Ben-Hur (1959)

2016 #143
William Wyler | 222 mins | Blu-ray | 2.76:1 | USA / English | PG / G

Oscar statue1960 Academy Awards
12 nominations — 11 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Actor (Charlton Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Director, Best Cinematography (Color), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Special Effects, Best Music.
Nominated: Best Adapted Screenplay.

All that you have read about Ben-Hur, all that you have heard about Ben-Hur, is surpassed by the actuality.

Ben-HurSo claims Ben-Hur’s 1961 trailer. They were cocky back then, weren’t they?

The third (of, to date, six) screen adaptations of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the 1959 version is certainly the most famous, in part because it was the sole holder of the title “winner of most Oscars” for 38 years (until Titanic equalised, followed by Return of the King just six years later), and also because of its chariot race climax — which comes almost an hour before the end, because it’s also really bloody long (over 3½ hours even without counting the overture, intermission, and entr’acte). It’s also really rather good, though it’s a tale that would be better without the Christ.

Although it begins and ends with that Jesus fella, it’s really the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Jewish prince of Roman-occupied Jerusalem in 26AD. When Messala (Stephen Boyd), Judah’s childhood friend (and, possibly, lover — I’ll come to that), returns as head of the city’s Roman garrison, he asks for Judah’s help in capturing dissident Jews. Judah refuses, his loyalty more aligned to his faith and countrymen than the glory of the Roman Empire. Consequently, a spurned Messala uses a slip-up during the arrival of the region’s new governor as an excuse to arrest Judah, condemning him to slavery. Cue a couple of hours of desert treks, rowing, sea battles, ethnic dancing, a blackface Sheik, gambling, that chariot race, leprosy, and Jesus getting crucified (spoilers!)

I’m being flippant, but most of this is suitably dramatic. It’s a proper epic, a grand story with huge set pieces and world-changing events, and it’s executed with a scale suitable to that narrative. Despite the length, it’s almost constantly engrossing. I had planned to split it over two nights at the intermission (despite the imbalance that causes — Part One is an hour longer than Part Two), but was so invested that I stuck with it regardless. There are things that have aged poorly, be that the model effects in the sea battle or using a white actor in heavy make-up to portray an Arab, but I think you have to take these things with a certain element of the spirit of the era — I’m sure no offence was intended (see also: Lawrence of Arabia).

More harmful to the film’s quality is the Christ element. I guess this is seen as an integral part of the story by some people: it’s the subtitle of the original novel and the 1925 film; this version includes it on screen right after the title card; and both this film and the novel have received rare approval from the Vatican. Knowing this, I was prepared to be open-minded about it. At times, it’s fine. Jesus’ life is going on at the same time as Ben-Hur’s, and occasionally it intersects in ways that bolster the film’s story or help reflect some of its themes, like forgiveness (or otherwise). The problem comes at the end: the story climaxes, and then the narrative toddles on with what you might kindly call an extended epilogue that sees Judah realise Christ’s importance as he witnesses the crucifixion. Perhaps this could work in itself (though, without wanting to spoil developments, the way it’s used to solve some problems is incredibly pat), but it runs on too long with too little direct relevance. Apparently director William Wyler, who was Jewish, was keen to make a film that would appeal to all faiths, and insisted that it was the personal story of Judah Ben-Hur that was largely responsible for the film’s enduring success. I think he’s absolutely right about that: the story — the actual story — is wrapped up about half-an-hour before the film itself ends. It doesn’t prevent what comes before from being highly enjoyable, but it’s so tangential and long-winded that it becomes a problem. Ultimately, I knocked a whole star off because of it.

This Christian aspect contrasts sharply with the other subtext I alluded to earlier: the possibility that Judah and Messala were once lovers. The claim originates with screenwriter Gore Vidal, who may or may not have written some or all of the screenplay that was used for shooting. According to Vidal, he and Stephen Boyd discussed the idea before shooting began, and then Boyd played the scenes with it in mind. However, it was kept hidden from Charlton Heston because he’d never agree to it, and when the notion was put to him later he naturally denied there was any homosexual subtext. Whether this tale is true in the literal sense of that subtext being written into the screenplay and Boyd choosing to incorporate it into his performance, I don’t know, but the content of the film makes it easy to believe — the scenes between Messala and Judah, especially when they’re first reunited, absolutely play like there’s a romantic history between them. Bear that in mind and it seems to reoccur later, too: when the story returns to Jerusalem after several years, Messala seems particularly close to his deputy; and there are a couple of shots of Judah being chummy towards a random stableboy (I mean, they’re not much, but if you watch it with the assumption that Judah is gay or bi…) What does this signify? Perhaps not a great deal. I’m sure you can choose to completely ignore it. I imagine some would passionately deny even the possibility it’s there. Personally, I think it adds something to the characters’ relationship.

