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63 years ago...

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Bigger Than Life (1956)
Director: Nicholas Ray
Country: United States
Length: 95 minutes
Type: Drama

James Mason plays a self-confessed rather "boring" father and teacher who is prescribed powerful new Steroids but begins abusing them, leading to mood swings and paranoia. His tirade at the school parent's evening has fascistic undertones and he ultimately turns psychotic. The authority with which Mason states "God was wrong!" when reading from the Bible is scary. I'm sure the kind of extreme behaviors depicted are all possible given enough time and enough prolonged abuse but when you condense it all into a few days/weeks in a 95-minute movie it becomes a bit melodramatic. The descent is conveyed superbly by Director Nicholas Ray through the use of colour, sound, lighting and framing. Considering all the news coverage in recent years about prescription drug misuse, 'Bigger Than Life' is a film that still has something to say.



A Bing Crosby film next.
63 years ago...

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High Society (1956)
Director: Charles Walters
Country: United States
Length: 111 minutes
Type: Musical, Romantic-Comedy

This Musical remake of 1940's 'The Philadelphia Story' doesn't reach the same heights but it gets close. Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra make winning replacements for Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart (in that order). The zippy, acid-tongued banter is still there, so I found the adequate songs to be a distraction to the flow of that dialogue. Louis Armstrong and his Band (playing themselves) add a touch of class to the music.  This was Kelly's last film before she retired to be "Princess Grace of Monaco" and can be seen wearing her $4-million engagement ring in the film.



Next up, Cecil B. DeMille's magnificent octopus.
63 years ago...

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The Ten Commandments (1956)
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Country: United States
Length: 220 minutes
Type: Biblical Epic

There is something so right about the combination of a Sunday afternoon and a good old fashioned 3-4 hour Epic. I'd seen Cecil B. DeMille's adaptation of the Moses biblical story once on TV when I was very little but this was the first time seeing it in it's stunning 6K restoration. With an Overture, a lecture from DeMille about the rigorous historical research behind the film (just so it's clear that this story of magic snakes, talking bushes and parting seas definitely really happened Wink ) and then an opening title sequence... the film doesn't even start for 8-9 minutes. Whether you believe the story or not, it can still be enjoyed in the same way one enjoys seeing Gandalf face down the Balrog in 'Lord of the Rings', Yoda lifting the X-Wing in 'The Empire Strikes Back', Neo rescuing Morpheus in 'The Matrix', or Muad'Dib summoning rain in David Lynch's 'Dune'. Charlton Heston with his big grey beard and long staff (possibly the model for the staff Sir Ian McKellan carries) looks every inch the Tolkien wizard and he wraps himself in a bright red cloak that is just missing a big yellow "S".

The vast crowd scenes are impressive, the sets are so large the mind boggles, the rear-projection shots look perfect but the green-screen compositing is obvious. It's like they were trying to make the matte lines look as big as possible but the shots are composed like bold classical paintings so the unreality almost doesn't matter. Yul Brynner looks like a bronzed athletic god of a man, making his role as the god-like Pharaoh of Egypt very believable. The film all builds towards the big FX sequence where Moses parts the Red Sea. After that there is an anti-climactic and silly post-script where Moses leaves his people for what feels like 15-minutes to go off and get the Ten Commandments and they all suddenly forget the miracles they've just witnessed and begin worshiping golden idols and partying like it's 1999 BC. It's mostly a mistake of trying to condense too much myth into too little time but it's the one flaw in this total classic. Now I've got an itch to watch Paramount's own belated sequel 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' Big Grin  (John Williams and Steven Spielberg were clearly paying homage with their film).



^ This 1989 re-issue trailer is amazing "There was a time when the Cinema was a place of spectacle and wonder..." (it uses a similar technique to the 1997 Star Wars SE trailer).

A Sidney Lumet film next.

The Ten Commandments (1923)
Cecil B. DeMille's first silent run at the Moses story was included on a bonus blu-ray with his 1956 version, so I gave that a watch too. The first half follows the same basic structure but the other half is set in the then present day, following the trials and tribulations of a family who don't follow the commandments. The elderly, confused looking Theodore Roberts doesn't have the vigor and stature of Charlton Heston in the Moses role. Redundant verbatim quotes from the Bible are used in instead of the usual illustrative and important inter-titles. The present day stuff is pretty melodramatic but there is some good acting in there. Some of the FX, like the words of God appearing out of the sky still look great, some of them like the parting of the waves (done with wobbly jelly) is less impressive. It's interesting to see the two versions back-to-back but otherwise I probably wouldn't bother with this one.



