Film Review: King of Kings (dir by Nicholas Ray)


The 1961 film, King of Kings, was the final biblical film that I watched on Easter.  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, it tells the story of Jesus from the Nativity to the Ascension.  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, it’s an epic film that was directed by a renowned director.  (In this case, Nicholas Ray.)  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, King of Kings also has a huge cast and there’s a few familiar faces to be seen, though it doesn’t really take the all-star approach that George Stevens did with his telling of the story.

Probably the biggest star in King of Kings was Jeffrey Hunter, who played Jesus.  Hunter was in his 30s at the time but he still looked young enough that the film was nicknamed I Was A Teenage Jesus.  (Some of that also probably had to do with the fact that Nicholas Ray was best known for directing Rebel Without A Cause.)  But then again, for a man who had so many followers, Jesus was young.  He hadn’t even reached his 40th birthday before he was crucified.  As well, his followers were also young while his many opponents were representatives of the establishment and the old way of doing things.  It makes perfect sense that Jesus should be played by a young man and Hunter gives a good performance.  As opposed to so many of the other actors who have played Jesus in the movies, Jeffrey Hunter is credible as someone who could convince fishermen to throw down their nets and follow him.  He’s passionate without being fanatical and serious without being grim.  He’s a leader even before he performs his first miracle.

King of Kings is one of the better films that I’ve seen about the life of Jesus.  While remaining respectful of its subject, it also feels alive in the way that so many other biblical films don’t.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Nicholas Ray focuses on the idea of Jesus as a rebel against the establishment.  Ray emphasizes the casual cruelty of the Romans and their collaborators.  When John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) is arrested by Herod (Frank Thring), it’s not just so the filmmakers can have an excuse to work Salome (Brigid Bazlen) in the film.  It’s also to show what will happen to anyone who dares to challenge the establishment.  When Jesus visits John the Baptist in his cell, it’s a summit between two rebels who know that they’re both destined to die for the greater good.  When Pilate (Hurd Hatfield) makes his appearance, he’s smug and rather complacent in his power.  He’s not the quasi-sympathetic figure who appears in so many other biblical films.  Instead, he’s the epitome of establishment arrogance.

As a director, Nicholas Ray keeps things simple.  This isn’t Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments.  The emphasis is not on grandeur.  Instead, the film is about common people trying to improve the world in which they’re living, while also preparing for the next.  Jeffrey Hunter gives an excellent performance as Jesus and, all in all, this is one of the better and more relatable biblical films out there.

Film Review: King David (dir by Bruce Beresford)


A film about David, the young shepherd and musician who eventually became the second king of Israel?

That sounds like a great idea!

After all, David is one of the most compelling figures in history.  Whether it’s the slaying of Goliath or his ill-fated friendship with Jonathan or his uneasy relationship with Saul, every detail about David’s youth feels perfect for cinematic drama.  And then, once David become king of Israel, the drama doesn’t end.  David finds himself dealing with both politics and temptation.  He falls in lust with Bathsheba and, in a moment of terrible weakness, he arranges for her husband to be killed in battle.  His own son, Absalom, turns against him and then, despite David’s very clear orders to the contrary, Absalom is executed while he helplessly hangs from a tree.  For every triumph in David’s life (like the time he used a slingshot to take down Goliath), there’s a tragedy.  For all of David’s attempts to be a good and wise king, he still struggles with his own weaknesses.  Every detail of David’s life seems like it belongs on the big screen.

So, now that we’ve agreed that the life of David would be perfect for a movie, consider this: A film about David, a master of both poetry and politics who was known for his deep emotions, starring Richard Gere?

Uhmmmm….

The 1985 film, King David, has all the potential to be a great film but it’s pretty much doomed by the fact that David is played by Richard Gere.  Today, of course, Richard Gere is an above average character actor who is well-cast as older, seemingly successful men who have never quite conquered their own self-doubt.  That’s not the Richard Gere who shows up in King David.  The Richard Gere who shows up in King David is the blank-faced, youngish Richard Gere who was best-known for films like An Officer and a Gentleman and American Gigolo.  Richard Gere is so miscast as David that just the sight of him takes you out of the film’s reality.  While the film plays out, you find yourself saying, “Richard Gere just killed Goliath.  Richard Gere just spied on Bathsheba.  Richard Gere is dancing through the streets of Jerusalem.”