Believe that subtext or not, Boyd is excellent as Messala. He was overlooked at many awards in favour of Hugh Griffith as the aforementioned Sheik. Not that Griffith is bad, but there’s far more nuance, variety, and power to Boyd’s performance. He’s much more deserving of a gong than Heston, even, who’s a very capable leading man type, but I’m not sure his performance has the kind of depth that would pass muster for Best Actor today. That said, Mike at Films on the Box makes a good case for his defence! Either way, the technical awards the film scooped up are certainly merited. The cinematography is fantastic, with the landscape shots making particularly excellent use of the extra-wide frame. As for the chariot race, it stands up as an incredible action sequence even today, driven by thrilling camerawork and editing, and showcasing some daring stunt work.

When it’s dealing in this kind of material, the actuality of Ben-Hur does indeed surpass its reputation. It’s a shame there’s that other stuff that spoils the party.

4 out of 5

The new, sixth screen adaptation of Ben-Hur is released in the UK later this week.

Ben-Hur was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Touch of Evil (1958)

1998 Reconstructed Version

2013 #58
Orson Welles | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Touch of EvilA bomb is stuck to the underside of a car. As the vehicle pulls away, the camera drifts up into the sky, and proceeds to follow the automobile through the streets of a small Mexican border town, until it crosses the border into the US… and explodes. It’s probably the most famous long take in film history, and probably the thing Touch of Evil is most widely known for; that, and it being one of the most commonly-cited points at which the classic film noir era comes to an end.

So who planted the bomb? Who was their target? And why? None of those questions matter. I’m sure they’re answered, but I don’t recall what those answers were, because they’re not what the film is about. What it’s about is Charlton Heston vs Orson Welles. The former is Vargas, a righteous Mexican drugs enforcement officer who witnesses the bombing while out walking with his new American wife. The latter is Quinlan, the policeman charged with finding the culprit — and he isn’t an honest copper. When Quinlan works out who he thinks is guilty, he makes sure there’s the evidence to back that up. And I don’t mean by doing thorough police work. Vargas catches him more-or-less in the act; Quinlan won’t allow himself to be exposed. It’s a game of cat and mouse; at stake, not just two men’s reputations, but justice and the law (not the same thing); and just waiting to get tangled in the middle, Vargas’ new wife — sweet, innocent Janet Leigh.

This is not film noir as many think they know it. Instead of a doggedly determined wisecracking PI solving a slightly seedy case, Touch of Evil is suffused with a sweaty and disquieting atmosphere. Vargas and his wifeIt’s like a terrible fever dream, with events and characters that sometimes seem disconnected, but nonetheless interweave through a dense plot. In this sense Welles puts us quite effectively in the shoes of Vargas and his wife — out of our depth, out of our comfort zone, out of control, struggling to keep up and keep afloat. It might be unpleasant if it wasn’t so engrossing.

Similarly uncomfortable are the film’s moral implications. Well, possibly. In the booklet accompanying Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray release, French critics François Truffaut and André Bazin both assert that Welles’ Quinlan, while ostensibly the villain, is really a hero; that though he technically breaks the law, he’s morally right to do so. Essentially — or in Truffaut’s case, explicitly — they are defending policemen who fabricate evidence to ensure a conviction. Unfortunately for all their so-called intellectualising, Welles completely disagrees: “The personal element in the film is the hatred I feel for the way the police abuse their power… The things said by Vargas are what I would say myself… that’s the angle the film should be seen from; everything Vargas says, I say.”

Amusingly, Bazin is indeed forced to admit that “in the interviews which he gave me… Welles challenged this interpretation. He maintains that his moral position is unequivocal and he condemns [Quinlan] absolutely”. Meanwhile, Truffaut’s praise-filled essay asserts that, in the film’s ending, “[Vargas’] sneakiness and mediocrity have triumphed over [Quinlan’s] intuition and absolute justice.” Elsewhere, Welles summarises that “it’s a mistake to think I approve of QuinlanQuinlan at all… there is not the least spark of genius in him; if there does seem to be one, I’ve made a mistake.” You can get pretentious about it all you want, and bring to bear political views that the film doesn’t support (after all, within the film Quinlan is punished for his crimes and the “mediocre” (Truffaut’s word) moral hero triumphs), but sometimes a spade is a spade; sometimes a villain is a villain; sometimes your disgusting moral perspective isn’t being covertly supported by a film that seems to condemn it.

Welles:

What I want to say in the film is this: that in the modern world we have to choose between the law’s morality, and the morality of simple justice, that is to say between lynching someone and letting him go free. I prefer a murderer to go free, than to have the police arrest him by mistake. Quinlan doesn’t so much want to bring the guilty to justice, as to murder them in the name of the law, and that’s a fascist argument, a totalitarian argument contrary to the tradition of human law and justice such as I understand it.

So that’s the end of that.

