Film Review: The Ten Commandments (dir by Cecil B. DeMille)

Though you may not know it if you’ve only seen the film during one of its annual showings on television, the 1956 religious epic, The Ten Commandments, originally opened with director Cecil B. DeMille standing on a stage.  Speaking directly to the audience, DeMille explains that, though the film they’re about to see me take some dramatic license with the story of Moses, it still based on not just the Bible but also the accounts of Philo, Josephus and Eusebius.  He also tells us that The Ten Commandments is more than just an adaptation of the Book of Exodus.  Instead, it’s a film about every man’s desire to be free.

Demille concludes with: “The story will take 3 hours and 29 minutes to unfold.  There will be an intermission. Thank you for your attention.”

To be honest, it’s kind of a sweet moment.  Cecil B. DeMille is a name that is so associated with (occasionally overblown) epic filmmaking that it’s easy to forget that DeMille was one of the most important names in the artistic development of American cinema.  He was there from the beginning and, unlike a lot of other filmmakers, he was equally successful in both the silent and the sound era.  Say what you will about his films, DeMille was a showman and he handles the introduction like a pro.  At the same time, there’s a real sincerity to DeMille’s tone.  After you listen to him, you’d almost feel guilty if you didn’t sit through all 3 hours and 29 minutes of his film.

That sincerity extends throughout the entire film.  Yes, The Ten Commandments is a big, long epic and some members of its all-star cast are more convincing in their roles than others.  And yes, the film can seem a bit campy to modern viewers.  (In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if it seemed a bit campy to viewers in 1956 as well.)  Yes, The Ten Commandments does feature Anne Baxter saying, “Oh Moses!  You sweet adorable fool!”  But it doesn’t matter.  Even the most ludicrous of dialogue just seem right.  The film is just so sincere that it’s difficult not to enjoy it.

In the Book of Exodus, Moses is described as having a speech impediment and even tries to use it as an excuse to get out of going to Egypt.  That’s actually one of the reasons why Moses brought Aaron with him to Egypt, so that Aaron could speak for him.  In the movie, Moses is played by Charlton Heston, who comes across as if he’s never felt a moment of insecurity over the course of his entire life.  But no matter.  Heston may not by the Moses of Exodus but he’s the perfect Moses for the DeMille version.  When Heston says that Egypt will be visited by plagues until his adopted brother Ramses (Yul Brynner) agrees to allow the Jews to leave Egypt, you believe every word.  (Aaron, incidentally, is played by the legendary John Carradine.  He doesn’t get too much other than respectfully stand a few feet behind Charlton Heston but still: John Carradine!)

And really, anyone who dismisses The Ten Commandments out-of-hand should go back and, at the very least, watch the scene where the Angel of Death descends upon Egypt.  The scene where Moses and his family shelter in place while the screams of distraught mothers echo throughout the city is chilling.  Ramses may spend most of the film as a petulant villain but you almost feel sorry for him when you see him mourning over his dead son.  When he sets off after Moses, it’s not just because he’s doing what villains do.  He’s seeking vengeance for the loss of his first born.  For that brief moment, Ramses goes form being a melodramatic bad guy to being someone with whom the viewer can empathize.  Brynner, with his burning intensity, gives a great performance as Ramses.

As I said before, this film has what, in 1956, would have been considered an all-star cast.  Watching the names as they show up during the opening credits — Cedrick Hardwicke!  Yvonne DeCarlo!  Woody Strode!  Debra Paget! — is like stepping into a TCM fever dream.  Some of the performers give better performance than others.  And yet, even the worst performer feels as if they just naturally belong in the world that DeMille has created.  John Derek may seem rather smarmy as Joshua but his callowness provides a good contrast to the upright sincerity of Heston’s performance as Moses.  Edward G. Robinson’s cries of, “Where is your God now!?” may have provided endless fodder for impersonators but just try to imagine the film without him.  Even Vincent Price is in this thing!  He doesn’t have his famous mustache but, as soon as you hear his voice and see that famous glare, you know that it’s him.

Of course, when you’re growing up and The Ten Commandments is on TV every year, you mostly just want to see the scene where Moses parts the Red Sea.  The Ten Commandments was nominated for seven Oscars but it only won one, for its special effects.  (The prize for Best Picture went to another epic, Around The World In 80 Days.)  Today, the film’s special effects may no longer amaze viewers but there’s still something rather charming about the Red Sea parting and then crashing in on the Egyptian army.  The scene where the Earth opens up and swallows those who worshiped the Golden Calf remains impressive, if just because all of the extras really look terrified that they might die.  And while the Pillar of Fire may look a bit cartoonish to modern eyes, that’s a huge part of the film’s appeal.

