Saturday, March 26, 2011

Charlie Chan in Paris (1935)

There have been more than fifty Charlie Chan movies. Charlie Chan in Paris was one of the sixteen made by Fox in the 1930s with Warner Oland playing the great Chinese detective from Hawaii. It’s the second of the Warner Oland films that I’ve seen and confirms my impression that Oland was simply perfect for the role.

Like most of the Charlie Chan movies this one is not based on one of Earl Derr Biggers’ novels (of which he wrote a mere half-dozen). But it does capture the feel of the books pretty well.

Chan is investigating some shady goings-on in a Paris bank. Pretty soon the first murder connected with the case occurs. A female night-club singer is the victim. The crime might not seem directly linked to the bank’s problem but Chan has reason to believe the link is there. A cantakerous war veteran on crutches always seem to be on the scene when something happens and it will take all the famous detective’s skill to sort this one out.

This movie introduced the character of Number One son Lee Chan (played by Keye Luke), a character destined to become a fixture. This version of Charlie Chan (unlike the one played by Sidney Toler in the 1944 Charlie Chan in The Chinese Cat) does not put down his son. In fact he’s brimming with familial pride. While his sons don’t appear in the novels this does bring the character much closer to Earl Derr Biggers’ original conception. Charlie Chan is a man for whom family is everything.

Warner Oland plays Charlie Chan as a kindly, soft-spoken jovial character whose geniality masks a razor-sharp detective’s brain. He’s very much a detective who relies on intellect rather than muscle. He is not a two-fisted action hero. For the purposes of a movie series it can be useful to have some action however. Introducing Lee Chan to the series therefore works out rather well. He can handle the more physical aspects of crime-solving. In this film at least he is certainly not a mere comic relief character.

As in the books racial stereotypes are introduced, but only in order for them to be deftly and wittily mocked.

The likeability of Warner Oland’s performance is the movie’s biggest asset. Oland was bon in Sweden but always claimed to have some Asian blood. More important than that was the fact that he took the role very seriously and immersed himself in it. He became interested in Chinese culture and he was clearly very fond of the character he played. His enthusiasm for the role is always evident.

Apart from that it’s an example of the better kind of 1930s crime B-movie, very well-made and highly entertaining.

Fox’s DVD release includes an informative documentary and with both picture and sound quality being pretty good this one can definitely be recommended.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Charlie Chan in The Chinese Cat (1944)

Charlie Chan in The Chinese Cat was the second of Monogram’s Charlie Chan films (the earlier ones having been made by 20th Century-Fox) and it’s not a particularly memorable effort.

This will be a two-part review of sorts since straight after this I’m going to watch one of the earlier Fox movies with Warner Oland playing the famous Chinese-Hawaiian detective.

Sidney Toler had taken over the role after Oland’s death and in my view he’s a much less satisfactory Charlie Chan. By 1944 he was really too old for the role (the Chan of the books is in his 40s and Toler was 70) and he doesn’t look even remotely Asian.

The relationship between Chan and his Number 3 son Tommy moves the character even further away from the detective of Earl Derr Biggers’ books. The Chan of the books would never have treated his children with such contempt. Tommy Chan is there purely for laughs which means we have two actors rather than one providing the totally unnecessary and extremely annoying comic relief, the other being African-American comic Mantan Moreland as taxi-driver Birmingham Brown. The comic relief really swamps the mystery in this particular production.

The story starts with a locked-room mystery - a wealthy society woman’s husband is murdered and she finds herself the chief suspect. The murder is linked to a major jewellery robbery.

As you’d expect it suffers from much lower production values than the Fox efforts but Phil Rosen’s lively direction makes up for many of these deficiencies. The result is a mildly entertaining B-movie comedy mystery.

I don’t think Sidney Toler’s performance is all that bad but I just didn’t think the character of Charlie Chan came through in this film. The script gave him no help.

