Film Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir by George Stevens)


The 1965 biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, tells the story of the life of Jesus, from the Nativity to the Ascension.  It’s probably the most complete telling of the story that you’ll ever find.  It’s hard to think of a single details that’s left out and, as a result, the film has a four hour running time.  Whether you’re a believer or not, that’s a really long time to watch a reverent film that doesn’t even feature the campy excesses of something like The Ten Commandments.

(There’s actually several different version of The Greatest Story Ever Told floating around.  There’s a version that’s a little over two hours.  There’s a version that’s close to four hours.  Reportedly, the uncut version of the film ran for four hour and 20 minutes.)

Max von Sydow plays Jesus.  On the one hand, that seems like that should work because Max von Sydow was a great actor who gave off an otherworldly air.  On the other hand, it totally doesn’t work because von Sydow gives an oddly detached performance.  The Greatest Story Ever Told was von Sydow’s first American film and, at no point, does he seem particularly happy about being involved with it.  von Sydow is a very cerebral and rather reserved Jesus, one who makes his points without a hint of passion or charisma.  When he’s being friendly, he offers up a half-smile.  When he has to rebuke his disciples for their doubt, he sounds more annoyed than anything else.  He’s Jesus if Jesus was a community college philosophy professor.

The rest of the huge cast is populated with familiar faces.  The Greatest Story Ever Told takes the all-star approach to heart and, as a result, even the minor roles are played by actors who will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few hours watching TCM.  Many of them are on screen for only a few seconds, which makes their presence all the more distracting.  Sidney Poitier shows up as Simon of Cyrene.  Pat Boone is an angel.  Roddy McDowall is Matthew and Sal Mineo is Uriah and John Wayne shows up as a centurion and delivers his one line in his trademark drawl.

A few of the actors do manage to stand out and make a good impression.  Telly Savalas is a credible Pilate, playing him as being neither smug nor overly sympathetic but instead as a bureaucrat who can’t understand why he’s being forced to deal with all of this.  Charlton Heston has just the right intensity for the role of John the Baptist while Jose Ferrer is properly sleazy as Herod.  In the role Judas, David McCallum looks at the world through suspicious eyes and does little to disguise his irritation with the rest of the world.  The Greatest Story Ever Told does not sentimentalize Judas or his role in Jesus’s arrest.  For the most part, he’s just a jerk.  Finally, it’s not exactly surprising when Donald Pleasence shows up as Satan but Pleasence still gives a properly evil performance, giving all of his lines a mocking and often sarcastic bite.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was directed by George Stevens, a legitimately great director who struggles to maintain any sort of narrative momentum in this film.  Watching The Greatest Story Ever Told, it occurred to me that the best biblical films are the ones like Ben-Hur and The Robe, which both largely keep Jesus off-screen and instead focus on how his life and teachings and the reports of his resurrection effected other people.  Stevens approaches the film’s subject with such reverence that the film becomes boring and that’s something that should never happen when you’re making a film set in Judea during the Roman era.

I do have to admit that, despite all of my criticism of the film, I do actually kind of like The Greatest Story Ever Told.  It’s just such a big production that it’s hard not to be a little awed by it all.  That huge cast may be distracting but it’s still a little bit fun to sit there and go, “There’s Shelley Winters!  There’s John Wayne!  There’s Robert Blake and Martin Landau!”  That said, as far as biblical films are concerned, you’re still better off sticking with Jesus Christ Superstar.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Rest in Peace, David Hedison


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking. David Hedison (1927-2019) was a working actor for over 70 years, starring on stage, screen, and TV. Though he played in virtually every genre, Hedison is perhaps best known for his work in some classic science-fiction, as well as portraying CIA agent Felix Leiter in two James Bond films. Word as hit the internet he passed away July 18 at the age of 93, and in his honor, we present 4 Shots from the Films of David Hedison. Job well done, sir!