The Ten Commandments is a big, long, sometimes silly, sometimes effective, and always entertaining epic.  It’s a grand spectacle and one that I usually watch every year when it shows up on television.  I missed this year’s showing but, fortunately, I own it on DVD.  It’s a sincere epic and a difficult one not to like.


The International Lens: Breathless (dir by Jean-Luc Godard)

The 1960 French film, Breathless, tells the story two people, a French criminal named Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and an American student named Patricia (Jean Seberg).

Michel is a criminal but it’s hard not to like him.  Some of that is due to the fact that he’s played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, a charmingly off-center actor whose confidence and refusal to pretend to be anything other than what he was made him appealing even if he was not exactly handsome.  The other reason why it’s easy to like Michel is because, no matter how many crimes he commits, you get the feeling that he’s just playing a role.  He dresses like he belongs in a 30s gangster movie and a lot of his attitude has obviously been borrowed from Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.  Even the way he smokes a cigarette feels like an affectation.  He’s a kid, playing dress-up.  One almost gets the feeling that he knows he’s a character in a movie and he’s going out of his way to give the audience what they expect.

When we first see Michel, he’s stealing a car.  He drives around the French countryside.  He dismissively observes two hitchhikers.  A few times, he appears to speak directly to the audience.  Is he musing out loud or is he acknowledging that there’s a film camera in the passenger’s seat?  It’s hard to say.  When Michel gets pulled over by a cop, Michel shoots him.  Or does he?  The scene is edited in such a way that it’s hard to say for sure.  Maybe the cameraman shot the cop.  Maybe director Jean-Luc Godard shot the cop.  Not that it matters.  Michel is the one who is now wanted for murder.

With the authorities now determined to catch him and his face in all of the newspapers, Michel flees to Paris.  That’s where his girlfriend, Patricia, lives.  Patricia is an American student who aspires to be a journalist.  She sells copies of the New York Herald Tribune while walking around Paris.  Despite her journalistic ambitions, Patricia does not know that her boyfriend is wanted for murder.  Then again, boyfriend might not be the right word.  That would suggest more of a commitment than either one shows much interest in maintaining.

Michel hides out at Patricia’s apartment and, at one point, Patricia tells Michel that she might be pregnant with his baby.  Michel promptly blames her for not being “careful” and we’re never quite sure if Patricia is telling the truth or not.  While Michel hides out from the police and tries to figure out how to get enough money to flee to Italy, he and Patricia discuss …. things.  (It is a French film, after all.  It’s also a Godard film and, even if this film does feature Godard at his least pretentious, there’s still no way you’re going to get through a Godard film without at least a little conversation about the meaning of life.)  Michel is resigned to the idea of living in the moment and seems to be somewhat death obsessed.  Patricia remains optimistic and looks forward to the future.  Michel complains that Americans always make heroes out of the wrong Frenchmen.

Do Michel and Patricia love each other?  Who knows?  By the end of the film, one of them has betrayed the other and we’re not quite sure why.  One is dead and the other seems oddly ambivalent and rather confused about the whole thing.

One of the seminal works of the French new wave, Breathless was the directorial debut of Jean-Luc Godard, who was working from a story treatment that was originally written by Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol.  When it was first released, Breathless reportedly stunned audience by using techniques — like frequent jump cuts, location shooting, and the use of a handheld camera — that are now so familiar that we take them for granted.  That said, even if Godard’s techniques are no longer shocking, Breathless remains an exciting film to watch.  It’s not just the Michel and Patricia are frequently breathless.  One also gets the feeling that Godard was breathless behind the camera, trying to keep up with the story that he was telling.  This is a film that, much like it’s lead characters, never stops moving.  Indeed, a huge reason why the film’s finale remains powerful is because it’s the first time that anyone in the film truly seems to be still.  The viewer has gotten so used to the film’s frenetic energy that it’s a shock when it all comes to an end.

It’s been written that there are two eras of cinema — pre-Breathless and post-Breathless.  I don’t know if that’s true but it is impossible to watch Breathless and not see what a huge influence it’s had on every crime film that has followed.  Every film about lovers-on-the-run probably owes at least a minor debt to Breathless.  It’s one of those films that you simply have to see, both because of it’s historic importance and also just because it’s a damn good movie.  It’s a film that’s in love with cinema and, by the time things come to a close, you’ll be in love with it too.

