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.

18 Days of Paranoia #13: They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (dir by Gordon Douglas)


The 1970 police procedural, They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, opens with a murder in San Francisco.

A prostitute has been found dead in a sleazy apartment building and, according to witnesses, she was visited, shortly before her death, by the Reverend Logan Sharpe (Martin Landau).  Rev. Sharpe is a prominent civic leader, an outspoken liberal who is a friend of the civil rights movement.  Sharpe is currently at the forefront of a campaign to pass a city referendum that will add a “mini city hall” to every neighborhood and will help to fight against the gentrification of San Francisco.  If Sharpe’s guilty, it will mean the death of the referendum.

Despite the fact that there’s a ton of evidence piling up against him and he kind of comes across as being a little bit creepy (he is, after all, played by Martin Landau), Rev. Sharpe insists that he’s innocent.  Yes, he’s been visiting prostitutes but he’s not a client.  No, of course not!  Instead, Sharpe explains that he’s simply counseling them and praying for their souls.  In fact, as far as Sharpe is concerned, this whole thing is just an attempt by the establishment to discredit his efforts to help the poor and underprivileged.

Heading up the investigation is a friend and supporter of Sharpe’s, Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier).  That may seem like a good thing for Sharpe, except for the fact that Tibbs is an honest cop and he’s not the type to let friendship stand in the way of doing a thorough investigation.  Tibbs admits that he supports Sharpe’s campaign and he wants the reverend to be innocent.  But Tibbs is all about justice.  Whether it’s teaching his son an important lesson about smoking or tracking down a potential serial killer, Virgil Tibbs is always going to do the right thing.

There are other suspects, all of whom are played by suitably sinister character actors.  Anthony Zerbe plays a criminal who lived near the prostitute.  Ed Asner plays her landlord, who may have also been her pimp.  Is Sharpe being set up by the powers that be or is Tibbs going to have to arrest a man whom he admires?

They Call Me Mister Tibbs! was the second film in which Sidney Poitier played Virgil Tibbs.  The first time he played the role was in 1967, when he co-starred with Rod Steiger in the Oscar-winning In The Heat of the Night.  In that film, Poitier was a Philadelphia cop in the deep south who had to work with a redneck sheriff.  In They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, Virgil is now working in San Francisco and he has to work the case on his own.

They Call Me Mister Tibbs! is a far more conventional film than In The Heat of the Night.  Whereas In The Heat of the Night had a wonderful sense of place and atmosphere, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! could just as easily have taken place in Los Angeles, Phoenix, or even Philadelphia.  With the exception of some slight profanity, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! feels more like a pilot for a TV show than an actual feature film.  Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that there’s no real surprises to be found within the film.  You’ll guess who the murderer is within the first 10 minutes of the film and you’ll probably even guess how the movie will eventually end.

On the plus side, just as he did in In The Heat of the Night, Sidney Poitier brings a lot of natural authority to the role of Virgil Tibbs.  He’s actually allowed to show a sense of humor in this film, which is something that the character (understandably) couldn’t do while he was surrounded by bigots and rednecks during his previous adventure.  Virgil gets a few family scenes, where we watch him interact with his wife and his children.  The scenes feel out of place but, at the same time, Poitier plays them well.

With Sharpe attempting to get his referendum passed and the possibility that riots could break out if Sharpe is indeed guilty of murder, there’s a slight political subtext to They Call Me Mister Tibbs!  Sharpe’s argument that he was being set up by the establishment undoubtedly carried a lot of weight in 1970.  Still, this is ultimately a shallow (if adequately entertaining) film that, for the most part, is only made memorable by Poitier’s commanding performance.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller

Bronson’s Best: The Stone Killer (1973, directed by Michael Winner)


Stone_killerAfter tough New York detective Lou Torrey (Charles Bronson) lands in hot water for shooting and killing a teenage cop killer, he moves to Los Angeles and gets a job with the LAPD.  Working under an unsympathetic supervisor (Norman Fell), saddled with an incompetent partner (Ralph Waite), and surrounded by paper pushing bureaucrats, Torrey still tries to uphold the law and dispense justice whenever he can.  When a heroin dealer is murdered while in Torrey’s custody, Torrey suspects that it might be a part of a larger conspiracy, involving mobster Al Vescari (Martin Balsam).

Vescari is plotting something big.  It has been nearly 40 since the “Sicilian Vespers,” the day when Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Busy Siegel killed all of the original mafia dons at the same time.  Viscari has invited mafia leaders from across the country to attend a special anniversary dinner.  During the dinner, all of Vescari’s rivals will be assassinated.  To keep things a secret, Vescari will not be using any of his usual hitmen.  Instead, he has contracted a group of mentally unstable Vietnam vets, led by Lawrence (Stuart Margolin).

