A horrific historical: Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968)

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By 1968, Vincent Price’s roles in Roger Corman’s various Edgar Allen Poe adaptations had brought him great success. To capitalise on this, Witchfinder General was renamed The Conqueror Worm, after the Poe poem, for its US release. That Price’s performance as Matthew Hopkins should be entirely camp-free will not be surprising to anyone who knows he had an extensive and diverse acting career before becoming a horror icon. What may surprise, even shock, is just how grim and pitilessly violent this film can be. Price himself was disturbed by Witchfinder General upon seeing it in the final cut, which serves as some indication that the film stands out from his usual fare.

Hopkins is based on the real “Witchfinder” from 17th century England. While the Roundheads and Royalists do battle up and down the country, Hopkins travels from village to village, accepting payments in return for testing, condemning and killing people singled out as witches. When Sara Lowes (Hilary Dwyer) tries to save herself and her uncle John (Rupert Davies) by offering favours to Hopkins, the Witchfinder has made an enemy in her fiancée, Roundhead soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy).

Witchfinder General succeeds as a historical film. The sets and costumes are not extravagant, but have an authentic feel. The cinematography and score are often beautiful, which is no doubt a commentary on the concealed cruelty that exists within these villages. The film is at its best when depicting this social climate of greed and gleeful malice. It manages to suggest enough that I wonder how much more interesting still the film could have been if it had spent more time on its setting, story and characters.

When people talk about Witchfinder General, I think they don’t put enough emphasis on how unclear Pierce’s motives initially are. On first viewing, we don’t know if Pierce believes in what he’s doing, or just how much he enjoys it. There’s some great ambiguity to the character; when Sara tries to seduce Hopkins, he gives little away and her plan seems on the verge of backfiring. Price is so restrained that he doesn’t make Hopkins’ pleasure in his work obvious – which is, perhaps, why the character is truly horrific.

The film’s other actors also give notable performances. Dwyer is so good as the wholesome and brave Sara that it’s hard to believe that this was her first film role. Ogilvy does well as the decent hero who descends into bloodlust. Davies makes John, a priest who prays for Hopkins even while facing torture and death, sympathetically tragic. Meanwhile, Robert Russell as Hopkins’ assistant John Stearne acts as a contrast to Price by portraying open sadism.

This film underwent some censorship, and in the unrated and restored version I watched, it’s easy to see which portions had been cut from the film. The quality changes drastically; if the entire film looked like this, it would be unwatchable. It is helpful, however, to see unequivocally what was censored. In my opinion, these frames are actually, with a few exceptions, not necessary. It’s usually clear what the characters are doing or intend to do, which causes a visceral enough reaction that we don’t need to see it. It is a little ridiculous that one segment seems to have been cut simply because a woman is screaming offscreen. However, so much of this film is full of women (and the occasional man) screaming, not to mention being hit, tied, drowned, stabbed, and burned, that it becomes hard to take.

This is just my personal opinion, however. Reactions to onscreen violence vary from viewer to viewer. I find that I like Witchfinder General enough as a well-made and well-acted historical film that I wish it was less horrific. Of course, the real witch hunts were more violent and terrible than what we see here, but this film is just too much for me. It’s best watched by horror fans, but there’s enough talent involved, and enough substance to it, to make it worth enduring at least once.

In the sunset of the world: The Egyptian (Michael Curtiz, 1954)

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More than many other historical eras, Ancient Egypt has a wide-reaching appeal. Who doesn’t find it intriguing in some way? Odd, then, that it should have so rarely been brought to life on the big screen. Is expense the issue, or was 1963’s Cleopatra such a bomb that it took a chunk of the genre out with it? Whatever the reason, while it’s hard to claim that any particularly good films have been made about Ancient Egypt, The Egyptian certainly isn’t the worst attempt.

This film follows the life of Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom), a real folkloric figure. Abandoned at birth and adopted by a doctor, Sinuhe’s fortunes rise and fall. Babylonian temptress Nefer (Bella Darvi), ambitious soldier Horemheb (Victor Mature), loyal barmaid Merit (Jean Simmons), wily princess Baketamon (Gene Tierney) and weak Pharaoh Akhnaton (Michael Wilding) figure largely in his story.

