Friday, June 19, 2020

G-d Week: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.


Directed by Richard Thorpe
Written by Maurice Zinn, Joseph Breen Jr., and Samuel James Larsen

Spoiler alert: inapplicable

Sure, I said we were doing this survey of the mid-century Hollywood Bible epic in the canon order of their source material, and, mostly, we are; but 1955's The Prodigal is simply too perfect a bridge between the Tanakh's movies and the New Testament's movies to not do it now as we cross over from Judaism to Christianity.  And so, if the material upon which it is based, a dozen or so verses of Luke 15, means that it ought to come after Salome, well... big deal.

So let us attend The Prodigal, an Old Testament type of story attributed to the New.  As the title suggests, it is based on one of Jesus's numerous parables, spoken by the messiah to some Pharisees who were giving him a hard time about dining with sinners and tax collectors.  The parable itself, of course, is a transparent metaphor, concerning the outsized joy that God feels when His flock is reunited under their divine shepherd.  Or maybe that's the parable of the lost sheep.  Not that it matters: for in response to the Pharisees, Jesus rattles off three effectively-identical parables one after the other and, as always with either Testament, it's a real blast to read.

In fairness, the parable of the prodigal son lends itself to expansion more readily than either the parable of the lost sheep or the parable of the lady who found her coin (as for that thrilling yarn, let us be relieved that this is not an anthology film).  But in its effort to be the Bible movie based on a short parable, The Prodigal is vastly more the Bible movie based on other Bible movies, especially (and even more than usual) upon Samson and Delilah.  On the one hand, this could have been a strength; there ought to be more than just one good Samson and Delilah clone, and it shouldn't have taken ten years to get to Solomon and ShebaThe Prodigal suggests even more ambition: its freedom from established narrative (a common thread to most New Testament movies) could have easily allowed for something properly cinematic to be spun from the story of the shitheel son's redemption.  It could have offered a modern and (dare I even suggest it?) even nuanced take on the well-worn tropes of the monotheist man seduced by dangerous pagan femininity.

And the thing about The Prodigal?  It actually gets close; it makes you think it wanted to.  It bears an atypical willingness to take its pagans on their own terms; here, they are not so contemptibly easy to sway with a kiss and a few sweet nothings about the hero's abstract deity of anger and forgiveness.  Now, in the final analysis, The Prodigal is mostly let down by nothing more uncommon than its sketchy characters and its clunky screenplay.  Yet other Bible movies survive such problems, so the thornier issue may really be that the element that was most fascinating about it at first blush is what turns it a bit sour in the end.  Let's just say it is the only Bible film I know where the stoning of a woman—a curiously frequent occurrence in these movies, isn't it?—is not only presented as exciting, or dramatic, but actually good.  It's likewise attended by some annoyingly unclear filmmaking that prevents one from fully comprehending whether her end was born of hissable hubris or just a misguided sense of martyrdom—and, indeed, it could be either or both.  It's almost tantalizingly-ambiguous.  But The Prodigal isn't the kind of environment where "ambiguity" thrives; sadly, the only thing we can say for sure is that Lana Turner has a heck of a hard time presenting any readable acting through the chunks of styrofoam hitting her in the face.

Clearly, we've gotten ahead of ourselves, so let's turn back to the beginning.  Onscreen text reminds us of the First Commandment, and a stentorian narrator sets the scene, marking the year as seventy years before Christ.  And so we're not two minutes in before The Prodigal's fucked up badly.  That is a crazily specific year, for no Goddamn reason whatsoever: there is absolutely nothing about this story that demands being set in the middle of the chaotic collapse of the once-mighty Seleucid Empire.  And, needless to say, despite taking place in 70 B.C. and mostly in Damascus, it isn't: Hellenistic civilization in general is conspicuous by its absence in this movie, with nary a single mention of "Seleucia," or even "Greeks," outside of a stray reference to Hippocrates.  It's obvious that screenwriter Maurice Zinn and story developers Joseph Breen Jr. and Samuel James Larsen chose their setting out of pure indifference.  What was wrong with "sometime in the Iron Age"?