MGM have released this one on DVD. The transfer is not fantastic and there are no extras so it’s hard to recommend this one.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

I’m slowly re-evaluating my feelings about Hollywood westerns. After being mightily impressed by John Ford’s The Searchers I thought I’d try another John Ford western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

An ageing US senator, Ransom Stoddart (James Stewart) returns to the western town of Shinbone for the funeral of a old friend, and is prompted by a reporter to tell the true story of the events of thirty years earlier, events that have now become local legend. At that time Ransom Stoddart was a young lawyer setting out for the Wild West under the impression that this was a fabulous land of opportunity. Before even arriving in Shinbone he discovers the dark truth when the stagecoach he’s travelling on is held up by the notorious Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Stoddart is robbed and badly beaten.

In Shinbone there is no law besides the law of the gun. The town marshall is incompetent, weak and cowardly. Liberty Valance does what he pleases. Ransom obviously has a personal grudge against Liberty Valance but more than that he is deeply offended by the lack of respect for the rule of law.

Ransom makes some unlikely friends in Shinbone. There’s Hallie (Vera Miles), a friendly waitress who takes a shine to him. There’s the alcoholic newspaper editor Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien). And then there’s Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). The friendship between Ransom and Tom is an unlikely one and an uneasy one (they’re both sweet on Hallie). Tom Doniphon is the only man Liberty Valance is afraid of. Tom is the toughest man in Shinbone and would have no hesitation in shooting anyone if he had to but he’s not really a man of violence. He wants to be left alone, to marry Hallie and live in his little cottage.

Stoddart, Doniphon and Peabody find themselves in the position of being political allies in the approaching election of delegates to vote on whether this lawless territory should be admitted to statehood, Ransom Stoddard is passionate about this - to him statehood represents educational opportunities, democracy, law and order and progress.

Statehood is opposed by the cattlemen (who always seem to be the bad guys in westerns) and they are using Liberty Valance and his gang to terrorise the townsfolk into voting their way. A final political showdown is approaching, as is a final personal showdown between Liberty and Ransom.

Unlike the revisionist westerns of the 70s which (with the notable exception of Clint Eastwood’s movies) seem more like anti-westerns Ford’s later westerns don’t seem to me to be hostile towards the genre. I get the impression Ford simply wanted to demonstrate that westerns could not only be complex, they were in fact ideally suited for dealing with big ideas.

Like The Searchers this movie deals with people caught between old ways and new ways. The west is in a process of transition. Liberty Valance represents the old ways - the rule of the gun, violence, lawlessness and anarchy. Ransom Stoddart and Dutton Peabody represents the future - stable government, a free press, prosperity and respect for the law. Tom Doniphon is caught in the middle. He must choose sides, and he unhesitatingly chooses progress. The irony of course is that progress is bringing into existence a world in which there will be no place for rugged individualists like Tom Doniphon.

Once again John Wayne plays a complex, contradictory and somewhat tragic character. Tom is a good man but he’s by nature a loner and cannot adapt to a changing world. It’s another superb performance by this underrated actor.

James Stewart’s character is equally interesting. Ransom is adamant that the rule of law must displace the rule of the gun but it’s one of the many paradoxes of the film that lawlessness and violence as represented by Liberty Valance can ultimately only be defeated by violence. The rule of law, in the final analysis, has to be backed up by force. it’s a paradox that Ransom Stoddart never quite manages to unravel or to reconcile himself to.

The supporting performances are entertaining. Lee Marvin, as you’d expect, chews the scenery outrageously. Edmond O’Brien is equally over-the-top.

Like The Searchers this is a fairly dark film in its own way. It’s driven by ideas and by character rather than by action. Right and wrong are not straightforward choices. Moral compromises have to be made and the consequences have to be lived with. Legends grow up around actions that were in reality rather murky. A very impressive film.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Searchers (1956)

I’ve always been a little dubious of John Ford’s reputation as one of the great film-makers. I’ve rarely dislike a movie as much as I disliked his The Grapes of Wrath. If any movie was going to overcome this scepticism I thought perhaps it might be The Searchers. It’s probably his most admired film and it is after all a western, the genre with which he’s most closely associated.

A classic western starts with a mysterious stranger riding into town. In this case there’s no town, just an isolated homestead, and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) isn’t quite a stranger. He’s the brother of the homesteader, Aaron Edwards. He is however very much an outsider, and there’s plenty of mystery to him. He’d gone off to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War, but the war has been over for three years. He doesn’t say where he’s been since then, or explain why he still has his sabre (which should have been given up at the surrender). There’s a suggestion that there’s a cloud over him, that there may be something dishonourable or questionable in his past.

Not long after his arrival he sets off with the Texas Rangers to find some cattle rustlers but the cattle thefts were a ruse, and he returns to find that a Comanche war party has slaughtered his brother’s family and a neighbouring family as well. All except two girls who are carried off as prisoners. Ethan Edwards and Martin Pawley, a part-Cherokee orphan who had been adopted by the Edwards family, set out to find the two girls. One of the girls, Lucy, is soon found, raped and killed by the Comanches. But Ethan and Martin are determined to find Ethan’s niece Debbie, who would now be fifteen.

It’s an epic search. Five years later they finally come across a good lead and believe they may be close to finding her. But the nature of their search has changed, or at least it has changed for Ethan. They have reason to think that Debbie has been married off to a Comanche brave. Martin still wants to bring her home, but Ethan’s objective is now to kill her. His motives are mixed - partly a horror of the girl’s being tainted by marriage to a Comanche, partly a belief that Debbie would be better off dead than living with the Comanches. It seem likely that when they do find her one of them will have to kill the other.

The movie has some definite flaws. There’s some cringe-inducing comic relief and a length and apparently irrelevant romantic sub-plot involving Martin Pawley and the daughter of a Swedish homesteader.

These flaws pale into insignificance compared to the film’s strengths.

First of all it’s visually magnificent, and this is not merely spectacle for spectacle’s sake but serves to emphasise the epic scale of the quest, and the epic scale of Ethan’s obsession.

It’s a morally and psychologically complex film. There are atrocities committed by both sides, and when Ethan tracks down the Comanche chief who kidnapped Debbie he finds a man who is a mirror image of himself, consumed by an obsessive desire for revenge and warped by fear and hatred. Ethan hates the Comanches but he knows a good deal about their culture and speaks their language fluently. He has clearly had a good deal to do with the Comanches in the past.

Modern audiences brought up in an atmosphere of political correctness may be inclined to see Ethan as a villain but that would be a misunderstanding of his character. While his intention to kill Debbie may be shocking and deeply misguided he genuinely believes it’s his duty to do so, that it’s a necessary act of compassion. And his quest for revenge can hardly be said to be unprovoked violence on his part, given that he’s seen almost his entire family butchered.

Ethan is a tragic figure, a man who is alone and seems destined to remain forever an outsider. And this makes the apparently irrelevant comic relief and romantic sub-plots suddenly make sense. There’s a world in which life goes on, people continue to have fun, fall in love and raise families, and Ethan is forever shut out of this world of light, condemned to live as an outsider and pursued by his personal demons.

The movie’s biggest single strength is John Wayne’s performance. It’s a subtle and moving performance. He personally regarded it as his greatest role.

It’s a disturbing movie, and whatever your feelings about the issues involved, wherever you may happen to be on the political spectrum, you’ll still find it disturbing. There are no easy simplistic answers offered here. It truly is a great movie.

And the final shot in the movie is surely one of the greatest endings in movie history.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Kiss Before Dying (1956)

A Kiss Before Dying is yet another example of the dangers of taking seriously lists of supposed film noirs. This one is more of an attempt at a Hitchcockian thriller, and it’s a mixed bag.