There are a few good things about King David.  Edward Woodward gives a good performance as Saul, who has always been overshadowed David but who was, in his own way, almost as compelling a character.  The film does a credible-enough job recreating the ancient world and it’s entertaining to see the iconic Italian actor George Eastman show up as Goliath.  Far too often, though, King David becomes one of those films where every big action scene is shown in slow motion and there’s too many close-ups of swords being tossed into the air.

According to Wikipedia (that’s right, I did some “serious” research for this review), King David was actually made because it was felt that the film would be able to draw in the same audience that loved Star Wars.  That turned out to not be true as the film was a huge flop and apparently damaged a lot of careers.  But, flop or not, it was still on TV last night, which just proves that movies are forever.

Claude Reigns Supreme: THE UNSUSPECTED (Warner Brothers 1947)


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As a classic film blogger, I’m contractually obligated to cover film noir during the month of “Noirvember”, so every Tuesday this month I’ll be shining the spotlight on movies of this dark genre!


Claude Rains  received second billing in 1947’s THE UNSUSPECTED, but there’s no doubt who’s the star of this show. Nobody could steal a picture like Rains, as I’ve stated several times before – his sheer talent commands your attention! Here, he gives a chilling portrayal of a cold, calculating murderer in a Michael Curtiz noir based on a novel by Edgar Award-winning mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong, and runs away with the film. Joan Caulfield gets top billing, but let’s be honest – it’s Claude’s movie all the way!

The film begins with a frightening scene played mostly in shadow, as a figure creeps into the office of Victor Grandison (Rains) and murders his secretary Robyn Wright while…

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Horror Scenes That I Love: Dorian Gray Battles His Own Image In The Picture of Dorian Gray


Today’s horror scene that I love comes from the classic 1945 film, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

In this scene, Gray (Hurd Hatfield) finally strikes back at the picture that, for decades, has been hiding all of his sins.  You can read my full review of The Picture of Dorian Gray by clicking here!

 

A Movie A Day #255: Her Alibi (1989, directed by Bruce Beresford)


Tom Selleck is Phil Blackwood, a best-selling mystery author who is suffering from writer’s block.  Paulina Porizkova in Nina, a beautiful Romanian who has been accused of murder.  When Phil sees Nina being arraigned in court, it is love at first sight.  He provides her with a false alibi and invites her to stay with him while he writes a book based on her case.  At first, Phil thinks that she is innocent but he soon has his doubts, especially after Nina shows off her skills as a knife thrower.

1989 was a strange year for Australian director Bruce Beresford.  On the one hand, he directed Driving Miss Daisy, which went on to win the Oscar for the best picture.  On the other hand, he also directed Her Alibi, a disjointed comedy that feels like an extended episode of Magnum P.I.  (Even Sellecks’ narration feels like a throwback to his star-making role.  But if Phil is a best-selling writer, why does his narration sound so clunky and clichéd?)  Her Alibi is a predictable film, not really bad but just very bland.  It tries to duplicate the style of a classic screwball comedy but it lacks the bite necessary to make much of an impression.  On the plus side, the great William Daniels was given a few good lines as Phil’s caustic agent and Paulina Porizkova was absolutely beautiful.  The scene where Nina gives Phil a haircut almost makes the movie worth it.

One final note: When watching Her Alibi, be sure to pay attention to the scene where Phil holds up his latest novel.  The book is so thin that it looks like it is only 20 pages long, at the most.

Roger of the Skies: VON RICHTOFEN AND BROWN (United Artists 1971)


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Producer/director Roger Corman finally cut ties with American-International Pictures after they butchered his apocalyptic satire GAS-S-S! Striking out on his own, Corman’s next movie was VON RICHTOFEN AND BROWN, a World War I epic about famed German aerial ace The Red Baron and the Canadian pilot who shoots his down Roy Brown. There are grand themes, as Corman sought to make a statement on the futility of war, the end of chivalry, and the mechanized savagery of what was to be “the last war”. The film looks good, shot in Ireland, with exciting aerial footage, but despite all the outer trappings VON RICHTOFEN AND BROWN is still a Corman drive-in movie.

