Sunday, April 21, 2013

Samson and Delilah (1949)

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Cecil B. DeMille’s career had its ups and downs during the 1940s but Samson and Delilah, released by Paramount in 1949, marked a triumphant return to form. It is pure DeMille and it was a smash hit at the box office.

DeMille never bothered to adjust his fim-making style to the sound era. He continued to believe that the visual impact was what mattered, and Samson and Delilah certainly delivers the goods in that area.

Samson (Victor Mature), of the tribe of Dan, is one of judges of the Israelites. His people have been enslaved by the Philistines. God has a mission for Samson, to begin the process of freeing the Israelites from bondage. In order to achieve this aim God has given Samson supernatural strength.

Samson initially seems an unlikely hero. He spends his time drinking with the Philistines, brawling and chasing women. Miriam (Olive Deering) is in love with him, but Samson wants to marry a Philistine woman, the beautiful Semadar (Angela Lansbury). Samson has another admirer, Semadar’s younger sister Delilah (Hedy Lamarr). During a ceremonial lion hunt Samson demonstrates his great strength by killing a lion with his bare hands. This feat impresses the Philistine leader, the Saran of Gaza (George Sanders). The Saran gives him permission to marry a woman of the Philistines. His choice of Semadar in preference to Delilah enrages the latter. Delilah is determined that no woman will take Samson from her.

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The wedding feat ends in a brawl, with tragic results. Samson finds himself outlawed. Samson is deeply loved by his people and they refuse to give him up to the Philistines. Samson pursues a career of banditry, wreaking havoc among the oppressors of the Israelites. An attempt to capture him ends in disaster with Samson destroying an entire army with only the jawbone of an ass as a weapon. This is a scene that could easily have seemed ridiculous but DeMille handles it superbly. The introduction of the ass’s jawbone is done very skillfully and wittily.

There seems to be no way of taking Samson, until Delilah assures the Saran that she can do the job. The Saran is not as enthusiastic as you might suppose, since he is Delilah’s lover, but there seems to be no alternative. Delilah also assures the Saran that she can discover the secret of Samson’s strength. Delilah’s seduction of Samson sets up the spectacular ending in the Temple of the Philistine god Dagon.

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DeMille had second thoughts about his casting of Victor Mature in the lead role. He’d cast him after being very impressed (and rightly so) by the actor’s performance in Kiss of Death. Mature insisted on using a double for the lion-fighting scene, much to DeMille’s disgust. The underrated Mature in fact does a fine job, as he always did when he had a decent role and a good director.

Hedy Lamarr gives one of her best performances as Delilah. She has no trouble being perversely seductive and she is also convincing as a woman with very conflicted feelings, torn by jealousy and by her mixture of love and hate for Samson. Lamarr got on extremely well with DeMille and she repays his confidence in her.

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George Sanders adds a touch of fun as the Saran. This is Sanders at his most delightfully cynical. He doesn’t try to make the character too much of a clichéd villain - the Saran is not evil, he is merely a king who is determined to assert his authority. Angela Lansbury looks very glamorous and she also gives a fine performance.

DeMille’s genius comes to the fore in his treatment of the sexually perverse elements in the story. Some of this is implicit in the original Bible story but the film really ramps up the perversity. The attraction between Samson and Delilah has more than a hint of the sado-masochistic about it.

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This is a typically DeMille mix of sex and spectacle, of lust and religion. Only DeMille has ever been able to carry off such a combination successfully, and without showing any disrespect for religion. DeMille took religion seriously, in fact more seriously than is often assumed.

The climactic scenes in the temple are a tour-de-force. Those scenes cost Paramount a fortune but they were worth every penny. The gigantic statue of Dagon (actually a seventeen-feet high model) is breath-taking.

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Paramount has made us wait a long time for an official DVD release of this movie, but the wait was worth it. The movie look magnificent. The colours are stunningly bright and lush. DeMille’s epics really need to be seen on the big screen but if you’re lucky enough to have a big high definition television you won’t be disappointed by this DVD.

Samson and Delilah is an epic as only Cecil B. DeMille has ever been able to make them. Superb entertainment, truly spectacular and very sexy. Very highly recommended.

2 comments:

  1. As you know from reading Scott Eyman's biography, DeMille wanted to cast Steve Reeves as Samson but wasn't satisfied with the young man's progress in acting classes. In any event Mature is fine apart from the lion fakery while Sanders and Lamarr wallow happily in the spirit of the project. The jawbone fight is great stuff and I can't help thinking DeMille got a transgressive thrill out of having his characters say "ass" so often.

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  2. The temple climax is brilliantly handled. DeMille wisely muted the score on that scene, elevating the tension. Sure CGI could replicate the scene but it would not look real like this did. What's amazing is the relatively low budget of this film.

    Mature always said that he was no actor and he had 64 films to prove it. He lied through his teeth (and that's saying a lot). He gave some excellent performances. Kiss of Death, My Darling Clementine, The Robe. Richard Burton thought very highly of Mature's acting. It is a damn shame that Mature lacked the courage to go one on one with the toothless lion. I wonder if the lion's claws were also removed? Poor kitteh.

    One thing does bother me though. Lansbury's a fine actress and nice looking lady but Samson must have also been born blind because there is no way I'd pass up Lamarr for Lansbury. It ain't even close. That is the the only real flaw in the film.

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