The Fly (1958, D: Kurt Neumann)

The Lost World (1960, D: Irwin Allen)

The Cat Creature (TV-Movie 1973, D: Curtis Harrington)

Live and Let Die (1973. D: Guy Hamilton)

And for good measure, here’s David Hedison as Commander Crane in the sci-fi TV series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1964-68)

  RIP David Hedison (1927-2019)

A Movie A Day #260: The Naked Face (1984, directed by Bryan Forbes)


Dr. Judd Stevens (Roger Moore) is a mild-mannered Chicago psychologist who has never been in any trouble, so why has one of his patients and his receptionist been murdered?  Lt. McGreavy (Rod Steiger), who has a personal grudge against Stevens, thinks that the doctor himself might be responsible.  Dr. Stevens thinks that the first murder was a case of mistaken identity and that he is being targeted for assassination.  Detective Angeli (Elliott Gould) says that he is willing to consider Stevens’s theory but can Stevens trust him?  Or should Dr. Stevens put his trust in a veteran P.I. (Art Carney) or maybe even his newest patient (Anne Archer)?

An example of one of the “prestige” pictures that Cannon Films would produce in between Chuck Norris movies, The Naked Face has the potential be intriguing but both the direction and the script are too formulaic to be effective.  Even though the movie does not work, it is always interesting to see the non-Bond films that Roger Moore made while he was playing the world’s most famous secret  agent.  In The Naked Face, a lot of time is spent on establishing Judd Stevens as being the exact opposite as James Bond.  Stevens doesn’t drink or smoke and he is devotedly loyal to the memory of his dead wife.  When someone offers him a gun, Stevens replies, “I don’t believe in them.”  Unlike Bond, Dr. Stevens does not have the ability to come up with one liners.  He barely ever cracks a smile.  Moore is miscast in the role but he still does a better job than Rod Steiger, who bellows all of his lines, and Elliott Gould, who spends the movie with his head down.  I don’t blame him.

One final note: As much as The Naked Face tries to distance itself from the Bond films, it does feature one other connection beyond the casting of Moore.  David Hedison, who plays Dr. Stevens’s friend and colleague, also played Felix Leiter in Live and Let Die and Licence to Kill.

Jurassic Joke: THE LOST WORLD (20th Century Fox 1960)


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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure novel THE LOST WORLD was first filmed in 1925 with special effects by the legendary Willis O’Brien  . O’Brien gets a technical credit in Irwin Allen’s 1960 remake, but his wizardry is nowhere to be found, replaced with dolled-up lizards and iguanas designed to frighten absolutely no one. This one’s strictly for the Saturday matinee kiddie crowd, and though it boasts a high profile cast, it’s ultimately disappointing.

Genre fans will appreciate the presence of The Invisible Man himself, Claude Rains , in the role of expedition leader Professor Challenger. The 71 year old Rains is full of ham here, playing to the balcony, and still managing to command the screen with his sheer talent. Challenger claims to have discovered “live dinosaurs” in the remote Amazon rainforest, a claim scoffed at by the scientific community, especially rival Professor Summerlee (the equally hammy Richard Hayden). The crusty Challenger…

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A Movie A Day #5: ffolkes (1979, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen)


A group of terrorists, led by Lou Kramer (Anthony Perkins, at his bitchiest) and Harold Schulman (Michael Parks), have hijacked Esther, a supply ship that services two North Sea oil rigs, Ruth and Jennifer.  Kramer demands that the British government pay him 25 millions pounds.  If he’s not paid, he’ll blow up the two oil rigs, destroying the British economy and causing a catastrophic environmental disaster.  Kramer has also rigged the Esther with explosives.  If anyone tries to board the boat, he will blow both the ship and himself up, taking the crew with him.

The British Prime Minister (Faith Brook, playing Margaret Thatcher) could pay the ransom or she could call in counter terrorism expert, Rufus Excalibur ffolkes (Roger Moore).

(Though the name undoubtedly looked odd to American audiences, ffolkes is a common Welsh surname and is often spelled with both fs lowercase.)

