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.

 

It’s No Westworld: Futureworld (1976, directed by Richard T. Heffron)


Two years after the Westworld “incident,” (in which a group of robots malfunctioned and murdered hundreds of humans), Delos Amusement Park has reopened and is accepting guests.  Westworld has been permanently shut down but guests can still go to Romanworld and Medeivalworld (despite the fact that it was in Medievalworld that the whole robot rebellion started in the first place).  Delos has added two new worlds: Spaworld and Futureworld.  Spaworld is a spa for people who want to think young and Futureworld is the world of the future, which looks much like 1976, the year that this film was made.

Two reporters, Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda) and Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner), have been invited to cover the grand reopening of Delos and to hopefully generate some good publicity.  Chuck, however, has reason to believe that there’s something sinister happening at Delos.  While Tracy is busy fantasizing about Yul Brynner, Chuck discovers that Delos is using Futureworld to clone diplomats.

At the end of Futureworld, Peter Fonda gives everyone the finger and that’s really cool but otherwise, this is a forgettable sequel to Westworld.  The whole point of the original Westworld was that the robots didn’t know they were robots but, in Futureworld, the robots not only know what they are but they’re also superfluous to the plot.  There’s no robot revolution in Futureworld nor is there any of Crichton’s concerns about technology run amok.  Instead, it’s all about clones and a predictable political conspiracy.

The main issue facing the makers of this film was how could they do a sequel to Michael Crichton’s unexpected hit when Westworld‘s main attraction, Yul Brynner’s robot gunslinger, was thoroughly destroyed at the end of the first film.  It would not make any sense for anyone to have reactivated the robot.  Their solution was to bring Brynner in for a cameo in which he appeared in one of Tracy’s dreams.  Sadly, why they thought it was a good idea to have Tracy develop an erotic fixation on a killer robot and then, just as abruptly, abandon the idea is not for us to know.  They would have been better off leaving Brynner out of the film entirely because his presence just reminds us that Futureworld is no Westworld.

When It Comes To Halloween, Should You Trust The IMDb?


Dr. Sam Loomis

Like a lot of people, I enjoy browsing the trivia sections of the IMDb.  While it’s true that a lot of the items are stuff like, “This movie features two people who appeared on a television series set in the Star Trek Universe!,” you still occasionally came across an interesting fact or two.

Of course, sometimes, you just come across something that makes so little sense that you can only assume that it was posted as a joke.  For instance, I was reading the IMDb’s trivia for the original 1978 Halloween and I came across this:

Peter O’Toole, Mel Brooks, Steven Hill, Walter Matthau, Jerry Van Dyke, Lawrence Tierney, Kirk Douglas, John Belushi, Lloyd Bridges, Abe Vigoda, Kris Kristofferson, Sterling Hayden, David Carradine, Dennis Hopper, Charles Napier, Yul Brynner and Edward Bunker were considered for the role of Dr. Sam Loomis.

Now, some of these names make sense.  Despite the fact that Sam Loomis became Donald Pleasence’s signature role, it is still possible to imagine other actors taking the role and perhaps bringing a less neurotic interpretation to the character.

Peter O’Toole as Dr. Loomis?  Okay, I can see that.

Kirk Douglas, Sterling Hayden, Charles Napier, Steve Hill, or Lloyd Bridges as Dr. Loomis?  Actually, I can imagine all of them grimacing through the role.

Walter Matthau?  Well, I guess if you wanted Dr. Loomis to be kind of schlubby….

Abe Vigoda?  Uhmmm, okay.

Dennis Hopper?  That would be interesting.

Mel Brooks?  What?  Wait….

John Belushi?  Okay, stop it!

Dr. Sam Loomis

My point is that I doubt any of these people were considered for the role of Dr. Loomis.  Both director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill have said that they wanted to cast an English horror actor in the role, as a bit of an homage to the Hammer films of the 60s.  Christopher Lee was offered the role but turned it down, saying that he didn’t care for the script or the low salary.  (Lee later said this was one of the biggest mistakes of his career.)  Peter Cushing’s agent turned down the role, again because of the money.  It’s not clear whether Cushing himself ever saw the script.

To be honest, I could easily Peter Cushing in the role and I could see him making a brilliant Dr. Loomis.  But, ultimately, Donald Pleasence was the perfect (if not the first) choice for the role.  Of course, Pleasence nearly turned down the role as well.  Apparently, it was his daughter, Angela, who changed his mind.  She was an admirer of John Carpenter’s previous film, Assault on Precint 13.  Carpenter has said that he was originally intimidated by Donald Pleasence (the man had played Blofeld, after all) but that Pleasence turned out to be a professional and a gentleman.

Laurie Strode

Of course, Halloween is best known for being the first starring role of Jamie Lee Curtis.  Curtis was actually not Carpenter’s first choice for the role of Laurie Strode.  His first choice was an actress named Annie Lockhart, who was the daughter of June Lockhart.  Carpenter changed his mind when he learned that Jamie was the daughter of Janet Leigh.  Like any great showman, Carpenter understood the importance of publicity and he knew nothing would bring his horror movie more publicity then casting the daughter of the woman whose onscreen death in Psycho left moviegoers nervous about taking a shower.

There was also another future big name who came close to appearing in Halloween.  At the time that she was cast as Lynda, P.J. Soles was dating an up-and-coming actor from Texas named Dennis Quaid.  Quaid was offered the role of Lynda’s doomed boyfriend, Bob but he was already committed to another film.

Not considered for a role was Robert Englund, though the future Freddy Krueger still spent some time on set.  He was hired by Carpenter to help spread around the leaves that would make it appear as if his film was taking place in the October, even though it was filmed in May.

Robert Englund, making May look like October

Interestingly enough, Englund nearly wasn’t need for that job because Halloween was not originally envisioned as taking place on Halloween or any other specific holiday.  When producer Irwin Yablans and financier Moustapha Akkad originally approached Carpenter and Hill to make a movie for them about a psycho stalking three babysitters, they didn’t care when the film was set.  It was only after Carpenter and Hill wrote a script called The Babysitter Muders that it occurred to Yablans that setting the film during Halloween would be good from a marketing standpoint.  Plus Halloween made for a better title than The Babysitter Murders.

And, of course, the rest is history.  Carpenter’s film came to define Halloween and it still remains the standard by which every subsequent slasher movie has been judged.  Would that have happened if the film had been known as The Babysitter Murders and had starred John Belushi?

Sadly, we may never know.

Film Review: Westworld (dir by Michael Crichton)


“Draw,” says Yul Brynner.

“Whatever,” says a tourist who has spent a lot of money to spend their vacation at the Delos amusement park.

BANG!  Down goes the tourist, as the robot revolution of 1983 begins.

Recently, TCM broadcast the 1973 science fiction thriller, Westworld.  Since I am absolutely obsessed with the more recent HBO revival, there was no way I could resist watching the original film.  It was an interesting experience.  While the film is far more simpler and straight-forward than the television series, they both essentially tell the same story.  A bunch of rich humans pay a lot of money to pretend to be either cowboys or knights or Roman citizens for a week.  Everyone has a great time until, eventually, the robots stop doing what they were supposed to do and instead, begin to fight back.

One thing that the movie and the series definitely shared is a less-than-positive view of humanity.  The movie focuses on two businessmen.  Peter (Richard Benjamin) is the nerdy one.  John (James Brolin) is the hypermasculine one.  Peter is visiting Westworld for the first time.  John is a frequent guest who loves gunning down any robots who looks at him the wrong way.  Neither one of these characters is particularly likable.  Peter starts out as a self-righteous hypocrite who ends up sleeping with a sexbot, despite being married.  John brags about how easy it is to kill the robots, mostly because the robot’s are programmed to not fight back.

Meanwhile, the human engineers who work behind-the-scenes and keep Delos running are all blandly incompetent.  When the robots start to malfunction, the engineers can only shrug and wonder why.  They’re so ineffective that, halfway through the movie, they get sealed up in their own control room, slowly suffocating to death while the park collapses around them.

As opposed to the TV series, the robots in Westworld never achieve any sort of real consciousness.  Even when they malfunction, it doesn’t lead to a true rebellion as much as it just causes them to ignore any previous directives about killing the guests.  When the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) starts stalking Peter and John across the park, it’s not an act of ideology or, for that matter, even revenge.  It’s simply that the Gunslinger has been programmed to be a killer and this is what a killer does.

It all leads to an extended chase sequence involving the Gunslinger and Peter and, despite the fact that it doesn’t have much of a personality, it’s hard not to be on The Gunslinger’s side.  If nothing else, the Gunslinger is at least good at what it does.  Peter, on the other hand, is perhaps one of the most incompetent heroes to ever show up in a movie.  After spending the first half of the movie being smug and dealing with robots programmed not to fight back, Peter now has to try to win on an even playing field.

Westworld was the directorial debut of writer Michael Crichton.  The film’s flaws are largely the flaws that you would expect from a first-time director.  Occasionally, the pacing falters and the first half of the film sometimes moves a bit too slowly.  (There’s one saloon fight that seems to go on forever.)  During the first half of the film, there’s several scenes involving another tourist (played by Dick Van Patten) who seems like he’s going to play a major role in the film but, after the first hour, the character literally vanishes from the film.

Despite those flaws, Westworld remains an exciting mix of suspense and science fiction.  Though his actual screentime is rather limited, Yul Brynner easily dominates the entire film.  In the role of the Gunslinger, Brynner is a relentless killing machine.  What makes the character especially disturbing is that Brynner plays him without a hint of emotion or expression.  The Gunslinger gets no pleasure out of killing nor does he seek to accomplish any sort of identifiable goal.  The Gunslinger simply kills because that’s what he was programmed to do.

While I prefer the HBO series, the original Westworld is still an exciting and entertaining film, one that probably seems a lot more plausible today than when it was first released 46 years ago.  Watch it the next time your home robot gets bored.

A Movie A Day #327: The Ultimate Warrior (1976, directed by Robert Clouse)


The year is 2012 and New York City, like the rest of the world, has been devastated by energy shortages, wars, and a great plague.  The few survivors now live in isolated communes and are easily victimized by roving gangs of marauders.  (On the plus side, this version of New York City has been spared Bill de Blasio.)  The Baron (Max von Sydow) has managed to keep his people safe by ruling with an iron hand but he knows that it will only be a matter of time until his commune is overrun by the psychotic Carrot (William Smith) and his men.  When a mysterious warrior known only as Carson (Yul Brynner) comes to the commune, the Baron tasks him with a very important mission: help his pregnant daughter (Joanna Miles) escape from New York City and transport both her and some genetically modified seeds to an island in North Carolina.

Despite being an obviously low-budget production, with studio backlots unconvincingly filling in for a deserted New York, The Ultimate Warrior is an entertaining post-apocalyptic action movie.  Yul Brynner was nearly 60 years old when he played Carson but he still had the intense stare that made him so menacing in Westworld and he still looked credible in the fight scenes.  William Smith was one of the best B-movie villains of the 70s and, as usual, Max Von Sydow brought a lot of gravity to his role.  Best known for directing Enter The Dragon, Robert Clouse was an action specialist and the fight scenes in The Ultimate Warrior are both exciting and realistic.  For those looking for a good post-apocalyptic action movie, keep an eye out for The Ultimate Warrior.

A Movie A Day #212: Fuzz (1972, directed by Richard A. Colla)


Detective Eileen McHenry (Raquel Welch) has just been given her new assignment and she is about to find out that there is never a dull day in the 87th Precinct.  How could there be when the precinct’s top detectives are played by Burt Reynolds, Tom Skerritt, and Jack Weston?  Or when Boston’s top criminal mastermind is played by Yul Brynner?  There is always something happening in the 8th Precinct.  Someone is stealing stuff from the precinct house.  Someone else is attacking the city’s homeless.  Even worse, Brynner is assassinating public officials and will not stop until he is paid a hefty ransom!

Based on the famous 87th Precinct novels that Evan Hunter wrote under the name Ed McBain, Fuzz has more in common with Robert Altman’s MASH than The French Connection.  (Skerritt and Bert Remsen, who plays a policeman in Fuzz, were both members of Altman’s stock company.)  Much like Altman’s best-regarded films, Fuzz is an ensemble piece, one that mixes comedy with tragedy and which features several different storylines playing out at once.  Scenes of homeless men being set on fire are mixed with scenes of Reynolds and Weston going undercover as nuns.  (Of course, Burt does not shave his mustache.)  Since it was written by Hunter, the film’s script comes close to duplicating the feel of the 87th Precinct novels.  Unfortunately, Richard A. Colla was a television director and Fuzz feels more like an extended episode of Police Story or Hill Street Blues than a movie.  Unlike Altman’s best films, Fuzz‘s constantly shifting tone and the mix of comedy and drama often feels awkward.  Fortunately, Fuzz does feature good performances from Reynolds, Westin, Skerritt, and Brynner, along with a great 70s score from Dave Grusin.  Raquel Welch is never believable as cop but she’s Raquel Welch so who cares?

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 13: ALL-STAR WESTERN ROUNDUP!


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Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game is tomorrow night, and in honor of that All-American pastime I’ve corralled an All-Star lineup of (mostly) All-American Westerns filled of blazing six-guns, galloping horses, barroom brawls, sexy saloon gals, and wide-open spaces. Hot damn, that DVR sure enough gets filled up mighty fast! Saddle up and enjoy these capsule looks at one of my favorite genres, the Western:

THE CARIBOO TRAIL (20th Century-Fox, 1950; D: Edwin L. Marin) – Randolph Scott   rides tall in the saddle driving his cattle to Vancouver gold rush country in this exciting oater filled with stampedes, Indian attacks, bad hombres, shoot outs, and fisticuffs. There’s a pretty saloon keeper (Karin Booth), a mean town boss (Victor Jory), and Scott’s bitter ex-pardner (Bill Williams), who had to have his arm amputated along the trail. Scenic Colorado stands in for Canada’s Great Northwest, shot in gorgeous Cinecolor by DP Fred Jackman Jr. Look for young…

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It’s the original THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN- or is it? (United Artists 1960)


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There’s a large hue and cry about the upcoming remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (and remakes in general) among classic film fans. “How dare they”, it kind of goes, “Why, that’s blasphemy!”. The truth is, Hollywood’s been cannibalizing itself since almost the beginning, and remakes have long been a staple of filmmakers. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a remake of Akira Kurasawa’s Japanese film SEVEN SAMAURI, moved to the American west by producer/director John Sturges . And while quite frankly most remakes can’t hold a candle to the originals, this 1960 action epic can stand on it’s own as one of the great Western adventures.

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Sturges assembled a macho cast to tell the tale of bandits terrorizing a small Mexican village, and the seven hired guns who take on the job of defending them. Top billed is Yul Brynner as Chris, the black clad gunslinger who puts together the crew. First among them is 

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The Fabulous Forties #1: Port of New York (dir by Laszlo Benedek)


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This last Christmas, along with several other wonderful and sexy gifts, I received The Fabulous Forties DVD box set.  Released by the good people at Mill Creek (who have yet to come across a single public domain film that they couldn’t repackage as being a classic), this box set contained 50 films from that wonderful decade.

Since my proclivity for serial reviewing is well-known, you’re probably not surprised that I’ve decided to watch and review all fifty of the films to be found in the Fabulous Forties box set.  And, once I’ve finished with the Fabulous Forties, I will move on to the Nifty Fifties, the Sensational Sixties, the Swinging Seventies, and the Excellent Eighties!  Since each box set contains 50 films, I will have watched and reviewed 250 films by the time this is all finished.  It might take a while but that’s okay.  Arleigh keeps us well-supplied with energy drinks here at the Shattered Lens bunker and I am determined to keep going until the job is done.

(And, if need be, there’s always Dexedrine…)

Let’s get things started with the first film in the box set, 1949’s Port of New York!

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This low-budget, black-and-white film opens with a series of shots of cargo ships sailing into New York Harbor.  A narrator, speaking in the type of tone that one would usually associate with an old educational film, informs us that, every day, thousands of ships sail into New York Harbor.  Most of those ships are delivering important supplies and conducting important business.  However, occasionally, the harbor is used by drug smugglers.  (GASP!)  Fortunately, both the federal and the state government employ brave and honest men who will stop at nothing to battle the scourge of opium.

(And, fortunately, since this film was made in 1949, they can do whatever they want without having to worry about the Supreme Court getting in the way.)

If it’s not already apparent, Port of New York is a bit of a time capsule.  The drug smugglers are unambiguous in their villainy and the decency and honesty of law enforcement is taken for granted.  Port of New York was filmed on location in New York and I enjoyed getting a chance to see what New York looked like in 1949.

As for the film’s plot — well, it’s nothing surprising.  The port authority discovers that a shipment of morphine, which was meant to be delivered to a pharmaceutical company, has instead been stolen.  A million dollars worth of narcotics is missing and the U.S. Government is going to find it!  Meanwhile, Toni Cardell (K.T. Stevens) approaches a narcotics agent and says that she has information that could take down one of New York’s biggest gangster.  However, before she can tell all the she knows, Toni is murdered.

(The detective who failed to keep Toni from leaving his office and going off to get killed looks down at her body, shrugs, and says, “This one’s on me.”)

Who killed her?  That’s what Mickey Waters (Scott Brady) and Jim Flannery (Richard Rober) spend the movie figuring out.  However, we already know that Toni was murdered by her boyfriend, a suave gangster named Paul Vicola.  Paul is played, in his film debut, by Yul Brynner and he gives a charismatic performance, turning Paul into a memorable monster.  Brynner still had a full head of hair when he did this movie, though his hairline was definitely moving backwards.

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Over the course of their investigation, Waters and Flannery discover that a second-rate comedian named Dolly Carney (Arthur Blake) is being supplied by Vicrola.  The scenes where they interrogate Dolly, who is going through withdraw, are some of the best in the film and are distinguished by Blake’s empathetic performance.  However, beyond those scenes, there’s really nothing surprising to be found in Port of New York.  It’s a thoroughly predictable police procedural that’s distinguished by the presence of Yul Brynner and not much else.  That said, the action in this 82-minute film moves quickly and I enjoyed it as a historical artifact.

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