Charles Bronson has always been an underrated film star.  His legacy has been tarnished by the cheap films he made for Cannon and, unlike Clint Eastwood, he never got a chance to really take control of his career and reinvent his image.  But during the 1970s, not even Clint Eastwood was a more convincing action star than Charles Bronson.  Bronson may have never been a great actor but he was an authentic tough guy with a physical presence that dominated the screen.

It was during this period that Bronson made his first four movies with director Michael Winner.  Though Death Wish and The Mechanic are the best known, The Stone Killer may be the best.  Tough, gritty, and action-packed with a great car chase, The Stone Killer was filmed on location in Los Angeles and some of the best parts are just the scenes of Bronson awkwardly interacting with the local, California culture.  If you have ever wanted to see Charles Bronson deal with a bunch of hippies, this is the film to see.  The Stone Killer also has more of social conscience than the usual 70s cop film, with Bronson’s character not only condemning excessive police brutality but also his racist partner.

(Ironically, Bronson and Winner would follow The Stone Killer with Death Wish, a film that many critics condemned as being racist and which suggested that the police were not being brutal enough.)

The other thing that sets The Stone Killer apart is that it has a great cast, featuring several actors who would go on to find success on television.  Balsam, Fell, and especially Waite and Margolin are all great.  Keep an eye out for a very young John Ritter, playing one of the only cops in the film who is not portrayed as being either corrupt or incompetent.

Though it may not be as well-known as some of his other action films, The Stone Killer is one of Bronson’s best.

Netflix Noir #4: The Mugger (dir by William Berke)


The Mugger 2

For my final Netflix Noir, I watched The Mugger, a film from 1958.

The Mugger is a police procedural.  Taking place in an unnamed city, it stars Kent Smith as Dr. Pete Graham.  Pete’s both a psychiatrist and a cop and, needless to say, he has a lot to deal with.

For one thing, his girlfriend, Claire (Nan Martin) is also a cop.  In fact, she’s apparently the only female cop on the entire force!  (“Woman cops?” another detective is heard to say, “Do we really need them?”)  Claire spends most her time working undercover on the dance hall circuit.  Pete wants to get married.  Claire wants to solve a few more cases before making that commitment.  Pete says that’s okay, as long as her plans “include me, a home, and children.”

Pete has also been forcefully recruited to counsel a Jeannie (Sandra Church), the sister-in-law of a local taxi driver.  As the driver explains it, Jeannie is “about 18 and is she built!”  Pete replies, “You shouldn’t get excited about a kid who wants to have a good time,” which seems like an unusually progressive attitude for a cop in the 1950s.  Still, Pete agrees to try to encourage Jeannie to be a little bit less rebellious.  Jeannie, by the way, is my favorite character in the film because she is never in a good mood and she gets to dismiss her older sister’s concerns by saying, “Maybe she’s getting a little old, a little jealous.”

It also turns out that Jeannie’s neighbor, Nick Greco (George Maharis), has a crush on her and apparently, just hangs out in her house all day.  While this seemed rather creepy to me, the film seemed to suggest that this was just normal 50s behavior.  Apparently, since nobody bothered to lock their doors back then, it was also totally appropriate to just hide in someone’s house and listen in on private conversations.

Peter’s other big problem is that there’s a mugger who is robbing women and cutting their cheek with a knife.  I have to give the film some credit here because it doesn’t shy away from discussing the sexual subtext to these attacks, which I imagine was quite daring for a film in the 50s.  Pete comes up with a detailed profile of the attacker, the sort of thing that would make the cast of Criminal Minds jealous.  Claire goes undercover to catch the mugger and there’s a great scene where a drunk sailor tries to harass her and she threatens to shoot him in the knee caps.  Again, this is not the sort of thing that we typically associate with a 50s film…

Which is not to say that The Mugger is not clearly a product of its time.  For one thing, just check out the police force in this city, which is all white, all middle-aged, and — with the exception of Claire — all male.  As well, this is one of those old movies where any woman who walks down a street will be leered at by every guy she passes, including the film’s heroes.  One of the reasons why it was so great to see Claire threaten to cripple that soldier was because it came after 50 minutes of watching Pete and every other man in the film do a double take whenever she entered a room.

Clocking in at a little over 70 minutes and obviously low-budget, The Mugger is an undeniably obscure film.  Checking with the imdb, I discovered only two reviews that had been previously written for this film and one of them was in Turkish!  When I went onto YouTube to look for a trailer, I found nothing.  The Mugger is forgotten and hardly a lost classic but I still enjoyed watching it.  What can I say?  I love my history and, if nothing else, The Mugger is definitely a time capsule.

Watch it on Netflix while you can!

The Mugger