Welles’ beliefs about filmmaking were similarly forthright, stating that “all of the eloquence of film is created in the editing room” — the images were important, but the real art was in how they were placed together in the edit. It must have been especially hard for him, then, that so many of his films were “violently torn from [his] hands”: as of 1965, he says only Citizen Kane, Othello and Don Quixote were movies he’d been allowed to edit to his own specification (and that last one barely counts).

a 58-page memo?Notably and obviously absent from that list is Touch of Evil. It was taken away from Welles during the editing process, and though he submitted an infamous 58-page memo of suggestions after seeing a later rough cut, only some were followed in the version ultimately released. Time has brought change, however, and there are now multiple versions of Touch of Evil for the viewer to choose from; but whereas history often resolves one version of a film to be the definitive article, it’s hard to know which that is in this case. Indeed, it’s so contentious that Masters of Cinema went so far as to include five versions on their 2011 Blu-ray (it would’ve been six, but Universal couldn’t/wouldn’t supply the final one in HD.) The version I chose to watch, dubbed the “Reconstructed Version”, tries to recreate Welles’ vision, using footage from the theatrical cut and a preview version discovered in the ’70s to follow his notes. Despite the best intentions of its creators, this can only ever be an attempt at restoring what Welles wanted. Equally, although it was the version originally released, the theatrical cut ignores many of the director’s wishes — so as neither version was finished by Welles, surely the one created by people trying to enact his wishes is preferable to the one assembled by people who only took his ideas on advisement?

But that’s not all, poor viewer! There’s also the issue of the film’s aspect ratio: Welles was forced to shoot the film for projection at 1.85:1, but he did so on the understanding that an open matte 1.37:1 version would be shown on TV. He penned an article the same year as Touch of Evil’s release, called “Ribbon of Dreams”, in which he firmly advocates the Academy ratio and shows a strong distaste for widescreen (reading it today, it’s reminiscent of and comparable to Christopher Nolan’s comments on the film vs digital debate). With that considered, the full screen version would seem the preferable choice. It's enough to drive you to drinkTo quote from Master of Cinema’s booklet, “the familiar Wellesian framing appears in 1.37:1: indeed, the “world” of the film setting emerges with little or no empty space at the top and bottom of the frame, almost certainly beyond mere coincidence.” There are things to recommend the widescreen experience (“a more tightly-wound, claustrophobic atmosphere”), and undoubtedly the debate will continue… and such is the wonders of the modern film fan that, rather than having to make do with someone else’s decision on what to put out, all the alternatives are at our fingertips.

Obviously I can’t speak for all the different cuts of Touch of Evil, but considering its constituent elements, it’s hard to imagine a version that isn’t complex, thought-provoking, perhaps a bit uncomfortable, and all-round an impressive work of cinema.

5 out of 5

Touch of Evil was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

Hamlet (1996)

2008 #50
Kenneth Branagh | 232 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

Hamlet (1996)Following his success with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh tackled arguably Shakespeare’s most revered play, Hamlet. And he didn’t do it by half. It’s the first ever full-text screen adaptation, which means it clocks in just shy of four hours; he unusually shot it on 70mm film, which means it looks gorgeous; and, while he grabbed the title role himself, he assembled around him a ludicrously star-packed cast from both sides of the pond — in alphabetical order, there’s Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Nicholas Farrell, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, John Mills, Jimi Mistry, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, Don Warrington, Robin Williams and Kate Winslet — not to mention several other recognisable faces. Even Ken Dodd’s in there!

But, with impressive statistics and name-dropping put to one side, what of the film itself? Well, it’s a bit of a slog, especially for someone unfamiliar with the text. While there is much to keep the viewer engaged, the high level of attention required can make it a little wearing; certainly, I took the intermission as a chance to split the film over two nights. Amusingly, the second half uses the original text to provide a sort of “Previously on Hamlet“, which was very useful 24 hours later. None of this is the fault of Branagh or his cast, who do their utmost to make the text legible for newbies — for example, there are cutaways to events that are described but not shown by Shakespeare, which, among other things, help establish who Fortinbras is (Rufus Sewell, as it turns out) before he finally turns up later on.

That said, some of the performances are a bit mixed. Branagh is a good director and not a bad actor, but his Shakespearean performances are variations on a theme rather than fully delineated characters. While there a new facets on display here thanks to the complexity of the character, there are also many elements that are eerily reminiscent of his Henry V and Benedick. The Americans among the cast seem to be on best behaviour and generally cope surprisingly well, while Julie Christie achieves an above average amount of fully legible dialogue. Perhaps the biggest casting surprise is Judi Dench, appearing in what is barely a cameo — one wonders if the film-career-boosting effects of a certain spy franchise would have changed that.

The best thing about this version, however, is how it looks. Much credit to cinematographer Alex Thomson for using the larger 70mm format to its full, loading every frame with vibrant colours and packing detail into even the quietest moments. Not every frame is a work of art — there is, after all, a story to be told — but there’s more than enough eye candy to go round. Also, a nod to the editing (the work of Neil Farrell), which makes good use of long takes — many of them full of camera moves — but also sharply edited sequences, such as the all-important play. The fast cuts make for a joyously tense scene in a way only cinema can provide, which I suppose is rather ironic during a ‘play within a play’.

For fans of Shakespeare, I suspect Branagh’s Hamlet is a wonderful experience, finally bringing the complete text to the screen and executing it all so well. For us mere mortals, it’s a beautifully shot and engagingly performed film, that I’m sure would benefit from a greater understanding of the text.

4 out of 5