So, in 70 B.C., in the Hasmonean port of Joppa, there lives a young man named Micah (Edmund Purdom).  We make Micah's acquaintance as he intercedes on behalf of a mute runaway slave, Asham (James Mitchell), who has been pursued for many leagues by the murderous Rhakim (Neville Brand), a henchman of Nahreeb, the high priest of Damascus (Louis Calhern).  Micah saves Asham, who almost immediately returns the favor, and, with this, Micah's acquired himself a new friend who does all sorts of menial chores for him.  He brings Asham back to the house of his father, Eli (Walter Hampden), kind but also curiously thrifty, given that he must have magnificent wealth yet lives in the austere, gray-and-brown surroundings typical of good-guy Jews in Bible movies.  Nearby is Ruth, Micah's betrothed (Audrey Dalton, rather eye-rollingly miscast and styled if the idea was "boring girl next door").  Nevertheless, Micah has little interest in Ruth.  He doesn't really know what he wants, till he strides into Nahreeb's tabernacle at the market to give the old pagan a piece of his mind.  But, instantly, he is stopped cold by the sight of Nahreeb's female counterpart as she performs the rites of Astarte for Joppa's Aramaean community.  (And it is a minor thing, but the Hellenized name of Ishtar, "Ass-tarty," is unfortunate.)  Micah, having beheld Astarte's high priestess Samarra (Turner), falls madly in love.  He determines that he shall have this Damascene idolatress by whatever means necessary.

To this end, he beseeches his disappointed father for an early dispensation of his share of his inheritance, and he and Asham go to Damascus, where one-third of the liquid assets of a Joppan can apparently purchase not just a tony villa on a hill but all the debauched high life to go with it.  Samarra is harder to buy, however: besides the logistical difficulties of wooing a woman ensconced in the temple of an enemy religion, and the way our bearded Jew sticks out like a sore thumb (in clean-shaven ancient Damascus...), when Micah finally does reach Samarra, she demands an act of sacrifice to her gods, meaning an act of sacrilege before his.  If that's not enough, even Micah's gold won't hold out too long before Samarra's demands, and his debts soon exceed his wealth.  It's unlikely Micah will enjoy being a Damascene slave much at all—but it may have been a mistake on Nahreeb's part to put this man in a position where he could rally an angry mob with nothing to lose.

It is very hard to get past the obscene historical ignorance—at least two references to "caliphs," and the tender of two whole gold shekels, or roughly $4000, for a Goddamn goose—but once you're past that, there's nothing terribly wrong with The Prodigal's broadest strokes.  It's the details that are disagreeably smugdy: Nahreeb might have his ill-expressed evil plans for Damascus, but he spends so much of his time and energy plotting against a random nobody from Joppa that it's hard to take him seriously; indeed, The Prodigal never once satisfactorily answers why the high priest of Damascus would give so much of a shit about the apostasy of some Jew he barely knows, and ultimately I suppose it comes down to the distasteful idea that those of other faiths, especially those with mock-Arabic names, are constantly out to get you.

Much the same goes for Nahreeb's chief weapon in his petty war, Samarra.  The Prodigal is astonishingly hazy on how Micah could have possibly piqued her interest (he wrote some graffiti—in English, which really bugs me—insinuating she was a whore, and this gets her attention?).  In truth, it doesn't even quite provide substantial reason for Micah's infatuation with her, certainly nothing beyond "Turner's hot," and while I suppose this was considered sufficient cause at the time, they don't even speak at the Astarte tabernacle.  To be fair, it's never really the actors' fault.  They manage at least some simple chemistry once they're together.  Turner gets the better of it, and she's the site of the film's most interesting internal conflict, falling in love with her mark, as Bible movie temptresses often did, yet proving stronger in her own pagan faith than stupid, blaspheming Micah is in his.  Little comes of this, and, furthermore, director Richard Thorpe is remarkably reluctant to put the beauty in close-up.  I don't know if it was hesitancy born of the 'Scope frame or what, but it does awful service to the performance Turner is giving, which is underplayed too hard for medium shots alone to bring Samarra to life.

