Thursday, April 23, 2020

G-d Week: In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.


Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Written by Jesse L. Lasky Jr., Fredric M. Frank, and Harold Lamb (based on the one book, and also the other book by Vladimir Jabotinsky)

Spoiler alert: "inspiration for Christ" doesn't imply a happy ending, does it?

Yes, there had always been Bible movies, but we can trace the enormous wave of Bible blockbusters that was to sweep theaters in the 1950s to a single point in 1949.  Seven years before his genre-defining final work, The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille had brought his trademarked style of somewhat-chintzy bigness to the famed strongman of Israel and the woman who brought him low, and we now see what a terrible idea it was to go through these in order of Biblical canon rather than chronological release.  Still, I don't know if it really hurts us, for there is nothing about Samson and Delilah that suggests the genre evolved in any especially radical way over the course of its seventeen years in the sun.  While it certainly developed, it did so mostly geometrically, and it really only began to grow in an artistic sense right as it happened to end.

The basic template, however, was formed here: the cool violence wrought upon impressive-looking pagan civilizations; the bad girls sufficiently scantily-clad to lure good men astray; the literary gloss that tries hard to make compelling narratives out of indifferent summarizations of questionable fact; and the associated effort to turn stories that can be read in about ten minutes into movies that are many, many times longer.  I'm not even 100% sure how Samson and Delilah manages to get itself up to two and a quarter hours.  But it does, and it doesn't use of all of that time well.

It was a long time coming, too: DeMille had announced it as early as 1934, after he'd finished CleopatraCleopatra being, for what it's worth, the only other DeMille movie besides The Ten Commandments (and, it turns out, Sign of the Cross) that I have any real affection for, and it's still not especially good.  But other productions got in the way, and then World War II got in the way, and Samson and Delilah was ultimately shelved for a good thirteen years before work started back up on it.   Maybe we're lucky it did, though.  I don't love Samson and Delilah itself, that's true.  But I have a huge amount of affection for what would follow it; and, of course, so much was to follow it!  For, in 1949, Samson and Delilah would prove not just one more DeMille Bible film.  It would be a hugely profitable trendsetter.  As I said last time, the Bible epic is very much a post-war phenomenon, and there's certainly some big, obvious reasons for that.  If I had any right to make such a grandly scholarly claim, I'd call it a response to the need for allegories to address a growing public awareness of oppression, for the Jewish people, sure, but many others, too.  In tension with that is the sense of American triumphalism that courses through them, though, it must be said, they offer a much more digestible triumphalism than that which animates, for example, DeMille's immediately-prior film, Unconquered, which is basically The Last of the Mohicans, only with out-of-control racism.  The other big driver of the Bible epic, anyway—and this is maybe why they feel so triumphal—was simply the industrial scale of them, with massive studios capable of massive productions marketed to a massive (and once again worldwide) audience, in color and, soon, in the massive formats designed to combat the tininess of television.

Of course, this was in the years to come.  In 1949, Paramount was, believe it or not, hesitant to finance this "Sunday school tale," for they were not yet aware that Sunday school would become a half-billion dollar film genre.  DeMille swayed them, not least by emphasizing the appeal of a meaty Danite ensnared by a sultry Philistine, and I expect he pointed to Unconquered's box-office-topping success, as well.  Finally,  Samson and Delilah was to fulfill its own destiny as a huge hit.  And  why was it a hit?  Search me.

Like, maybe?

Okay: it's not terrible, but it does have some very hobbling weaknesses.  One of these comes straight from the historical fiction DeMille and other Bible movie directors often used to flesh out their bare-boned Biblical scenarios.  In this case it was Ze'ev Jabotinsky's 1927 Zionism-inflected novel, Judge and Fool.  This DeMille credited as the key to finally hashing out his story.