Based on Ira Levin’s novel it boasts a plot that includes everything required to make a top-notch psychological suspense thriller. Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) is regarded as a bit of a boy genius at his university. At least he and his mother think he’s a boy genius. He certainly has the requisite ambition. His girlfriend Dorothy Kingship (Joanne Woodward) is the daughter of mining magnate Leo Kingship (George Macready) and Bud has a carefully worked-out plan to become the next chief of the Kingship mining empire. It’s going to take some fancy footwork though - the elder Kingship is a suspicious control freak - but Bud is very good at fancy footwork.

Bud’s plans are threatened with disaster when Dorothy falls pregnant. Old man Kingship is not going to be pleased with that little development and Bud has had no time to ingratiate himself with the tycoon. Now they’re going to have to get marred immediately and if, as expected, Dorothy’s father cuts her off without a penny he’ll be forced to get a real job, something unworthy of a boy genius. The marriage no longer fits in with Bud’s strategy for success. If only there was a way of avoiding it. If only an accident could occur to remove this inconvenient obstacle (Dorothy) from his life. If you want an accident there’s no point just sitting around waiting for one. You have to make it happen. This is the sort of thing Bud is good at and fortunately he’s not troubled by inconveniences like a conscience.

Soon Bud is back on course. Dorothy had a sister, Ellen (Virginia Leith), and one sister is as good as another.

The movie follows the standard Hitchcock formula for suspense, with the audience knowing more or less everything and the suspense coming from the fact that the characters lack this vital information.

Director Gerd Oswald figures if you’re going to attempt a Hitchcock-style thriller you’re going to need some impressive visual set-pieces, and he provides them. The rooftop scene between Bud and Dorothy is superb. Oswald worked almost entirely in B-movies and television but he displays a sure touch here that suggests he was worthy of bigger things.

What lets the film down is the acting, particularly from the supporting players. Virginia Leith is too distant. Jeffrey Hunter as the bookish amateur detective fails to come to terms with his character at all. Mary Astor is OK as Bud’s mother, but Joanne Woodward is truly atrocious, and incredibly annoying with it. She went on to become a fine actress but there is no sign here of the talent she displayed in later films. The problem is that these supporting characters are important. We need to care about them and believe in them and it doesn’t happen.

George Macready does slightly better, adding at least some subtlety to his Father From Hell performance.

The movie sounds like it’s heading for disaster but luckily Robert Wagner is on hand to save the day. Wagner is generally regarded as a bit of a lightweight but he’s genuinely chilling here, and he provides the fascination that the other actors are unable to give us. Making what is basically a pure psychopath interesting isn’t easy but he manages it with aplomb. He has to carry the movie more or less single-handedly and he pulls it off.

A flawed film, but worth catching for some stylish visuals and for Wagner’s career-best acting performance.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Canary Murder Case (1929)

It has to be admitted that the main reason for seeing The Canary Murder Case is curiosity. It’s a rare Louise Brooks talkie, and has the reputation of being the movie that effectively ended her Hollywood career.

It’s a movie that certainly has its problems. Almost all of these problems come down to the time it was made. It dates from that awkward period in movie history when silent movies were clearly dead in box-office terms but the studios still had silent movies either in production, or completed and awaiting release. What to do with these movies?

The answer was to turn these silent movies into talkies by adding dialogue, and occasionally by shooting added footage. In the hands of a genius like Alfred Hitchcock the result could be a minor masterpiece like Blackmail. The results were generally much less satisfactory. Silent movies are not talking pictures without dialogue - they’re a whole different art form. These hybrid semi-talkies, and some of the very early talkies as well, are an uneasy combination of mutually incompatible film-making techniques.

An even bigger problem with The Canary Murder Case is that Louise Brooks had already left Hollywood, and her voice was dubbed (rather badly) by another actress. This is a major problem because even though Brooks is strictly a supporting player, she’s the best thing in the film.

To add to the problems, the plot is disappointingly easy to resolve, and the movie has major pacing problems (presumably caused by the fact that it was shot as a silent movie).