I don't blame Purdom, either, whose star was exceedingly short-lived (he only ever headlined three or four movies).  I even sort of like him in this: maybe it's just his voice, but he seems to be going for some sort of Errol Flynn thing.  It's functional enough, especially insofar as Micah is provided some occasional Robin Hood-esque derring-do.  But it's funny how much of a recapitulation Micah was for him, just a year out from his other big film, another sword-and-sandal epic, The Egyptian.  There, he'd played almost exactly the same role (albeit in a more depressed register), that is, a wayward 20-something, just catastrophically overpaying for his favorite prostitute.

At least this time she's a sacred prostitute, and what The Prodigal lacks in sensible plotting or solid characterization, it makes up in good old-fashioned spectacle, and I would tend to include Turner's semi-smutty garments (courtesy costumer designer Herschel McCoy) in that category.  The sets are impressively airy spaces—even Micah's Joppa neighborhood is lavishly-built, though it successfully pretends to be quaint—and none moreso than the sets used for the pagans' temple, which convinces as a genuinely huge complex.  The altar in particular is a superb piece of design (this courtesy art directors Randall Duel and Cedric Gibbons), with enough room for an enormous procession of priestesses, and a lot of splendidly-rigid geometry leading up to the platform for The Prodigal's punched-up version of human sacrifice—effectively, a diving board above a giant pit of fire, but more dignified than that sounds.  (I am, however, cool on the actual human sacrifice scene: it's a rad stunt, but you know how movies usually use oblivious children or terrified maidens for human sacrifices?  The Prodigal uses a 35 year old man whom we've never seen before, will obviously never see again, and seems perfectly serene at the prospect of meeting his deities.  It's another example of that odd half-willingness to meet the pagans on their own ground.  In a smarter movie this might've even been productive; unfortunately, as The Prodigal is dumb, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that it simply whiffed an attempt to sicken you with its pagans' vileness.)

In any event, maybe The Prodigal's most famous set is the inner garden of the temple.  This is—overtly—a brothel, with several dozen purple gazebos housing acts of sweaty commercial exchange.  It's still chaste by any era's standards but its own, but it's a sterling example of the Hollywood Bible film tweaking the censors with the kind of innuendo they could only get away with because the material was nominally spiritually-uplifting.  (This one caught flak from the Production Code office nonetheless, and I am personally tickled to realize that one of the writers who conceived this richly-designed palace of flesh, Breen Jr., must've been rebelling against his own father, the Code's first and most infamous officiant.)  I'd also be remiss not to mention that there's one downright wonderful sequence where Micah, his fortunes having turned, must battle a rather unconvincing vulture puppet in a pit full of skeletons.  Let us call it "energetic," and mean that as a compliment.

And if The Prodigal is not the most energetic movie of its genre, it acquits itself well enough, and while Thorpe is more competent at the big picture than he ever is at his shot-to-shot storytelling, he oversees a handsome spectacle that, from time to time, even manages some artful symbolism.  The aftermath of Micah finally getting into Samarra's bed, a shot of Micah at her feet dissolving back into the sacrificial altar, even represents some above-average visual construction; somehow, it's the conclusion of Luke's parable, as our traumatized hero prostrates himself before his forgiving father, that winds up maybe the single most interestingly-photographed image of this film, as it takes on a strange silent film-style intimacy and sacredness, a visible iris intruding on the edges of the 'Scope frame and everything.  Thorpe's action scenes, meanwhile, are chaotic but rousing, and they're fun until they intersect with the central antagonism.  That climax, as noted, is handled with a clumsy solemnity that leaves the film a thematically confused mess that feels like it hasn't even convinced itself that its explosion of Biblical violence was righteous (and has provided no really adequate rationale for its pagan mob's vicious iconoclasm, either); but, being devoid of any intellectual sheen or even simple self-awareness, nothing about this conclusion suggests that our film has actually chosen ambivalence.  The Prodigal, with its scripturally-unbound scenario and MGM's high-end production values, is as rich with potential as any Bible movie we've dealt with in this retrospective.  It's such a shame that when it comes to doing anything with that potential, it seems to have quickly lost its interest.

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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