So, following Jabotisnky, we arrive in the Iron Age, many years after the Hebrews got to their Promised Land and immediately took to screwing it up, turning away from the one who brung them in a centuries-long cycle of spiritual backsliding that is the major theme of Shotim/Judges, and which DeMille doesn't remotely care about.  Anyhow, in the land allotted to the tribe of Dan, presently under the suzerainty of the Philistine city-states, there is Samson (Victor Mature), the mulletted hero of his age.  He's been refusing Yahweh's call for some time, more interested in wedding and bedding—uh-oh!—a non-Jewish woman, Semadar (Angela Lansbury).  Samson's rival in this matter is Ahtur (Henry Wilcoxon), a Philistine general, who winds up getting Semadar anyway, despite disadvantages in both muscle mass and stylish coiffure, because Samson interrupts his own wedding feast to stupidly respond to the Philistines' derision of his country-bumpkin ways with a high-stakes gamble, offering rich new clothing for each of them if they can solve a clever riddle.  Because the theme of the Samson story, particularly, is "bitches/shiksas, amirite?", Semadar spills the beans, and in the first case of serious whitewashing in these Bible epics, Samson merely robs passersby of their garments to pay off his debt, in what winds up being fairly comic circumstances, rather than going off on a horrifying murder spree.  Still, he's too late.  Semadar has been awarded to Ahtur.  Samson decides to take it out on all Philistia.

That's more-or-less the Bible story, but Jabotinsky's idea was to make the younger sister offered to Samson in Semadar's stead none other than Delilah herself (Hedy Lamarr), and it was indeed Delilah whose manipulations brought this terrible state of affairs to pass, for she had naturally become enamored of the Danite strong enough to snap a lion's neck (which is pretty neat, though it's certainly never not obvious that Mature had refused to wrestle the tame lion himself, thereby earning DeMille's contempt).  In any event, this means that it's at least partly Delilah's fault that her sister and dad perish in the resulting brawl, though it's clear that what really motivates her to swear vengeance against Samson is that he had the gall to spurn her.

Notionally, this unifies the narrative of the Samson tale, and on paper it's absolutely functional, albeit lumpy and confused once it comes time for Samson to fall prey to a woman he'd previously barely noticed existed.  In execution, it barely works even a little, and Samson and Delilah's downfall is almost entirely thanks to its casting.  Mature is crazy bland: his performance only ever overlaps with the dissolute bad boy he's playing when Samson flirts with religious observance beyond his Nazirite vows; if Mature still appears constipated even then, at least it's appropriate.  Lamarr is much more lively, yet equally troublesome.  Both leads are vastly too old for their parts—Samson, with the mindset of a twenty-something, is poorly-served by Mature's age of 36-going-on-50—but it's Lamarr's age (let's say a 34-looking 35) that Samson and Delilah calls unintentionally-hilarious attention to, especially when we're supposed to buy she's younger than Lansbury (24), and in a setting where these folks would be lucky (or not) if they were 20 by the time they were married off.  Considering that Samson's guerilla campaign against the Philistines, according to Judges, spanned two decades—something not stressed by this film—it's hard to find any reason beyond thoughtlessness that Lamarr plays "young" Delilah in the first place, when a different, maybe-actual-child actor would've provided a visually-comprehensible reason why Samson's boner for Delilah only goes up once the plot requires it to.  (Meanwhile, there's something about Lamarr's 1940s styling—eyebrows in particular—that makes it unusually difficult, even in the context of mid-century period pieces, to take her seriously as a denizen of ancient Timnath.)

But it's hard to say what could have salvaged Samson and Delilah, because the problem isn't Delilah the carnivorous MILF (which should be a strength), nor even Mature the robot (though surely DeMille's first choice, bodybuilder and Hercules Steve Reeves, would have much more reasonably filled out a Biblical figure held by tradition to be 60 cubits across, i.e., almost half of Noah's ark).  No, the problem is that Lamarr and Mature have zero romantic chemistry together, and Lamarr's thudding attempts to force chemistry out of Mature by showily thrusting her body and eyes at him only emphasizes how their parts don't quite seem to slot together.  "Inadequate romance" is a fixture of the Bible movie, but it usually wouldn't derail it.  Romance, however, is this one's driving force, its drama depending entirely upon us believing in (and maybe even getting turned on by) a lust so deep that Samson offers Delilah the secret of his supernatural strength, despite being reasonably aware she's evil.  It depends on this even more because the other innovative part of the movie is that Delilah falls in love with Samson in return, though in fairness Lamarr's better at expressing Delilah's guilt than doing the things Delilah feels guilty for.

