(On TV, June 2018) Much has been written and said about Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, and nearly all of it supports the assertion that it is a late film-noir classic. I certainly won’t dispute the critical consensus: From its landmark first extended shot, Touch of Evil is the work of a master filmmaker, deftly guiding us through a familiar plot with enough energy and precision to make it look at fresh and new. By the late fifties, film noir was growing aware of its own stylized approach, and Welles had ballooned up to his late-day persona. Both are used effectively, with Welles delivering plenty of visual style as a director, while turning in a remarkably disquieting performance as a deeply corrupt police officer. The film effectively uses actors such as Marlene Dietrich, but somehow convinced itself that Charlton Heston would make a convincing Mexican under layers of makeup. This misstep stands out but does not really damage the film, which is good enough to stand on its own. The sense of palpable desperation certainly associates Touch of Evil with prototypical film noir—it remains a must see for fans of the genre.
(On TV, April 2018) I’m not sure about you, but when I was a boy attending French Catholic Grade School, Easter was a season during which we were all herded in the auditorium and shown one of two movies as put on the flickering projector: Either “the story of Jesus” (which I think was 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told) or The Ten Commandments. So, watching this again thirty years later … is almost an ordeal, although not necessarily for artistic or atheistic reasons. No, in order to understand why The Ten Commandments is a bit of a bother these days, just look at the four hours running time. I understand that epics need to be long in order to be epic … but four hours is a long time. It also doesn’t help that it’s such a familiar story—If you want a zippier take, then 1998’s animated The Prince of Egypt zooms by at 100 minutes (with songs!), while much better special effects and actors can be found in 2014’s 150-minute Exodus: Gods and Kings. This being said, I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that the 1956 version isn’t worth a look. I mean: Yul Brynner as Ramses and Charlton Heston as Moses? Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton wish they could be Brynner and Heston. Plus let’s not underestimate the appeal of Anne Baxter and Yvonne De Carlo. But most of all, what’s in The Ten Commandments and not in Exodus is the sense of the sacred—I may lean toward atheism, but I think that a sense of awe and wonder is a requirement for the story of Moses. Awe is what The Ten Commandments delivers in spades, augmented by the arch melodrama so typical of Cecil B. DeMille’s epic films. Sure, it may sound silly and look even worse compared to today’s realistic aesthetics, but it does work on a level we can’t quite understand. The parting of the Red Sea sequence remains a yardstick even despite the unbearably dated special effects because it’s done with so much conviction that modern CGI spectacles can’t even compare. The script could use quite a bit of trimming, but keep in mind that in 1956, audiences couldn’t be happier to get four hours of spectacle for the price of their movie tickets. The word “epic” is often overused, but it’s strikingly appropriate for the large-scale sequences with a literal cast of thousands, offering all-real images that remain impressive even today. Watching the film as broadcast on ABC for decades, I also enjoyed the sense of participating, once again, in a ritual of sorts. It may be long, but The Ten Commandments is worth the trouble.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) I actually have faint and mild traumatized memories of seeing the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes as a kid, with its nightmarish conclusion. A more contemporary viewing isn’t making me any friendlier toward the film, although for different reasons: I now think that the end of the film, with its horrific facial revelation and atomic conclusion, is the best thing about a remarkably redundant sequel. Not that I’ve been a fan of the original film or the subsequent series—While the 2011–2017 second remake trilogy is fantastic, the first series and 2001 singleton are dull beyond belief. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is not particularly interesting, revisiting the same material and not offering much until the end. Even Charlton Heston is sidelined for most of the film. The cosmic coincidence of having a second set of astronauts land in more or less the same place is too big to swallow, and the grimness of the ending, underscored by a fairly definitive narration, isn’t one to make one’s inner kid happy. Too bad the rest of the series couldn’t stay as dead as it should have been after the ending of this one.
(On DVD, December 2017) Everyone knows Soylent Green’s big twist, but there’s a lot more to the movie than Charlton Heston’s panicked “it’s PEOPLE!” Firmly dystopian even when it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t take a long time for Soylent Green to showcase its nightmarish vision of an overpopulated New York in a world where the environment has been (entirely?) destroyed. Things are so bad that steak and vegetables are a rare delicacy, and where even good cops can’t help but pillage the apartment of a rich murder victim. Euthanasia has been ritualized, street protests are cleaned up by heavy machinery and there’s a clear twilight-for-humanity theme to the film’s atmosphere. Heston stars as a cop intrigued by the murder of one of the city’s elite, but much of the movie is one bad thing after another, all the way to a gut-punch of a conclusion that finalizes the grim fate of its protagonist through a happy montage earlier established to signify a Requiem. You can know everything about Soylent Green’s conclusion and still be impressed (in the most depressing sense of the word) by the film’s relentless grimness. Very loosely adapted from Harry Harrison’s classic genre SF novel “Make Room! Make Room!” (which doesn’t even feature the big twist of the film), Soylent Green gets more interesting the more you read about it, especially how Edward G. Robinson’s final performance ends with an elaborate death sequence (the actor died twelve days after filming). Firmly belonging to the “Science-fiction as a warning” school of filmmaking, Soylent Green is often rough and crude. But it does carry a certain impact that helps make it stand out even today. It’s clearly a product of the seventies, but I found it somewhat more interesting than it’s endlessly parodied twist would suggest.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, October 2017) The original Planet of the Apes is often used as a punchline these days (if it’s not a reference to the classic twist ending, then it’s about The Simpson’s “Doctor Zaius” musical, the increasingly bad sequels or generally anything to do with a “man in ape suits” standard for bad SF movies) and it does deserve a lot of cackling. Much of the plot mechanics are silly, the overall premise makes zero sense (not to mention anything about the sequels), the thematic messages are heavy-handed and Charlton Heston does chew heroic amounts of scenery in his performance. Still, watching the film today does have a few unexpected things going for it. It’s clearly a big-budget production for its time, something that can be seen in a rather lavish opening sequence. Heston’s character is also surprisingly cranky for a heroic protagonist, and the script does have a few odd zingers here and there. Still, even the most forgiving viewer has to acknowledge that the film has aged poorly. The goofy script (by Twilight Zone legend Rod Serling) is ham-fisted, the production values show their age and much of the film feels dull given how often it goes over familiar terrain. In fact, one thing I did not expect from watching the original film is how much better it makes the 2001 remake look—especially given how I did not particularly like the remake. And this is not even mentioning the far superior 2011–2017 reboot trilogy.