th Anniversary Edition (Paramount, 1956, 1923) D: Cecil B. DeMille, w/ Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner; Theodore Roberts, Charles de Rochefort. Rating: NNNN
No question, the 1956 version is the greatest high-kitsch epic ever put on film. It makes Titanic look like a school play: 20,000 extras, 600 chariots, sets the size of a small city, the absolutely awesome parting of the Red Sea, one of the best stories ever told and, not one, but two personal appearances by God.
Cecil B. DeMille's a genius at crowd scenes. Every extra tells a story; every mass flows with purpose and excitement. But in crowd scenes and two-shots alike, he composes with a master's eye, often swiping imagery from Doré or Michelangelo. Within the frame, every costume and prop is rich with colour and texture.
DeMille left actors alone to do their thing. Yul Brynner, Edward G. Robinson, Cedric Hardwicke and many more turn in fine, plummy performances, though only Robinson seems to be inhabiting an actual life.
That's the epic side. The high kitsch side offers a greeting-card sense of reverence and generous helpings of stilted posturing, dialogue and acting. But there was never a Biblical epic without them consider Harvey Keitel as Judas in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ.
High kitsch also brings us Moses as romantic lead and action hero. It is to laugh. Charlton Heston gives his all in the near-impossible role, and and he's not bad. But you can see the seed of the kitsch icon he became later in life.
The 1923 version is marked by almost the same virtues and flaws. DeMille had already made over 40 features, and his skills were well honed. But the silent version takes a twist by treating the Biblical part as prologue to a contemporary story of two brothers, a carpenter and an architect who breaks every commandment going. Leatrice Joy and Nita Naldi are standouts as good and bad girl respectively, and Rod La Rocque is great as the erring brother.
DeMille scholar Katherine Orrison gushes happily all over the commentary on both films, clearly in love with the director and his work. Between her and the retrospective making-of doc, we get a very good, if somewhat reverential, look behind the scenes.
EXTRAS Scholarly commentary, making-of doc, hand-tinted Red Sea sequence from 1923, newsreel. 1956 version: wide-screen. English, French soundtrack. English subtitles. 1923 version: theatrical ratio. English titles, French subtitles.
Made In Britain
(Blue Underground, 1982) D: Alan Clarke, w/ Tim Roth, Allister Bain. Rating: NNNN
The first time through this made-for-television offering, you think that Tim Roth is the whole show. As Trevor, a 16-year-old racist skinhead caught in the English social services system, he's a powerhouse of rage in motion. Highly energetic and unpredictable, he turns what might have been an ordinary social-problem TV movie into an exercise in edgy suspense.
In his engaging and informative commentary, Roth calls it a "naive" performance. If you look closely, you can see him overselling the rage now and then. But it's still a remarkable turn, all the more so because it's Roth's first film. Maybe this is where Vin Diesel lifted his tough-guy persona wholesale.
Second and third viewings reveal that his co-stars are just as good. The youth counsellors and cops are less flashy roles, but everyone turns in fine, naturalistic performances. No one looks weak beside Roth.
TV director Alan Clarke shot everything with steadicam and natural light, a highly innovative decision at the time. and very effective. Everything moves at Trevor's pace. Writer David Leland, best known for Mona Lisa, keeps structure and dialogue tightly focused on the issue at hand, wasting no more time on sentimentality than his characters do.
It was radical television in the 80s and remains compelling today.
EXTRAS Roth commentary, Leland and producer commentary, Roth interview. Original ratio.
(Paramount, 1953) D: Billy Wilder, w/ William Holden. Rating: NNN
Stalag 17 sits uneasily somewhere between drama and comedy and never fully commits to either, which may be why Billy Wilder liked it. Much of his best work, notably Double Indemnity, infuses disturbing undercurrents into apparently straightforward genre pieces.
Based on a Broadway hit written by a pair of actual POWs, the film presents the grim reality of prison-camp life in its gritty dialogue and mud-caked visuals. It opens with the focus on Animal and Shapiro, a pair of broad clowns who treat life as prisoners of the Nazis as one long joke. Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss are wonderful in the roles - they'd be right at home in Hogan's Heroes.
Beside them, the main drama unfolds slowly, almost in the background. Sefton (William Holden), an active trader with the enemy, loyal to no one but himself, has his barracks-mates increasingly convinced that he's spying for the Germans. It's easy to believe - Sefton goes out of his way to be despicable, a barely discernible sneer in his every word, disdain in every movement. It's a remarkable performance by a big movie star.
The two threads, Animal and Shapiro's retreat from reality and Sefton's dog-eat-dog worldview, neither collide nor coalesce. But the film works anyway, thanks to sharp acting, dialogue and direction.
The commentary track offers relatively little about the film, but it's interesting to listen to the recollections of the war sparked by its images.
EXTRAS Actors and co-playwright commentary, retrospective making-of doc, real POW doc, photo gallery. Theatrical aspect ratio, black-and-white.
(Alliance Atlantis, 2005) D: Mikael Hafstrom, w/ Clive Owen, Jennifer Aniston. Rating: NN
Pedestrian acting, writing, directing and visuals pretty much kill whatever suspense might have animated James Siegel's original novel.
A pair of married professionals engage in a night of illicit sex, but they're robbed and she's raped and he finds himself being blackmailed by the rapist. He can't go to the cops, and the more he tries to get free, the deeper he digs himself.
For this to work, we have to care about Clive Owen's harassed ad exec. But his problems are by-the-numbers and his life looks like something out of a Sears catalogue. He and Jennifer Aniston coast through the film, not engaged themselves or engaging us.
Mikael Hafstrom shoots it all like he's still doing TV: eye-level camera, standard cutting points and that annoying American dialogue style of line-pause-line-pause until you want to scream. It's supposed to make everything sound weighty. Yeah, the weight of crushing boredom.
EXTRAS Making-of doc, deleted scenes. Wide-screen.
Coming Tuesday, March 28
(Universal, 2005) Two-disc, wide-screen and full-screen editions of the second-best giant gorilla movie ever made.
3 Films By Louis Malle
(Criterion) Murmur Of The Heart (1971), Lacombe, Lucien (1974), Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987). Three strong films by the director of Pretty Baby, Atlantic City and My Dinner With Andre.
Don't Deliver Us From Evil
(Mondo Macabro, 1970) Disturbing French exploitationer trash about homicidal teen girls.
Get Rich Or Die Tryin'
(Universal, 2005) Rapper 50 Cent as a dope dealer who wants to be a rapper. This is what they call high concept.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb