Weekend Film Recommendation: Fall of the Roman Empire

Although writing reviews of remakes throughout last month was a lot of fun, there was one original that came to mind that I really wanted to review. The new month brings the opportunity to switch over and recommend the movie that inspired Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. It’s Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

Many years campaigning and pacifying the frontiers of the Roman Empire have wearied Marcus Aurelius, played by Alec Guinness (who, thanks to make-up and costume is an absolute spitting image of a marble imperial bust). Although the emperor’s health is deteriorating rapidly his wits remain sharp: he knows that his son Commodus, played by a young and seriously dashing Christopher Plummer, is unfit to rule. Aurelius decides that the soldier Livius, played by Stephen Boyd, should succeed him. In anticipation of the tumult this will cause the empire, soldiers arrange to hasten the death of Aurelius to ensure Commodus’ unequivocal accession to the throne.

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But when the despotic Commodus becomes emperor, the chances of realizing the stable pax romanum Aurelius had hoped for disappear entirely. The empire falls into disrepair, and Livius is caught in a quandary: he owes Rome loyalty, but he also hopes to save her from the irretrievable depravity of her emperor. Livius’ love for Commodus’ sister Lucilla, played by Sophia Loren, helps Livius decide which path to take. But the ending is not altogether straightforward…

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Weekend Film Recommendation: Railroaded!

railroadedI have praised Anthony Mann’s many noir westerns with Jimmy Stewart here at RBC, but have never recommended any of his more traditional urban noirs. Let me rectify that by pointing you to his 1947 low-budget triumph, Railroaded!.

The film opens with a high-voltage portrayal of a blown stickup, as some luckless bad guys fail to get away clean while robbing a gambling joint, despite having inside help. But the heart of the story comes after the opening fireworks, as the lead gunsel (reliable bad guy John Ireland) and his boozy floozy (Jane Randolph, who excelled in these kinds of roles) frame an innocent man (a sympathetic Ed Kelly) for the crime. A police detective (a pre-Leave it to Beaver Hugh Beaumount) at first isn’t convinced that the guy in the frame is innocent, but he is persuaded to investigate by the attractive, goodly sister of the accused (Sheila Ryan). Action, suspense and romance ensue.

This film was made on Poverty Row, which churned out low-budget B-movies until its business underpinnings were destroyed by the Paramount Supreme Court Case, which I have written about before. The budgets of Poverty Row studios were too small and the films were shot too quickly to consistently achieve quality, but these studios were also a playground for talented people who went on to better opportunities later, including Anthony Mann. The Poverty Row studios were also more comfortable pushing the envelope with the censors, an example in Railroaded! is that when the slatternly Randolph and the saintly Ryan meet in this movie, they get into an extended brawl! (Nice touch by the way: They were dressed in inverted colors for the fight, Ryan all in sinful black, Randolph in angelic white).

Railroaded!, in addition to being an exciting story on its own terms, shows how skilled filmmakers can overcome low budgets. The noir lighting and plenty of closeups keep the viewers from contemplating the cheap props and sets. And Mann’s brisk pace (the film is not much more than an hour long) stops anyone from thinking too hard about some of the less plausible aspects of a script, which would have benefited from one more rewrite to iron out some plot contrivances.

By the way, Hugh Beaumont isn’t the only person in this tough, dark crime movie who went on to inordinately wholesome TV stardom. Ellen Corby, who later became Grandma Walton, appears uncredited as Mrs. Wills.

In summary, this is a remarkably solid and entertaining movie given that its budget was probably around two bits. I believe the poverty row studio movies are in the public domain at this point, so I am posting Railroaded! right here for you to enjoy.

Weekend Film ***Double Feature*** Recommendation: Bend of the River and The Naked Spur

stewarthuntakillerformoneyNobody can hate like a good man, and maybe that’s why Jimmy Stewart was so magnetic and moving in the hard-bitten Westerns he made with Anthony Mann after World War II. Stewart was a huge star at the outbreak of the war, during which he served with distinction. When the All-American, gee-whiz nice guy every dad hoped his daughter would bring home returned from military service, he was different, the country was different and his films didn’t do great box office. He might easily have appeared on a few TV shows and then drifted into retirement, as did many stars of his generation.

But two magnificent directors saw other qualities in Stewart, including a capacity for rage, bitterness, grief, longing, cynicism and violence. One of them remains famous (Hitchcock), the other, sadly, has mostly been forgotten. His name was Anthony Mann, and you could summarize much of his ouevre worse than saying it was “film noir goes west”.

Their first collaboration, the 1950 movie Winchester ’73, remains famous today because it was a massive hit that revived the then somnolent Western genre. It’s entertaining on any dimension, but for Stewart fans it’s particularly fascinating to see the darkness in his acting. When Stewart’s grief-ridden character (Lin McAdam) mashes Dan Duryea’s face into the bar and painfully twists Duryea’s gun arm, the rage in Stewart’s eyes is frightening; Duryea looks scared that Stewart is really going to hurt him.

The next two Mann-Stewart collaborations are somewhat less known today, which is too bad because they allow Stewart to go deeper into less seemly human emotions. They also both deliver thrilling action scenes. They are my weekend double feature film recommendation: 1952’s Bend of the River and 1953’s The Naked Spur.

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Weekend Film Recommendation: Strange Impersonation

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: The only plot elements in Strange Impersonation that are not utterly predictable are completely preposterous. But everything else is right in the under-appreciated Anthony Mann’s 1946 noirish tale of two formidable women locked in intellectual and romantic combat.

The film was made just after the war, and could be interpreted in light of women’s changed roles and the desire of some people to change them back. Our heroine, Nora Goodrich (Brenda Marshall, in a multi-faceted performance) is an independent, brilliant researcher. When her suitor, Dr. Steven Lindstrom (William Gargan) tries to kiss her in the lab she withholds her lips and admonishes “Please dear, science.” Her able assistant, Arline Cole (Hillary Brooke, in her best film role other perhaps than Woman in Green), is a different sort of woman. Arline can’t understand how Nora is putting her career ahead of marrying Dr. Lindstrom. During a dangerous experiment, Arline proves to be the ultimate frenemy; disfigurement, murder, plastic surgery, stolen identity and romantic double dealing ensue.

Lindstrom’s character is actually too dull for these powerhouse women to be fighting over, so forget him and enjoy the sparks between the female leads. Hillary Brooke was a much better actress than her appearances on the Abbott and Costello show let her demonstrate, and her malicious charm is in full flower here. The film’s budget looks to have been about 50 cents, but Mann makes the most of it by setting up some intriguing camera shots and keeping the pacing brisk. Props to the UCLA Film Restoration team for their work on the now sharp-looking print of this old movie.

A great film? No. A good film that is worth 68 minutes of your time? Absolutely yes.