The Ten Commandments: Making Miracles (2011)
A feature doc about Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 biblical epic, included on the 3x blu-ray set. Most of the behind the scenes photos and stuff is in lovely HD and they get interviews with the sons and daughters of the key players, who dish out plenty of anecdotes. I didn't know that DeMille had a heart-attack during the location shoot but carried on anyway, despite his Doctor predicting it would kill him.

62 years ago...

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12 Angry Men (1957)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Country: United States
Length: 96 minutes
Type: Courtroom Drama

The men of the title are a jury deciding the fate of a troubled kid accused of the murder of his father. 11 of the men are confident he's guilty and eager to swiftly get out of the sweltering heat of the jury chamber but one man (Henry Fonda) has nagging doubts about the evidence and refuses to condemn the boy so quickly. Across 96-minutes the case is built up, examined and taken apart, revealing each man's own attitudes and prejudices. Everything takes place in one small room, so Director Sidney Lumet uses every angle, lens and composition to keep it fresh and build intensity. Despite all those efforts, it always feels like it's a stage play... albeit one of the best written and best acted stage plays you'll ever see.



Ingmar Bergman's most iconic film next.
62 years ago...

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The Seventh Seal (1957)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Country: Sweden
Length: 96 minutes
Type: Historical, Drama, Fantasy

I'm sure everybody is familiar with the iconic image of the Knight playing chess with Death but that's only the opening of Ingmar Bergman's film. Most of the film follows Max von Sydow's returning Crusader Knight and his nihilistic squire as they ride across medieval Sweden in the grip of the Black Death and religious hysteria, encountering various strange people in a series of vignettes. 'The Seventh Seal' has been heavily homaged and parodied over the years in things like 'Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey', 'The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey' and 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' and I suspect the doom-laded atmosphere and decayed look of this film has shaped the way we picture the Dark Ages in our collective imaginations ever since. I felt the influence of Orson Welles' 1951 version of 'Othello' in the shot compositions.



Scott Walker put the film's script to music on a track from his 4th solo album which I've been listening to for years, so it was nice to finally see where it came from (a youtube editor has handily combined the two):



Yet another Cary Grant classic net.
62 years ago...

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An Affair To Remember (1957)
Director: Leo McCarey
Country: United States
Length: 115 minutes
Type: Romance

I love Cary Grant, I love Deborah Kerr and I love Director Leo McCarey, so I love this right...? Well not particularly no. Nicolò and Terry fall in love aboard a transatlantic liner and for some reason they make a pact to meet again in 6-months at the top of the Empire State Building. Naturally fate intervenes and the meeting doesn't happen because Terry gets hit by a car on the way to the rendezvous. Then for some reason neither of them are able to find the other, despite Nicolò being an international celebrity who is recognised everywhere and Terry being a famous singer. After the accident Terry has difficulty walking but I found it difficult to accept that she thought being physically disabled was so shameful that she could never see Nicolò again (even in 1957). It all feels pretty contrived. The scene where Nicolò and Terry exchange silent glances while his grandmother plays the film's romance theme on piano is really lovely though.



Another Ingmar Bergman film next.
62 years ago...

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Wild Strawberries (1957)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Country: Sweden
Length: 91 minutes
Type: Drama

'Wild Strawberries' ('Smultronstallet') follows the elderly Professor Borg on a road trip with his pregnant daughter in law, who doesn't much care for him. Pioneering Swedish Silent-Film Director Victor Sjostrom plays the lead, his last work before he died in 1960. Along the way Borg encounters places and people that remind him of events from his past and through them he re-evaluates his life. Ingmar Bergman skillfully weaves backwards and forwards in place and time through deceptively simple tricks of editing, lighting, sound and camera placement. The characters start off cold and distant, like one might expect of a Bergman piece but he reveals them as warm and sympathetic people as the film goes on. I wish I spoke Swedish (and didn't have to read the subtitles) because I felt I was missing part of the dream-state experience by not be able to give the compositions, landscapes and faces my undivided attention.





Another Fellini/Masina film next.
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