(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, March 2018) There’s a deliciously impish quality to All about Eve that becomes apparent only a few moments in the movie, and remains the film’s best quality throughout. It’s a cynical look at showbusiness, triangulated between actors, writers and critics. Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz can use rich material in his exploration of the dirty side of theatrical showbusiness, and his actors, in-between Bette Davis, Anne Baxter and George Sanders, are all up to the challenges of his vision. (Plus, a small role for Marilyn Monroe.) All about Eve has a lot to say about fame, acting, age and even a touch of closeted homosexuality. It does so with considerable wit—the film is good throughout, but it improves sharply whenever George Sanders shows up as a waspy critic acting as an impish narrator. The film still plays exceptionally well today: showbusiness hasn’t changed much, and much of the film doesn’t deal in easily dated artifacts … although some of the social conventions have thankfully moved on. A bit like contemporary Sunset Blvd, All about Eve is a film built on wit and a great script, so it’s no surprise that it would stay so engaging sixty-five years later.