Louise Brooks is The Canary. She’s a major stage star whose act involves her swinging from the ceiling whilst singing, like a canary in a cage. Her main source if income though comes from blackmail, at which she’s both skillful, and ruthless. She has seduced a succession of wealthy and powerful men. Now she wants not merely money, but social position as well. She wants to marry young Jimmy Spottswoode. Jimmy’s father is a pillar of the community and is determined to prevent his son’s marriage to such a notorious woman. Jimmy’s girlfriend isn’t too thrilled either.

When the Canary turns up dead there are countless suspects. Everyone who ever had anything to do with her wanted to kill her. This presents Philo Vance with what should be a a real challenge.

This was William Powell’s first appearance as the debonair detective Philo Vance. It’s an ideal role for him, but he’s hampered by the slow pacing and by the fact that it wasn’t shot originally as a sound film. Powell was always at his best when he had someone, preferably a talented and feisty actress, to strike dialogue sparks off. Put him opposite someone like Kay Francis in a movie like Jewel Robbery and the result is movie magic. But in The Canary Murder Case he doesn’t get to interact at all with the only interesting female cast member (Louise Brooks as the Canary) and his performance lacks a certain sparkle.

Despite all these problems it’s still interesting to see Louise Brooks rehearsing the femme fatale role that was to make her an enduring movie legend in Pandora’s Box. And it’s interesting to see William Powell in an early starring role playing exactly the kind of character that would make him one of Hollywood’s brightest stars of the 30s. An historically interesting but still rather disappointing movie.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Place in the Sun (1951)

George Stevens’ 1951 A Place in the Sun leaves me with mixed feelings, but then I always seem to have mixed feelings about his movies.

It was based on Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy. Thankfully the movie drops much of the social commentary and concentrates instead on a personal drama. If there’s one thing that invariably has me reaching for the eject button it’s Hollywood movies that attempt social or political commentary. Apart from the tedium they tend to date very badly.

Montgomery Clift plays George Eastman, the son of poor but honest Christian mission workers. They belong to the poor but noble and hardworking branch of the Eastman family. As distinct from the rich but wicked and frivolous branch of the family. After his father’s death young George sets off to make his fortune. He pays a call on his wealthy uncle who controls the Eastman business empire. The uncle offers him a job at the mill, starting at the bottom but with at least a hint that if he does well he might well soon start progressing up the corporate ladder.

He befriends the plain but good-hearted Alice (Shelley Winters), starts an affair with her and gets her pregnant. By this time though the doors have started to open for him, even if at this stage they’re only open a crack. A promotion is soon in the offing and he is invited to socialise with the rich Eastmans and their friends. And he meets Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). It’s love at first sight for both of them. The rich folk are still suspicious of the uneducated and awkward poor relation but George is ambitious and is confident those doors will soon open wide. But what to do about his now unwanted working-class girlfriend?

Being a George Stevens movie the pacing can most charitably be described as leisurely. It could be described uncharitably as glacial. It looks wonderful though. Stevens was a meticulous and painstaking director and visually this methodology pays off. The movie has a feeling of rather stately grandeur to it. Stevens makes effective use of what was at the time an innovative approach to close-ups, especially in the love scenes between Taylor and Clift.

Stevens made two very bold casting choices. The first was Shelley Winters in the role of Alice. Winters at this time was still cultivating a glamour girl blonde-bombshell image but she was starting to hunger for meaty roles and she was prepared to shed the glamour to get them. And she wanted this particular role very badly. She does a splendid job.

The second bold piece was casting was picking Elizabeth Taylor as the female lead. Taylor was just 17 and this was her first really serious acting role and her first real adult role. As she herself says in the accompanying documentary, up to this time her leading men had been dogs and horses. It was a spectacularly successful piece of casting. Taylor’s mastery of her craft even at this tender age is awe-inspiring. She had the advantage of having never had an acting lesson in her life. She learnt by doing, and she learnt very fast indeed. She is by far the best thing about this movie.