Made in between The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, ffolkes was Roger Moore’s attempt to defy the typecasting that had defined his career.  Other than his loyalty to Queen and country, ffolkes has very little in common with James Bond.  James Bond was a suave smoker who bedded several women per film, lived in a hip London flat, drank Martinis, and was always ready with a quip.  ffolkes is humorless, drinks Scotch, hates cigarette smoke, and lives in an isolated castle.  The biggest difference between Bond and ffolkes?  Embittered by one bad marriage, ffolkes has no interest in women and refuses to work with them.  Instead, ffolkes loves cats.

ffolkes had always been overshadowed by Moore’s work as James Bond but it holds up well as a good, old-fashioned adventure film.  In many ways, Anthony Perkins’s Kramer feels like a predecessor to Die Hard‘s Hans Gruber and, if ffolkes had been released ten years later, it probably would have been referred to as being “Die Hard at sea.”  If you can get used to him playing someone other than James Bond, Roger Moore does a good job as the eccentric ffolkes and James Mason provides welcome support as ffolkes’s only friend.

Though ffolkes was a box office disappointment, it retains a cult following and it used to show up regularly on British television.  (I saw it at least once every summer that I went to the UK.)  When it was originally released in the U.K., it was called North Sea Hijack.   When it was released in the U.S., presumably under the assumption that American audiences wouldn’t be able to find the North Sea on a map, the title was changed to ffolkes, which probably left audiences more confused than the North Sea ever would have.  When the movie was first broadcast on American television, the title was changed yet again, this time to Assault Force.

To quote Roger Moore: “The film has so many title changes that I’ve lost count.  But everyone seems to like the character I played.”

For tomorrow’s movie a day, it’s another film where Roger Moore did not play James Bond, The Cannonball Run.

roger-moore-is-ffolkes

Halloween Havoc!: THE FLY (20th Century Fox 1958)


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THE FLY is one of those films you’re probably familiar with if you’re a horror/sci-fi fan. I’ve seen it many times, but was under the impression it was a black & white movie (probably due to early viewings as a young’un, deprived of color TV). So when I rewatched it again in glorious Technicolor, I was pleasantly surprised. This tale of science gone wrong has held up well, and its iconic scene of The Fly’s unmasking still manages to jolt the viewer (even if you know it’s coming!).

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The film’s framing device finds us witnessing Helene Delombre murdering her husband Andre by squishing his head and arm under a huge hydraulic press (and it’s a pretty gruesome demise), then calling her brother-in-law Francois to tell him. Francois is stunned, to say the least, and gets ahold of his friend Inspector Charas. They drive over to the Delombre Freres (the movie’s set in Montreal)…

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James Bond Film Review: Licence to Kill (dir. by John Glen)


Licence to Kill, which was initially released in 1989, was the 16th “official” James Bond film.  It was also the second and the last one to feature Timothy Dalton in the role of James Bond.  This is the one where Felix Leiter gets eaten by a shark, Bond resigns from MI6, and ends up going to Central America in search of revenge.  Sad to say, it’s also one of my least favorite of the Bond films.

Licence to Kill starts out with Bond in Florida, attending the wedding of his best friend, Felix Leiter (played by David Hedison, who previously played the role in Live and Let Die).  However, before going to ceremony, Felix and Bond take a few minutes to arrest notorious drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi).  With the help of a crooked DEA agent (played by a wonderfully smarmy actor named Everett McGill), Sanchez escapes from custody.  Accompanied by his psychotic henchman Dario (Benecio Del Toro), Sanchez gets his revenge by killing the new Mrs. Leiter and feeding Felix to a shark.  When Bond discover the barely alive Felix, he also discovers a note that (in a scene borrowed from the novel Live and Let Die) reads, “He disagreed with something that ate him.”

Investigating on his own, Bond discovers that Sanchez’s partner in Florida is the wonderfully named Milton Krest (played by a brilliantly sleazy Anthony Zerbe).  Soon, James Bond is on a mission of vengeance that involves tracking down and killing every member of Sanchez’s organization.  However, M (Robert Brown) doesn’t like the idea of his best secret agent killing the entire population of Florida.  Bond responds by resigning from the service and heading to Central America on his own.

