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.

6 Good Films That Were Not Nominated For Best Pictures: The 1950s


The Governor’s Ball, 1958

Continuing our look at good films that were not nominated for best picture, here are 6 films from the 1950s.

The Third Man (1950, dir by Carol Reed)

Now, it should be noted that The Third Man was not ignored by the Academy.  It won the Oscar for Best Cinematography and it was nominated for both editing and Carol Reed’s direction.  But, even with that in mind, it’s somewhat amazing to consider all of the nominations that it didn’t get.  The screenplay went unnominated.  So did the famous zither score.  No nominations for Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Trevor Howard, or even Orson Welles!  And finally, no Best Picture nomination.  1950 was a good year for the movies so competition was tight but still, it’s hard to believe that the Academy found room to nominate King Solomon’s Mines but not The Third Man.

Rear Window (1954, dir by Alfred Hitchcock)

Alfred Hitchcock directed some of his best films in the 50s, though few of them really got the recognition that they deserved upon their initial release.  Vertigo is often described as being Hitchcock’s masterpiece but, to be honest, I actually prefer Rear Window.  This film finds the master of suspense at his most playful and, at the same time, at his most subversive.  Casting Jimmy Stewart as a voyeur was a brilliant decision.  This film features one of my favorite Grace Kelly performances.  Meanwhile, Raymond Burr is the perfect schlubby murderer.  Like The Third Man, Rear Window was not ignored by the academy.  Hitchcock was nominated and the film also picked up nods for its screenplay, cinematography, and sound design.  However, it was not nominated for best picture.

Rebel Without A Cause (1955, dir by Nicholas Ray)

Nicholas Ray’s classic film changed the way that teenagers were portrayed on film and it still remains influential today.  James Dean is still pretty much the standard to which most young, male actors are held.  Dean was not nominated for his performance here.  (He was, however, nominated for East of Eden that same year.)  Instead, nominations went to Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, and the film’s screenplay.  Amazingly, in the same year that the forgettable Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing was nominated for best picture, this popular and influential film was not.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955, dir by Robert Aldrich)

It’s unfortunate but not surprising that Kiss Me Deadly was totally ignored by the Academy.  In the mid-to-late 50s, the Academy tended to embrace big productions.  There was no way they were going to nominate a satirical film noir that featured a psychotic hero and ended with the end of the world.  That’s a shame, of course, because Kiss Me Deadly has proven itself to be more memorable and influential than many of the films that were nominated in its place.

Touch of Evil (1958, dir by Orson Welles)

Speaking of underappreciated film noirs, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil is one of the craftiest and most brilliant films ever made.  So, of course, no one appreciated it when it was originally released.  This cheerfully sordid film features Welles at his best.  Starting with a memorable (and oft-imitated) tracking shot, the film proceeds to take the audience into the darkest and most eccentric corners of a small border town.  Everyone in the cast, from the stars to the bit players, is memorably odd.  Even the much mocked casting of Charlton Heston as a Mexican pays off wonderfully in the end.

The 400 Blows (1959, dir by Francois Truffaut)

Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical directorial debut was released in the United States in 1959 and it was Oscar-eligible.  Unfortunately, it only picked up a screenplay nomination.  Of course, in the late 50s, the last thing that the Academy was going to embrace was a French art film from a leftist director.  However, The 400 Blows didn’t need a best picture nomination to inspire a generation of new filmmakers.

Up next, in an hour or so, we continue on to the 60s!

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Longest Day (dir by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald, and Darryl F. Zanuck)


As my sister has already pointed out, today is the 73rd anniversary of D-Day.  With that in mind, and as a part of my ongoing mission to see and review every single film ever nominated for best picture, I decided to watch the 1962 film, The Longest Day!

The Longest Day is a pain-staking and meticulous recreation of invasion of Normandy, much of it filmed on location.  It was reportedly something of a dream project for the head of the 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck set out to make both the ultimate tribute to the Allied forces and the greatest war movie ever.  Based on a best seller, The Longest Day has five credited screenwriters and three credited directors.  (Ken Annakin was credited with “British and French exteriors,” Andrew Marton did “American exteriors,” and the German scenes were credited to Bernhard Wicki.  Oddly, Gerd Oswald was not credited for his work on the parachuting scenes, even though those were some of the strongest scenes in the film.)  Even though he was not credited as either a screenwriter or a director, it is generally agreed that the film ultimately reflected the vision of Darryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck not only rewrote the script but he also directed a few scenes as well.  The film had a budget of 7.75 million dollars, which was a huge amount in 1962.  (Until Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, The Longest Day was the most expensive black-and-white film ever made.)  Not only did the film tell an epic story, but it also had an epic length.  Clocking in at 3 hours, The Longest Day was also one of the longest movies to ever be nominated for best picture.

The Longest Day also had an epic cast.  Zanuck assembled an all-star cast for his recreation of D-Day.  If you’re like me and you love watching old movies on TCM, you’ll see a lot of familiar faces go rushing by during the course of The Longest Day.  American generals were played by actors like Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne.  Peter Lawford, then the brother-in-law of the President of the United States, had a memorable role as the Scottish Lord Lovat, who marched through D-Day to the sounds of bagpipes.  When the Allied troops storm the beach, everyone from Roddy McDowall to Sal Mineo to Robert Wagner to singer Paul Anka can be seen dodging bullets.  Sean Connery pops up, speaking in his Scottish accent and providing comic relief.  When a group of paratroopers parachute into an occupied village, comedian Red Buttons ends up hanging from the steeple of a church.  When Richard Beymer (who is currently playing Ben Horne on Twin Peaks) gets separated from his squad, he stumbles across Richard Burton.  Among those representing the French are Arletty and Christian Marquand.  (Ironically, after World War II, Arletty was convicted of collaborating with the Germans and spent 18 months under house arrest.  Her crime was having a romantic relationship with a German soldier.  It is said that, in response to the charges, Arletty said, “My heart is French but my ass is international.”)  Meanwhile, among the Germans, one can find three future Bond villains: Gert Frobe, Curt Jurgens, and Walter Gotell.

It’s a big film and, to be honest, it’s too big.  It’s hard to keep track of everyone and, even though the battle scenes are probably about an intense as one could get away with in 1962 (though it’s nowhere near as effective as the famous opening of Saving Private Ryan, I still felt bad when Jeffrey Hunter and Eddie Albert were gunned down), their effectiveness is compromised by the film’s all-star approach.  Often times, the action threatens to come to a halt so that everyone can get their close-up.  Unfortunately, most of those famous faces don’t really get much of a chance to make an impression.  Even as the battle rages, you keep getting distracted by questions like, “Was that guy famous or was he just an extra?”

Among the big stars, most of them play to their personas.  John Wayne, for instance, may have been cast as General Benjamin Vandervoort but there’s never any doubt that he’s playing John Wayne.  When he tells his troops to “send them to Hell,” it’s not Vandervoort giving orders.  It’s John Wayne representing America.  Henry Fonda may be identified as being General Theodore Roosevelt II but, ultimately, you react to him because he’s Henry Fonda, a symbol of middle-American decency.  Neither Wayne nor Fonda gives a bad performance but you never forget that you’re watching Fonda and Wayne.

Throughout this huge film, there are bits and pieces that work so well that you wish the film had just concentrated on them as opposed to trying to tell every single story that occurred during D-Day.  I liked Robert Mitchum as a tough but caring general who, in the midst of battle, gives a speech that inspires his troops to keep fighting.  The scenes of Peter Lawford marching with a bagpiper at his side were nicely surreal.  Finally, there’s Richard Beymer, wandering around the French countryside and going through the entire day without firing his gun once.  Beymer gets the best line of the film when he says, “I wonder if we won.”  It’s such a modest line but it’s probably the most powerful line in the film.  I wish The Longest Day had more scenes like that.

The Longest Day was nominated for best picture of 1962 but it lost to an even longer film, Lawrence of Arabia.

Back to School #4: Rebel Without A Cause (dir by Nicholas Ray)


You may have heard of this one.

Traditionally, films about teenagers tend to age terribly.  The language, the clothes, the attitudes, and even the humor; it’s all usually out-of-date within five years or so.  One need only watch something like A Summer Place to both see how dated a film can become and to see how one generation’s idol can appear rather ludicrous to future generations.  (And yes, I am talking about Troy Donahue…)  What makes Rebel Without A Cause unique is that it’s a movie about teenagers that was released way back in 1955 and yet, nearly 60 years later, it still feels fresh and relatable.

Of course, it helps that the title character is played by James Dean who, to put it lightly, was no Troy Donahue.

Rebel Without A Cause tells the story of three alienated teenagers trying to survive in the suburbs of Los Angeles.  (“…and they all came from good homes!” the film’s poster informs us.)  Plato (Sal Mineo) is a painfully sensitive 15 year-old who has been abandoned by his parents and is being raised by the family’s maid.  (Since this movie was made in 1955, the fact that Plato is gay is obvious but never explicitly stated.)  Judy (Natalie Wood) is the girlfriend of Buzz (Corey Allen) and is acting out because she feels that’s the only way she can can get her father to pay attention to her.  And then there’s Jim Stark (James Dean), whose family has just moved to Los Angeles and who is constantly in the middle of the fights between his overbearing mother (Ann Doran) and his weak-willed father (Jim Backus).

Rebel Without A Cause 2

During Jim’s first day at high school, he not only manages to make an enemy when Buzz spots him attempting to flirt with Judy but he also gets to go on a field trip to the Griffith Observatory, where the students are told that the entire universe is going to end eventually.  After the field trip, Buzz challenges Jim to a knife fight.  Jim agrees only after the rest of Buzz’s gang (including a young Dennis Hopper) accuse him of being “chicken.”  However, after a security guard breaks up the fight, Buzz challenges Jim to a “chicken run.”

(People in the 50s were obsessed with chickens.)

That night, Jim and Buzz both drive stolen cars towards the edge of a cliff.  The first driver to jump out of his car loses.  Before they start their engines, Buzz smiles and tells Jim, “I like you.”  Yay!  Jim’s finally made a friend!  Uh-oh, Buzz just drove over the cliff and his car exploded!  Well, so much for that friendship.  Now, with Buzz’s gang swearing revenge and their parents incapable of understand what happened, Jim, Judy, and Plato are on the run.  They end up hiding out in an abandoned house and find a brief moment of happiness before the gang and the police show up to ruin everything.

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The challenge of reviewing Rebel Without A Cause is trying to find a new way to say what everybody already knows.  Rebel Without A Cause is a great film that’s distinguished by Nicholas Ray’s sensitive direction and James Dean’s iconic performance in the lead role.  Whenever I see Rebel Without A Cause, I’m always struck by just how much unexpected nuance there is Dean’s interpretation of Jim Stark.  We always think of James Dean as being the epitome of cool and I think we tend to forget that, at least in the beginning of the film, Jim is anything but that.  Instead, he’s awkward and shy.  His attempts to flirt with Judy lead to her calling him “a real yo-yo.”  As much as he tried to fit in with the rest of his classmates, he’s a permanent outsider.  (Just consider what happens with his infamous “moooo” during the presentation at the observatory.)  He has a lot to say but he doesn’t know how to say it and every time that he tries to express what he’s feeling, he’s ignored by adults who don’t have the patience to listen.  Dean brings such a raw intensity to these scenes that I always find myself wanting to reach out and hug him and tell him that everything’s going to be okay, even though I know that it’s not.  Even today, it’s still easy to see why every teenager in the 50s either wanted to be or to be with Jim Stark.

Also, whenever I watch the film, I’m reminded of how much I relate to the character of Judy.  I think that’s because, when I was 16, I might as well have been Judy.  Natalie Wood’s performance might not be as showy as James Dean’s but it’s equally effective.

Of course, one reason why Rebel Without A Cause has become iconic is because James Dean died shortly after filming ended.  (In fact, some of his scenes had to be redubbed by Dennis Hopper, who reportedly could do an exact imitation of Dean’s voice.)  It’s interesting to wonder what would have become of James Dean if he had lived.  Would he have continued to be one of our best actors or would he have eventually been forgotten or forced to appear on television?  Personally, I like to think that James Dean would have remained a great actor but he would have been too much of an iconoclast to remain in Hollywood.  Eventually, in my alternative universe, James Dean moved to Europe and teamed up with Klaus Kinski to star in a series of spaghetti westerns.  And they were great.

As for Rebel Without A Cause, it remains a great movie nearly 60 years after it was first made.  And really, what more needs to be said?

Rebel

 

 

 

Embracing The Melodrama #12: Giant (dir by George Stevens)


Giant

Let’s continue to embrace the melodrama by taking a look at the 1956 best picture nominee, Giant.

Giant is a film about my home state of Texas.  Texas rancher Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) goes to Maryland to buy a horse and ends up returning to Texas with a bride, socialite Lesley Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor).  At first, Lesley struggles to adapt to the harsh and hot Texas landscape.  Bick’s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) takes an instant dislike to Lesley and Bick is annoyed by Lesley’s concern over the living conditions of the Mexicans that work on Bick’s ranch.  It sometimes seems like the only person who appreciates Lesley is Jett Rink (James Dean), an ambitious ranch hand who secretly loves her and who is planning on becoming a rich man.  That’s exactly what happens when oil is found on the land around Bick’s ranch.  While Bick stubbornly clings to the past, oilman Jett represents both the future of Texas and the nation.  Meanwhile, Bick and Lesley’s son (played by a very young Dennis Hopper) challenges his father’s casual bigotry when he falls in love with a Mexican girl.

Taylor and Hudson

Giant is appropriately named because it is a huge film.  Clocking in at 201 minutes, Giant tells a story that spans several decades and features a big cast that is full of familiar faces, all struggling for their chance to somehow stand out from everyone else around them.  Even the film’s wonderful panoramic shots of the empty Texas landscape only serve to remind us of how big the entire film is.  To a certain extent, the size of Giant‘s production is to be understood.  In the 1950s, Hollywood was having to compete with television and they did this by trying to make every film into a major event.  You watch a movie like Giant and you practically hear the old Hollywood moguls shouting at America, “See!?  You can’t get that on your precious TV, can you!?”

For those of us watching Giant today, the length is both a blessing and a curse.  It’s a curse because the movie really is too damn long.  The opening scenes drag and many of them really do feel superfluous.  It’s hard not to feel that the real story doesn’t really start until about 90 minutes into the movie.  And once the story really does get started,  there’s still way too much of it for it all to be crammed into one sitting.  Oddly enough, you end up feeling as if this extremely long film is still not telling you everything that you need to know.  If Giant were made today, it would probably be a two-part movie on either HBO or Lifetime and it would definitely feature a lot more sex.

However, to be honest, one of the reasons that I did enjoy Giant was because it was as big as it was.  I mean, the film is about Texas so of course it should be a little excessive!  Everything’s bigger in Texas and that includes our movies.  Add to that, Giant may be too long but it uses that length to deals with issues that are still relevant today — oil, immigration, and racial prejudice.  Rock Hudson may not have been a great actor but he is at least convincing as he transitions from bigotry to tolerance.

But really, when it comes to Giant, most people are only interested in James Dean.  And they definitely should be because Dean gives a great and compelling performance here.  Dean brings all of the emotional intensity of the method to material that one would not naturally associate with method acting and the end result is amazing to watch.  Giant was released after Dean had been killed in that infamous car wreck.  I can only imagine what it must have been like to be sitting in a theater in 1956 and to see this compelling and charismatic actor towering above the world on the big screen while aware, all the time, that his life had already been cut short and he would never been seen in another film.

James Dean

Even better, Dean’s new style of acting clashes perfectly with Hudson’s old style of acting, making the conflict between Bick and Jett feel all the more real and intense.  Much as Bick represents old Texas and Jett represents the new Texas, Hudon and Dean represented the two sides of Hollywood: the celebrity and the artist.  Needless to say, Dean wins the battle but, surprisingly, Hudson occasionally manages to hold his own.

I can’t necessarily say that Giant is an essential film.  A lot of people are going to be bored by the excessive length.  But if you’re a fan of James Dean or if you’re from Texas, Giant is a film that you need to see at least once.

elizabeth_taylor_giant_swedish_movie_poster_2a

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Escape From The Planet of the Apes (dir. by Don Taylor)


(Warning: Potential Spoilers, especially if you’re good at reading between the lines of my attempts to be all mysterious-like)

Continuing with our look at the original Planet of the Apes films, we come to 1971’s Escape from The Planet of the Apes.

Escape From The Planet of the Apes starts out with a huge problem — how do you make a sequel to a film that literally ended with the entire planet being destroyed?  Escape handles this problem by reversing the plotline of the original film.  Instead of a group of humans going into the future and landing on a planet dominated by apes, this film features three apes going into the past and landing on a planet dominated by the past.  It’s a premise that the film handles with a surprising amount of cleverness and the end result is probably the best of the various Planet of the Apes sequel.  Certainly, it is the only one that can stand alone as a film separate from the rest of the series.

Using Taylor’s old space capsule, Zira (Kim Hunter), Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), and Milo (Sal Mineo, who you know is doomed because he’s the only one of the three who hasn’t appeared in either of the two previous films) escape Earth shortly before Charlton Heston blows the planet up at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes.  Slipping through the same vortex as Heston did in the first film, they end up crash landing on Earth in the year 1974. 

At first, Cornelius and the outspoken Zira become media celebrities.  They do interviews with the press, appear on the covers of magazines, and are generally celebrated like simian Kardashians.  However, one scientist — played by a very handsome Eric Braeden (seriously, he has gorgeous hair in this film) — isn’t as charmed by Zira and Cornelius.  Instead, he views them as threats to the future of the human race, especially after he discovers that Zira is pregnant.

The character that Braeden plays, by the way, is named Dr. Otto Hasslien and attentive viewers will recognize the name from a throw-away reference made by Taylor (Charlton Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes.  One of the more interesting subtexts in this film is that, much as chimpanzees Zira and Cornelius are this film’s equivalent to the human Taylor, Braeden’s Hasslien is this film’s version of Dr. Zaius.  Much as Maurice Evans did for Dr. Zaius, Braeden brings a certain ambiguity to his villianous character.  Though Braeden’s actions are ultimately hateful, it’s also made clear that they’re more motivated by fear than by evil.  Indeed, when Braeden first appears in this film, he’s almost likable.  It’s only at the film’s conclusion that we become fully aware of the irony that the human, “civilized” Dr. Hasslien ultimately shows less mercy and empathy to Zira and Cornelius than the ape Dr. Zaius showed to Taylor.  The moral ambiguity of Braeden’s performance makes this a far more resonant film than most mainstream critics are willing to admit.

 As for, Zira and Cornelius, the once-fawing public eventually turns against them as it becomes apparent that for the two of them to exist, humanity has to be wiped out.  Zira and Cornelius find themselves hunted fugitives, fleeing for their lives while the whole planet — with the exception of a zoo keeper played by Ricardo Montalban and another scientist (played by Bradford Dillman — what a great name for an actor) — seems to be determined to destroy them.

Escape From The Planet of the Apes starts out as a likable, rather breezy social satire (much like Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet, the novel that Planet of the Apes was loosely adapted from) and that makes it even more surprising when, about halfway through, the movie shifts gears and becomes a rather dark and bleak action film.  It all ends, like many films from the early 70s, in a brutal act of violence that carries a surprising punch to it.  It’s after the end of the film that we truly become aware just how involved we had become with Zira and Cornelius.  A lot of that has to do with the strong performances of McDowall and Hunter who both created characters that came across as real and worthy, regardless of how many layers of makeup they were acting under.  Their chemistry as a couple makes this underrated film one of the surprising gems of the early 70s.