Two From Mike Centeno : “The Cutaneous Adventures Of P.L. Dermes”

Ryan C.'s Four Color Apocalypse

Once in awhile, if you’re like me (in which case I’m sorry), there’s nothing that does the trick like a little bit of gross-out humor. It’s old-school in the extreme, sure, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have something to say about not just personal struggles but contemporary life in general when done well, and that’s where Mike Centeno and his self-published mini, The Cutaneous Adventures Of P.L. Dermes, come into the picture.

Well, almost. This book’s uniquely elongated format is tough to get “into the picture” in a physical sense, presenting as it does one four-panel strip per one-sided page on blue paper between yellow covers, all riso-printed, but admittedly fun presentation aside, it’s the fact that its contents are pretty tough to get out of your head that makes it worth your time — provided you’re equipped with a reasonably strong constitution, of course.

These strips originally…

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Two From Mike Centeno : “Fine”

Ryan C.'s Four Color Apocalypse

A staggeringly, tragically large number of people are losing their grandparents right now “thanks” to COVID-19 — and that’s a loss that, for most, both stings and sticks with you. Our grandparents are more than just our mom’s mom, our dad’s dad, or what have you, after all — when they’re still with us, they represent a living connection to our family’s past; to the past in a general sense. And when that’s gone — when they’re gone — so is a big part of where we’ve come from, and an even bigger part of what made us who we are.

There’s no “solution” to grief, of course, and I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but the concept of “closure” is a lie — but that doesn’t mean we can’t move forward with the lessons out grandparents taught us, indeed the grounding they gave us, never far…

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Get Christie Love! (1974, directed by William A. Graham)

When Captain Reardon (Harry Guardino) discovers that there’s a ledger that contains information that could bring down Los Angeles drug lord Enzo Cortino (Paul Stevens), he decides that the best way to get the ledger is through the drug lord’s mistress, Helena Varga (Louise Sorel).  To get Helena to betray Cortino, he’s going to have to discover what makes her tick.  He’s going to have to send someone undercover to find out all there is to know about Helena.  It’s time to get Christie Love!

Teresa Graves plays Christie Love, a tough and beautiful woman who is also the best undercover cop in Los Angeles.  She goes from busting a serial killer (played by Ron Rifkin) and investigating Helena’s life.  Along the way, she deals with by-the-book superiors, incompetent assassins, and hapless bureaucrats.  She throws one killer bellboy off of a hotel balcony and she lets a crook know that, “You’re under arrest, sugar!”

Get Christie Love! was an attempt to a do a made-for-TV version of a Blaxploitation film and the results are mixed.  While the movie features the expected car chases and a handful of fights, it’s still limited by what was considered to be acceptable for prime time in 1974.  Pam Grier may have blown someone’s head off in close-up in Coffy but, in Get Christie Love!, the camera always cuts away as soon as Christie throws her final punch.  Teresa Graves is likable as Christie Love but, unlike the best Blaxploitation heroes, she’s working inside the system and she never has any mixed feelings about being a cop.  The fight scenes are particularly disappointing because they’re edited in such a way that it’s obvious that most of the work was being done by the stunt crew.  The best scenes are not the action scenes but the ones that emphasize Christie’s intelligence and that feature her doing old-fashioned detective work, investigating Helena’s life and putting the clues together.

Get Christie Love! was enough of a rating success that it led to a short-lived television series.  It’s historically significant because it was the first hour-long drama to feature an African-American female in the lead role.  (It was the second series to do so overall, after Julia, which starred Diahann Carroll.)  The show only lasted a season but it achieved pop cultural immortality when, years later, Quentin Tarantino used it as a reference in Reservoir Dogs.


Music Video of the Day: Looks That Kill by Motley Crue (1983, directed by ????)

This is a really dumb video but it’s Mötley Crüe so why should that come as a surprise?

Like almost every heavy metal video that came out in the early 80s, this one is set in an apocalyptic future.  There’s a group of women who look like they just escaped from a dress rehearsal for Cats. Mötley Crüe shows up looking like KISS and carrying torches.  There’s a battle.  The band puts the women in a cage and then performs a concert for them, which I don’t know if you want your music video to say that you have to actually imprison people to force them to listen to your band.  One of the women fights back.  The video ends with a pentagram because Satan’s cool.

It’s Mötley Crüe.  It really doesn’t demand much thought and at least Kip Winger’s not in the band.  I may think it’s stupid but you know who probably loved this video?  These two: