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Posts Tagged ‘Jean Simmons’

Twenty years on from his death, the world seems to be thinking of Stanley Kubrick more than ever: an exhibition is currently running in London of props and personal effects from the Kubrick archives, a few weeks ago A Clockwork Orange enjoyed a re-release, there was a mini-season of his films across various BBC channels… then again, it does seem that Kubrick casts a longer shadow than most, and his films are revived on a regular basis (and quite right too, you might say). This even includes the one major film over which Kubrick did not have complete creative control, with the result that he was so dissatisfied that he effectively disowned it.

I speak, of course, of 1960’s Spartacus, onto which he was brought after the original director, Anthony Mann, was fired after only a week’s filming had been completed. The making of this film seems to have been unusually colourful: the project was initiated by star Kirk Douglas after he failed to win the lead role in Ben-Hur, found itself in a race with a rival Spartacus project involving Yul Brynner, was instrumental in destroying the Hollywood blacklist by crediting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Douglas recalls being rather disgusted by Kubrick’s eagerness to take the credit for the script), and so on.

This is entirely in keeping with a film which purports to be a retelling of one of the most intriguing stories of antiquity: the Third Servile War, also known as Spartacus’ rebellion against the Roman republic. Little is known of the actual history of these events, the Romans being characteristically reluctant to keep records of an incident they felt to be profoundly embarrassing. Given so little is known, I suppose it is quite impressive that the film manages to get the majority of the facts wrong.

Still, the story remains very roughly accurate in most respects: Kirk Douglas plays Spartacus, a man born into slavery but still possessed of a stubborn and rebellious streak: enough to get him into serious trouble in the mines where he has spent most of his life. He is saved from a death sentence by the gladiatorial entrepreneur Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who brings him to his school in Capua where a brutal training regime begins. Pretty much the only solace he gets, other than the sense of brotherhood that inevitably develops between the gladiators, is a low-key romance with a slave-girl named Varinia (Jean Simmons).

But all the ends with the visit of the ruthless soldier and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), who takes a fancy to Varinia and purchases her from Batiatus. He also informs Batiatus that he expects to see gladiators fight to the death for his entertainment and that of his distinguished young companions. Spartacus narrowly avoids death in the ensuing combat, but resentment festers amongst the slaves, and when he learns he is never to see Varinia again, Spartacus snaps and launches a revolt against the masters of the school. Soon all the countryside around Capua is in uproar and the rulers of Rome must decide on their response to the gathering slave army in the countryside…

Over the last fifty or sixty years, Spartacus has become a hardy perennial of the TV schedules, and I have watched the initial hour or so of the movie many, many times. This is mainly because the first act of the movie barely puts a foot wrong in establishing the characters and tone of the movie. The sequence culminating in the arena fight between Douglas and Woody Strode, in particular, is an exemplary demonstration of how to build up to, stage, and choreograph this kind of action set-piece, and a genuine highlight of the film. Of course, it also introduces Olivier as Crassus, thus setting up the much longer middle section of the film.

Once the gladiators actually start revolting, we reach the point at which I usually change the channel, to be honest, because the film undergoes a strange and slightly jarring change of emphasis – Spartacus, previously a taciturn figure who mainly expresses himself through violence, suddenly becomes an idealistic and (relatively) eloquent leader of men, in charge of a multitude of people who are presented in rather trite and sentimental terms – there seem to be a disproportionate number of small moppets, sweet old couples, and amusing dwarves amongst the rebelling slaves. One of Kubrick’s issues with the script was that Spartacus is a dull character without quirks, and he kind of has a point – Douglas relies heavily on his innate charisma, together with a couple of very minor grace-note scenes where he is afflicted with mild self-doubt.

What keeps the film going, apart from its impressive scale, spectacle, and Alex North’s marvellous orchestral score (you can hear echoes of it in many subsequent soundtracks by much more famous composers), is the other strand of the plot at this point, which concerns the political shenanigans in Rome – the viewer is left to pick this up for him or herself, mostly, but basically a class (or caste) struggle is in progress, with the wily old Gracchus (Charles Laughton) on one side, backed up by the massed plebes, set against the more aristocratic (not to mention autocratic) Crassus. Which way Gracchus’ protege Julius Caesar (John Gavin) will jump is not immediately clear (Caesar is a relatively minor character in Spartacus, and not especially sympathetically portrayed). The ace card of this section of the film is the presence of so many great actors – Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov – all apparently intent on outdoing each other. Ustinov and Laughton seem to have worked out they can’t match Olivier for sheer power and presence, as he was pretty much in his prime at this point, but they both milk their roles for all the entertainment value possible, and it was Ustinov who took the Oscar home.

Olivier’s dominance of the film seems quite fitting as one of the things that marks Spartacus out from the majority of sword-and-sandal epics is that it has a genuinely downbeat trajectory and an honestly bleak ending. All of Spartacus’ bold statements about freedom and the right to live as one chooses come to nothing – the rebellion is crushed, with thousands slaughtered by the Roman legions, and all it has achieved is to allow Crassus to orchestrate his rise to unmatched power in what remains of the Republic. There is no choir standing by behind the camera, no hopeful message about the eventual victory of Christianity – this is a rare example of a big Hollywood movie where the bad guy wins. The film works horribly hard to try and give Spartacus the moral victory, and at least Crassus doesn’t get the girl, but neither does he end up dead, on a cross, committing suicide, or driven into exile, which is what happens to the sympathetic characters in this film. (There’s no mention of the grisly fate suffered by the historical Crassus.) The film’s grimness and cynicism do feel authentically Kubrickian.

Elsewhere, the great director handles the toybox of the Hollywood epic with all the skill and elan you might expect, and – perhaps – the lack of ability to generate sincere emotion you might also associate with his work. The climactic battle between the slaves and the legions is stirring stuff, to be sure, and the vista of corpses as far as the eye can see in the aftermath is an uncompromising image, but the defeat of the heroes and the death of all their dreams never quite hits you where you live; the battle is missing the moment where Spartacus realises his army has no chance of victory and we see his reaction to it. It is this and a few other missed beats that keep Spartacus from being a classic of the first rank. Nevertheless, for all of Kubrick’s antipathy towards it, this is a film which most other directors would and should have been very proud of.

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Well, following a vague and unexpected stab at reviewing West Side Story last month, we may as well continue our meander through classic Hollywood musicals, in a new irregular feature entitled… you know, I really can’t think of a name for this strand. Gimme Some Jazz Hands? Once More With Feeling? Don’t Call Brosnan? Ladies and gentlemen of the NCJG readership, I throw it open to you.

Anyway, on this occasion the all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza in question is Joseph L Mankiewicz’s Guys and Dolls from 1955. Like West Side Story, this is a New York tale of lives of sometimes questionable virtue and the redemptive power of love, but while only a handful of years separate the two films, they seem to come from totally different worlds.

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A jolly opening sequence reveals we are in a world of gamblers and petty crooks, but not one which feels remotely threatening or grounded. Our attention is first drawn to Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra), whose living is the organisation of illegal gambling. Nathan is a man with problems – his long-term (and, one suspects, long-suffering) girlfriend Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) is growing increasingly insistent that he marry her, but more importantly, he doesn’t have a venue for the peripatetic dice game he has been running for several decades: the only option available requires a $1000 payment he simply doesn’t possess. To get the cash, he has the bright idea of making a bet with high-rolling gambler Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) that he will be unable to take strait-laced mission worker Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) out to dinner. Will Sky win the bet? If so, will Nathan be able to hold his game? And will the guys end up happily ever after with their girls?

No prizes for guessing the answers to any of the above. In the past I have praised the unique ability of the non-diegetic musical to combine the examination of serious social issues with the most uplifting, pure entertainment – but this is, of course, a best-case scenario, and Guys and Dolls is, I would suggest, not really a musical of the first rank. What does it speak of human nature? What is it fundamentally about? Well, er – sometimes you fall in love with someone you probably shouldn’t (rather more frequently than that, in my experience). Many men have commitment issues. And, er, that’s about it.

Guys and Dolls doesn’t attempt to be remotely serious or realistic in any way. Everyone talks in the most bizarrely mannered way, with byzantinely convoluted sentence construction and no contractions, as if to hammer home the unreality of the film’s milieu. Perhaps this is because a realistic film about New York low-lives would be tonally inappropriate for the fluffiness of the plot, but it does result in the film feeling even more detached from reality. Based on a couple of Damon Runyon stories, its status as a New York movie is compromised by the fact the whole thing has obviously been shot on soundstages. This is a musical with all potential rough edges filed down: not just a soft centre, but a soft exterior as well.

Even so, a musical setting out just to provide entertainment value isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the real problem with Guys and Dolls is that this is a two-and-a-half-hour musical, at the end of which you will probably only be able to¬†whistle the tunes of two or three of the songs. Not that most of the rest are actually bad in their music or lyrics (the composer is Frank Loesser, by the way), it’s just they will most likely have slipped quietly from your memory by the film’s conclusion, leaving you with only the title song (sung by Sinatra, Stubby Kaye and Johnny Silver), ‘Luck be a Lady’ (by Brando), and ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat’ (Kaye again). This is a notably low hit rate for a major musical, and I found my heart starting to sink whenever Vivian Blaine launched into another of her solo numbers: again, these aren’t actively bad songs, but they’re mostly just plot-stopping filler.

There are lots of other things, both good and bad, one could say about Guys and Dolls, concerning both the acting and the plot. You might expect Marlon Brando, the great exponent of the realistic performance, to be well outside his comfort zone in a musical as arch as this one, and it’s true that you get no sense that you’re watching One of the Greatest Actors of All Time from his performance. But he’s not bad; he passes the Brosnan Test comfortably, and even dances a bit without embarrassing himself. Jean Simmons is actually very good indeed as Sarah Brown, and their romance is genuinely touching in places, if a bit suspect in others (How to Handle a Woman the Sky Masterson Way consists of equal parts of moral blackmail and getting her smashed on Bacardi, apparently). On the other hand, the presentation of the Cuban characters in the movie borders on the racist (50s New York seems to be a whites-only city, too), and the climax seems to me to be badly mishandled: we don’t actually see the reconciliation of the two lovers, and the final double wedding is surely taking cheesiness too far.

Like I say, you could say all these things: but it’s really just refrigerator noise, given that this is a musical where most of the songs are not really that great. Perhaps I’ve just been spoilt, having seen West Side Story so recently, but I do think that a genuinely first-rate musical should have a killer-to-filler song ratio of at least 70%-30%. In Guys and Dolls that ratio is backwards, and this may be why it’s not better remembered. As it is, this is good-natured, mildly-involving, gently amusing entertainment, but nothing much more substantial than that.

 

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