Now we come to the movie’s biggest problem - Montgomery Clift as George Eastman. It was a highly influential performance, in fact one of the performances that really put Method Acting on the map. It’s a performance that has been praised to the skies. But it doesn’t work. Clift is much too distant. OK, he’s an alienated outsider, I get that, but he’s a dull and uninteresting alienated outsider. His tragedy fails to be compelling because the character is too blank, too stupid and too vicious. I couldn’t have cared less what happened to George Eastman. And one is never quite sure whether Clift is trying to emote or is simply suffering from indigestion.

Of course alienated outsiders were incredibly fashionable in the 50s (even more fashionable if they were inarticulate alienated outsiders) so the movie was adored by the critics.

So we have a movie that is mostly worth seeing because this is where the Elizabeth Taylor legend starts. Other than that it’s a bit of a hard slog.

The Region 4 DVD is packed with extras, the highlight undoubtedly being Taylor’s personal reminiscences about the making of the film.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Beyond the Forest (1949)

If you’re a lover of camp and you haven’t yet seen Bette Davis’s 1949 film Beyond the Forest then all I can say is that you have missed out on one of the most awesomely camp extravaganzas in cinematic history. It’s often listed as a film noir although it’s perhaps better described as a noirish melodrama.

The plot is not just pure melodrama. It’s hyper-melodrama. Bette Davis is Rosa Moline. Rosa lives in Loyalton, a small town that is dominated by the local timber mill. She’s married to Dr Lewis Moline (Joseph Cotten), a dedicated small-town doctor who is love and admired by the townsfolk. The townsfolk do not love and admire Rosa. She disturbs them. Disturbs them deeply. She doesn’t like small-town life. She doesn’t like baking. Or children. Or square dancing. Or any of the normal activities of the good citizens of Loyalton. Most of all Rosa does not like the good citizens of Loyalton. Not like is perhaps not quite the correct expression. It would be more accurate to say that she loathes and despises them, and she makes no attempt to hide her contempt.

Rosa was always different. Her dreams were not dreams of domestic bliss in Loyalton. She dreamed of escape to Chicago. Escape to anywhere.

Living in Loyalton is bad enough, but Lewis Moline makes Rosa’s life intolerable. He’s a do-gooder. He doesn’t expect his patients to pay him if they can’t afford it. As a consequence he is not a rich man. More to the point, Rosa is not the wife of a rich man. And she very much wants to be.

She has a candidate in mind. Neil Latimer is a millionaire businessman who owns an enormous hunting lodge on the nearby lake, and Rosa has already managed to attract his interest. In fact she’s started an on-and-off affair with him. But what she wants is to marry him.

The movie starts with an inquest into a fatal shooting, with Rosa apparently the chief suspect. At this stage we have no idea of the identity of the victim. This will be revealed in an extended flashback sequence that occupies most of the movie’s running time.

Bette Davis gives one of the most outrageously over-the-top performances of her career. Given that her career includes so many outrageously over-the-top performances I realise that’s quite a claim, but it’s a claim I stand by. It’s not just her performance that is extraordinary. She was a decade too old for the role, and she has her hair dyed jet black. Her appearance is truly bizarre. Somehow though these things end up counting in her favour. It’s obvious that Rosa, despite her scheming and her breath-taking ruthlessness, has no hope whatever of realising her dreams, that any chance she might have had of doing so is long gone. As a result the viewer cannot help feeling sorry for her. She’s a tragedy waiting to happen.

King Vidor directed the movie, and he did so in an overwrought and wildly melodramatic style. Combined with the subject matter and Davis’s acting what you end up with is massive camp overkill. Davis and Vidor though are not afraid of being melodramatic, they are not afraid of going too far, and the results are splendidly entertaining. King Vidor had by this time been directing for three-and-a-half decades so he knew a thing or two about making movies. There’s no question that the excessiveness of this picture was a conscious choice, and with a story like this one it was arguably the only valid choice.