John Philip Law also looks good as Baron Manfred von Richtofen, the aristocrat/warrior who became the feared Red Baron. Law was always great to watch, whether as the blind angel in BARBARELLA, the black-clad supervillain in DANGER: DIABOLIK, sexy Robin Stone in…

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Horror Film Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir by Albert Lewin)


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Hello and welcome to the start of TSL’s annual October horrorthon!  All through the month of October, our focus will be on horror.  We will be sharing reviews and thoughts on some of the best (and worst) horror films ever made!  I have to admit that this is my favorite time of the year.  I love horror … like all good people!

I want to start things off by taking a look at a film from 1945.  The Picture of Dorian Gray is based on the famous novel by Oscar Wilde (a novel that some people think was inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders).  Dorian Gray (played by Hurd Hatfield) is a young and handsome aristocrat who lives in 19th century London.  When we first meet him, Dorian is intelligent, kind and virtuous.  He’s also more than a little boring.  He is the bland face of the establishment, a man destined to be celebrated for his position in society and largely forgotten after his death.

Dorian is posing for a painting that’s being done by his friend, an artist named Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore).  One day, Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders) stops by the studio while Basil is painting Dorian.  Lord Henry is everything that Dorian Gray is not.  He’s a worldly and cynical man and he is very proud to live a life devoted to complete and total hedonistic pleasure.  He immediately sets out to corrupt Dorian and it turns out to be a lot easier than he was expecting.  Henry convinces Dorian that he can have everything that he wants as long as he’s young and handsome.  Dorian announces that he wishes the painting could age instead of him…

Now, here’s where the film takes a huge departure from Wilde’s novel.  In the novel, the painting ages while Dorian stay young.  No specific reason is given.  Instead, it’s just something that happens.  In the film, it turns out that Basil owns an ancient Egyptian statue and that the statue has mystical powers.  Dorian makes his wish in front of the statue and that’s why the painting starts to age.  Personally, I think the bit with the Egyptian statue is unnecessary and a little bit silly.  To me, the story is a lot more effective if the painting starts to age without an explanation.  The filmmakers obviously disagreed.

But no matter!  In the end, the Egyptian statue isn’t that important.  What is important that, freed from getting old or physically suffering for his actions, Dorian transforms into a different person.  Soon, he’s even more hedonistic than Lord Henry.  When he breaks the heart of a tragic singer named Sybil Vane (Angela Lansbury, in a poignant and Oscar-nominated performance), Dorian sees that the painting is now cruelly smirking while his own face remains innocent and untouched.  When Dorian eventually commits a murder to keep his secret from getting out, the blood appears on the painting’s hands while his own remain clean.

And the years pass.  Dorian finds himself both being hunted by Sybil’s brother (Richard Fraser) and falling in love with the niece (Donna Reed) of a man that he earlier murdered.  Dorian never ages but his portrait becomes more and more twisted.  What’s particularly interesting is that we see little of Dorian’s evil actions.  Instead, we watch and listen as other characters whisper about the horrific things that he’s done.  Physically, Dorian remains an innocent and young aristocrat.  But all we have to do is look at the picture and we can see what a monster Dorian has become…

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an absolutely gorgeous film, one that is full of elaborate sets that are often cast in shadow.  (It’s interesting to note that the more corrupt Dorian becomes, the darker and more shadowy his estate becomes.)  The film is in black-and-white, with the exception of three scenes in which the portrait is revealed in all of its Technicolor glory.  If that sounds like a gimmick … well, it is.  But it’s an amazingly effective gimmick.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a classic exercise in psychological horror.  See it the next chance you get!

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Horror on the Lens: The Norliss Tapes (dir by Dan Curtis)


Today’s Horror on the Lens is The Norliss Tapes, a 1973 made-for-TV movie that was also a pilot for a television series that, unfortunately, was never put into productions.

Reporter David Norliss (Roy Thinnes) has disappeared.  His friend and publisher, Stanford Evans (Don Porter), listens to the tapes that Norliss recorded before vanishing.  Each tape details yet another paranormal investigation.  (Presumably, had the series been picked up, each tape would have been a different episode.)  The first tape tells how Norliss investigated the mysterious death of an artist who apparently returned from the grave.

For a made-for-TV movie, The Norliss Tapes is pretty good.  It’s full of atmosphere and features a genuinely menaching yellow-eyed zombie monster.

Enjoy!