It leaves a gaping hole in the heart of the picture, but there are a few compensations, some of which even involve DeMille's filmmaking.  There is no stand-out "man, that is one great fucking scene" here, the same way that Cleopatra and The Ten Commandments ride high on basically a single camera move apiece; and there's DeMille's endemic bad editing to contend with, wherein master shots are randomly sliced up with innumerable 30 degree rule violations, and this happens in, like, every conversation scene.  But there's some nice action here, particularly the genuinely-cool slaughter of Philistines in a mountain pass, with some solid effects work and even DeMille's insert-shot-prone montage actually servicing a scene rather than hurting it.  It's even gratifyingly bloody for a 1949 production.  (The screenwriters must've also gotten a kick out of saying "the jawbone... of an ass," since that comes up about four times.)  Throughout, it has a lot of color to go alongside its stolid central hero, literally so in Edith Head and company's costumes—there's a peacock-inspired dress Lamarr wears that's memorable just for being so huge and impractical, whereas her typical attire is so unencumbering that you're again flummoxed as to why the beauty isn't coming off sexier.

But there are two big good things going on in Samson and Delilah, one of which is what it's still remembered for today, the other of which is George Sanders' king of Gaza, albeit not at all in that order—though they're somewhat inseparable, since my favorite shot of the whole film is the understated way Sanders communicates his Gazan's dawning awareness that he's allowed Samson into the one place where the humbled hero can kill him.  Sanders—fey, but not camp, dignified, but mostly just because he's tired—plays the king as downright exhausted with this Israelite mess.  As a result, he's the best source of comic relief in the film, often genuinely funny ("oh, don't write that down!" he admonishes a scribe who's been dutifully recording an embarrassing rant).  He offers the only worthy partner Lamarr gets in this film, too, bringing out the best in Delilah: he responds to her wiles with naught but the heaving sighs of a man too wise to be misled by them, while making it plain he almost wishes he could be.  He's the forerunner of one of the genre's noticeable features, namely villains more fun than the heroes.

The other thing is the climax inside the temple of Dagon.  It's ambitious, and finally gets us to a place of scale and grandeur such as this movie has been avoiding for two straight hours—I mean, they say Samson carried off the gates of Gaza, but we don't see that.  Hell, there's not the slightest sense of urban civilization at all in this film, thanks to the total absence of any other exterior shots of Philistia.  But if DeMille could afford only one serious set here, he got a pretty fantastic one.  Thronged with extras—the more of them to crush!—and tricked-out to look genuinely enormous, DeMille's temple plays host to a thunderously satisfying climax.  The visual impact of that climax is unfortunately muted by DeMille's unaccountable decision to not center Samson within the temple—for some reason, our man pulls down some columns that are set a fair bit off to the left—but it's damn solid spectacle, and Samson and Delilah set the stage for even huger feats to come.

Score: 5/10

Reviews in this series:
The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) (בְּרֵאשִׁית/Genesis)
The Ten Commandments (1956) (שְׁמֹות/Exodus)
Samson and Delilah (1949) (שופטים/Judges)
The Story of Ruth (1960) (רות/Ruth)
David and Bathsheba (1951) (שְׁמוּאֵל/Samuel)
Solomon and Sheba (1959) (מלכים/Kings)
Esther and the King (1960) (אֶסְתֵּר/Esther)
The Prodigal (1955) (Λουκᾶν/Luke)
Salome (1953) (Ματθαῖον καί Μᾶρκον/Matthew and Mark)
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) (Ἰωάννην/John)
The Robe (1953) (Ρωμαιους/Romans)
Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) (Κορινθίους/Corinthians)
Barabbas (1962) (Ἑβραίους/Hebrews)
Quo Vadis (1951) (Αποκάλυψις/Revelation)! Ben-Hur (1959)

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