The Egyptian is hampered by an unremittingly slow pace. Even where particular outcomes are clearly evident well in advance, events proceed methodically. Nearly all of the conversations unfold at half their ideal speed. The film is over two hours long, but doesn’t need to be.

Not to say that The Egyptian doesn’t have its fair share of memorable characters and performances. Though Purdom is competent but lacking spark, Mature plays his character to the hilt. Darvi, best known (and unkindly mocked) as Daryl F. Zanuck’s then-girlfriend, makes Nefer a peculiar creature – in that blue wig, she could be from another planet. Peter Ustinov offers lively comic relief as Kaptah, Sinuhe’s self-appointed servant. Simmons’s Merit is a steady presence, while Michael Wilding conveys that Akhnaton is not completely situated in the physical world (for better or worse). Tierney is a real delight – she was made for these sort of costumes, and though it isn’t a typical role for her, she’s quite good at playing tough. John Carradine, not always a guarantee of quality, is so good as a grave robber that his single scene becomes the film’s standout moment.

I bring the same complaint to The Egyptian that I have to other historical epics: there’s not enough closeups. This may have something to do with the difficulties of achieving proper focus in Cinemascope. Regardless, there’s a distancing effect that becomes a real drawback in a film that’s already not especially gripping.

When the dialogue fails to engage, there’s plenty to look at, at least. Various historical artifacts, such as Nefertiti’s headdress, have been authentically recreated here. Street scenes bustle with life. Akhnaton’s throneroom, which cost $85 000 to build, never gets dull. The costumes and wigs are gorgeous throughout; if accurately replicating these is an impediment to getting this time period onscreen, then at least there’s plenty of them to savour here.

The Egyptian does feel ponderous, but this is partly a side effect of one of its more impressive qualities. It’s ultimately a story about the meaning of life; Sinuhe is an intellectual who’s trying to find his place in the world. The film becomes a tragedy by avoiding the conclusions that other films would have chosen: Sinuhe gets neither love and poverty nor wealth and power. His claim that he’s living “in the sunset of the world” is given lasting impact as he loses everything, and Egypt seems poised to fall into dark times.

The film does suggest a new dawn is coming. It’s hard to find a historical epic from the 50s that’s not Biblical, and though I thought The Egyptian would be an exception, it sneaks a Christian message in at the end. Ironically, Akhnaton’s view of the world as God’s temple is not terribly specific to any religion, but the film seizes on his monotheism as a harbinger of the coming of Christ. This is the only upside of the film’s ending – as far as it goes.

Within a few years, Gods of Egypt, starring Gerard Butler (the Victor Mature of our times?!), will make its way to a cineplex near you. No doubt it will be a CGI-driven extravaganza that won’t have a fraction of The Egyptian’s thoughtfulness, but just as much white-washing. For its traces of historical accuracy and occasional high points, I’ll be looking back on The Egyptian with a certain amount of tempered admiration when that time comes.

Screwball schemes and frilly dresses: The Flame of New Orleans (Rene Clair, 1941)

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Universal’s Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection box set is good value, including as it does not one but three, count ‘em, three Josef von Sternberg films. This leaves The Flame of New Orleans and Golden Earrings as filler, but as far as filler goes, Flame in particular is a nicely silly film that’s a pleasure to watch. It literally invites you in. A narrator tells us that in New Orleans, in 1841, a wedding dress was found in the river. Promising that we’ll learn how this came about, the narrator leaves us, the camera temporarily acting as our point of view as it moves into an opera house, servants beckoning us forward, until we encounter Lili (Dietrich). Disguised as Countess Claire Ledoux, she’s engaged in a scheme to ensnare the wealthy Charles Giraud (Roland Young). However, her affections for ship captain Robert Latour (Bruce Cabot) keep things from running smoothly, and quicker than you can say “Positively the same dame,” Lili’s disguising herself as her own cousin to cover up her mistakes.