Joseph Cotten’s understated acting style proves a perfect foil for Davis. Ruth Roman provides additional fun as Rosa’s perpetually rebellious housemaid.

The final sequence involving the train is a tour-de-force of movie melodrama.

Sadly this movie is unavailable on DVD but being a Warner Brothers production it turns up on TCM in Australia from time to time and I assume it gets screened on TCM in the US at various times as well. It’s a movie not to be missed by fans of cinematic excess, and most certainly not to be missed by fans of Bette Davis. As the original poster for the film so aptly put it, nobody’s as good as Bette when she’s bad.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Salome (1953)

You might think that a 1953 Hollywood movie about Salome, with Rita Hayworth in the title role, is going to be pure 1950 Hollywood kitsch. And of course you’d be dead right. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on how you feel about kitschy 1950s Hollywood epics. Personally I think the kitschier they are the better, and Salome is about as kitsch as you can get. And it has Charles Laughton as Herod!

To say that the screenwriters have taken liberties with the biblical story would be an understatement. For starters they’ve made Salome a good girl. She’s just a sweet all-American small-town girl with a weakness for handsome hunky Romans. Her first love affair with a good-looking Roman guy with bright prospects (he’s the nephew of the emperor) gets her banished from Rome by the Emperor Tiberius. She was sent to Rome by her mom Herodias in order to keep her away from her stepfather Herod.

After her banishment she returns home to Galilee on the same galley that is bringing the new Roman governor Pontius Pilate, and his second-in-command and old military buddy Claudius (Stewart Granger). Salome has sworn off handsome Romans, but she can’t help taking a bit of a shine to Claudius. Her arrival in Galilee is a bit of a shock. There’s a madman named John the Baptist preaching against her mother Herodias (Judith Anderson), accusing her and her husband the tetrarch Herod (he wasn’t really a king, unlike his father Herod the Great) of all manner of moral wickedness. And she soon discovers that Claudius has become a follower of the Baptist.

Herod won’t take action against this crazy preacher because of a prophecy, but Herodias has her own plans to dispose of him, plans that involve her daughter.

You might think that making Salome a pure good-hearted girl sounds like a really dumb idea. And it is. It’s not as if Rita Hayworth couldn’t play a vamp so making her an innocent really does qualify as a bizarre decision. Her Dance of the Seven Veils demonstrates her potential for vampiness but sadly that’s the only chance she gets to be vampy.

But if you’re worried that all the perversity has been drained from the story you needn’t despair. Charles Laughton is on hand, and he provides the much-needed sleaze factor as Salome’s lascivious step-dad. And Judith Anderson, as you might expect, makes Herodias delightfully evil and perverse.

The religious elements are handled in the ham-fisted way you expect in a 50s Hollywood epic, with Alan Badel giving an awesomely atrocious performance as John the Baptist. Maurice Shwartz renders him able assistance, delivering an excruciatingly cringe-inducing performance as Herod’s chief religious adviser. And yes, there’s tacky choir music whenever a Significant Religious Moment occurs. Connoisseurs of bad taste are faced with an embarrassment of riches in this film.

Stewart Granger is somewhat wasted, not getting to do any of the swashbuckling heroics at which he excelled. Rita Hayworth tries her best, but as with many of her 1950s films she’s saddled with such awful dialogue and her role is so underwritten and ill-conceived that it’s an uphill battle for her. Really she does remarkably well given the incredible lameness of the script.

It goes without saying that even screenwriting deficiencies on this impressive scale don’t trouble Charles Laughton. The same can be said for Judith Anderson. You can’t keep a good ham down, and these two chew every available piece of scenery and manage to make what could have been a truly dire movie-going experience into a camp triumph.

There’s no way you can argue that this is anything but a bad movie, but if you approach it in the right frame of mind it’s highly entertaining epic trash. I enjoyed it anyway.