In typical Bond film fashion, James Bond manages to infiltrate Sanchez’s organization and Sanchez soon takes a liking to the man who has vowed to kill him.  Along the way, Bond romances both Sanchez’s abused mistress Lupe (Talisa Soto) and an ex-CIA agent named Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) and the viewers learn that Sanchez’s criminal enterprise not only involves drugs but also a crooked TV preacher (played by Las Vegas mainstay Wayne Newton) as well.

Let’s start with the positive.  Robert Davi, playing the role of Franz Sanchez, makes for a memorable villain.  Along with the silky charm and hints of madness that we’ve come to expect from Bond villains, Davi brings an almost perverse edge to the character.  Every line of dialogue that he delivers is practically dripping with decadence.  Whether he’s doting on his pet iguana, his main henchman Dario, or poor Lupe, Sanchez makes for a dangerously charismatic and compelling villain, one that feels like he would have been at home in one of Ian Fleming’s original novels.  Wisely, Davi plays his role almost as if he was playing James Bond and, as a result, the scenes that he shares with Dalton all have a crackling energy to them that is missing from the film as a whole.

In fact, almost all of the villains are compelling in this film, from Franz Sanchez all the way down to the lowliest henchman.  As played by a very young Benicio Del Toro, Dario is all smoldering intensity and arrogant swagger.  Smuggler Milton Krest is played by veteran character actor Anthony Zerbe and he gets one of the bloodiest death scenes in the history of the series.  However, I have to admit that my favorite bad guy was Sanchez’s business manager, Truman-Lodge (played by Anthony Starke).  Truman-Lodge is just so enthusiastic about the business opportunities that came along with allying oneself with evil that it’s rather infectious.

With such a memorable collection of bad guys, it’s a shame that the film didn’t provide them with any goals worthy of their evil talents.  In previous (and future) Bond films, far less interesting villains have still come up with plans to allow them to take over the world.  Even Moonraker‘s Hugo Drax was able to overcome his lack of personality and come up with a diabolical intergalactic scheme.  Meanwhile, Franz Sanchez — one of the most complex and impressive Bond villains of all time — is simply content to sell drugs and feed people to sharks.  It feels almost disrespectful to Davi’s performance that Sanchez’s goals are, ultimately, so boring.

And, in the end, I think that’s the main problem that I have with Licence to Kill.  The film feels so predictable.  There’s nothing about it that makes it comes across as a story that could only have been about James Bond.  Instead, it feels like the type of standard action/revenge film that always seems to come out every summer.  The film’s hero might be an Englishman named James Bond but he could just as easily be an American named Jake Sully.

According to Sinclair McKay’s invaluable history of the Bond franchise, The Man With The Golden Touch, Licence to Kill was specifically written to compliment Timothy Dalton’s more “realistic” interpretation of the Bond character.  As Dalton played Bond as grim and serious, Licence to Kill is a grim and serious film.  Innocents and villains alike die in bloody agony and, the few times that Dalton does smile, the expression looks so unnatural that you worry that his face is about to split in half.  Unfortunately, along with being grim and serious, Dalton’s Bond is also remote and uncharismatic and, with the exception of Robert Davi, he doesn’t have any chemistry with anyone else in the cast.  (Carey Lowell brings a lot of energy to the role of Pam but Dalton’s Bond never seems to be that into her.)  Dalton simply doesn’t make for a very compelling hero and, as a result, Licence to Kill ends up feeling like an empty collection of occasionally impressive stunts.

Licence to Kill holds a few dubious distinctions.  It was the least financially succesful of all the Bond films and it was also the last Bond film to be produced by Albert Broccoli and directed by John Glen.  It was also the last to feature Robert Brown in the role of M and, of course, it was also the last to feature Timothy Dalton in the role of James Bond.  (That’s not all that shocking when you consider just how miserable and bored Dalton seems to be in this film.)  Over the next six years, the Bond franchise would be mired in a lawsuit between Eon productions and producer Kevin McClory and when James Bond finally did return, he would do so in the form of Pierce Brosnan.

We’ll be taking a look at Goldeneye tomorrow.