It’s not difficult to guess how this story’s going to end, but because the film embraces its silliness, it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen scene by scene. We get a fake-stickup foiled by a runaway monkey, a highwire act that leads to a duel, a quick costume change, a spot of trellis-climbing gone awry… Even Dietrich’s obligatory musical number turns into a neat little set piece; she performs it with a panicked expression as rumours about Lili’s conduct in Russia and Europe spread around the room. Through it all, the film is often genuinely funny, no more so when Dietrich reacts to a high society lady trying to explain the ordeals that Lili will face on her wedding night.

Also of note is Theresa Harris as Clementine. Harris spent most of her career, by virtue of being black, getting uncredited roles as maids. Clementine, however, is more than a servant; as well as getting some good comedic scenes, she shows herself to be as intelligent as Lili, working with her as a team. At one point, Clementine even obstructs Lili’s unwillingness to go through with their plans. Lili messes things up more for Clementine than for herself by the end, but the film gives Clementine a romance with local carriage driver Samuel (Clarence Muse) as compensation.

The Flame of New Orleans is no classic, but watched decades after it was made, it has acquired a campy charm. It’s a visual treat, with large sets, and even larger hats for Dietrich. The star plays both her roles with good humour. Perhaps the film’s biggest drawback is that Young and Cabot, though fine, don’t make enough of their parts. They’re not quite distinctive enough, which leaves Harris (like Anna May Wong in Shanghai Express) as the actor who has the most interesting interactions with Dietrich but relatively little screentime. A film that focused more on the two of them would be a better one – but as a bit of 40s fun, Flame is fun enough.

A subversive, quirky Western: Buck and the Preacher (Sidney Poitier, 1972)

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One possible reason that the Western has become a less popular genre in the past few decades is that audiences aren’t as willing to accept (or at least celebrate) the notion of Manifest Destiny, or the type of masculinity usually represented by the hero. Though this is a positive thing, it’s also something of a shame, because not every Western, past or present, plays into the same values. Most people who claim to hate Westerns seem to think they haven’t changed since the forties, but as often as the typical Western lead has been an unemotional, Indian-killing white man, there’s plenty of room within the genre for different points of view. Indeed, with his directorial debut, Buck and the Preacher, Sidney Poitier made an unconventional Western that manages to be fun as well.

Poitier plays Buck, a wagonmaster who does his best to escort former slaves to land where they can make new homes. These people are often pursued by Southerners and forced to return to their former owners. When Buck falls afoul of the Preacher (Henry Belafonte), a fast-talking conman, he’s made a devious enemy. However, after the Southerners attack his latest wagon train, Buck, the Preacher, and Buck’s lover Ruth (Ruby Dee) are the only people who can get back the settlers’ money and lead them to safety.

Buck and the Preacher is something of a buddy movie. The stoic and moral Buck stands in contrast to the eccentric, stylish Preacher. Of course, once Preacher starts caring about people other than himself, they’re going to make a great team, and the actors play their parts well. Surprisingly, though, there’s room in the partnership for Ruth too.

The film has a laid-back sense of style about it. There’s some odd framing in a few shots, but the film feels nicely quirky. The soundtrack, which combines harmonica with a lively bassline, is certainly off-kilter. A scene where the lead trio rob a bank so seamlessly that they don’t even need to say a word is impressively cool.

Buck and the Preacher’s plot is fairly predictable and the pacing is a mite slow, but it’s hard not to like this film. Though it takes on a much overlooked, weighty subject, the overall tone is optimistic. It’s also impossible not to admire a Western that mostly stars black men, gives a major role to a black woman, avoids making all the white characters bigots, and respects its Indian characters. Westerns need not be riddled with racist cliches (even if, like most Hollywood films, they often are) and not every film in the genre is cut from the same cloth. Buck and the Preacher reuses many familiar elements but, with only a few changes, becomes something markedly different. When so many more modern Westerns, from There Will Be Blood to The Ballad of Little Jo to Deadwood to The Proposition, take a heavy tone, this film’s lighter touch is appreciable, too.