Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Sign of the Cross (1932) & Samson and Delilah (1949)

Two more movies from Cecil B. DeMille. The most amazing thing to me about Samson and Delilah is how completely ignored and forgotten it is today, even though it was one of the biggest hits of the 1940s - imagine if, years from now, The Passion of the Christ or Spider-Man were largely forgotten. Ah, the vicissitudes of taste. In fact, I believe that this movie, alongside Song of the South, is the most popular movie ever made, in a historical sense, not currently out on DVD.

You probably already know the plot, although DeMille has juiced the story up to emphasize the action scenes and the relationship between Samson, played by beefy, just-barely-believeable Victor Mature, and Hedy Lamarr, suitably smoldering. It's a big, dopey movie, marred by a general hokiness and a few scenes that are utterly retarded. DeMille was angry that Mature wouldn't go near the tame lion that he was intended to wrestle with, and you can see why - the scene in which Samson wrestles the beast to death is a mishmash of Mature wrestling with a stuffed dummy and his stuntman's back fighting the real thing. But the movie is compulsively watchable anyway, and builds to a magnificent climax as Samson pulls down the temple of the Philistines, where DeMille really knew how to give his audience what they wanted.
Lamarr's Delilah can be seen as a biblical femme fatale, castrating Samson and then recanting (in scenes not found in the Bible) and paying penance by hanging around in the temple as Samson brings it down.

The Sign of the Cross, meanwhile, is a story of the oppression of the Christian minority during the reign of Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton, in a small but juicy part). You can tell that a group has achieved cultural supremacy when they start to tell stories about themselves as embattled minorities, and so it seems in this case. And yet, despite an storyline with even more schlock and less character development, DeMille still provides a wallop of a third act, giving us a string of horrors in the Colosseum as the Christians are given over to the lions.

It's a movie made before the full application of the Production Code, which means that the violence is unusually explicit (an 'Amazon' decapitates a 'Pygmy' on camera in full view) and the sex is too (Claudette Colbert takes a bath in milk with her breasts threatening to come in full view at any moment). It's trash, but it's sporadically entertaining trash.

Samson and Delilah: 7/10
The Sign of the Cross; 5/10

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