Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Silver Chalice or: Paul Newman & the Holy Grail

Victor Saville's 1954 biblical epic, The Silver Chalice, set just a handful of decades after Jesus, should be considered an important film in the career of Paul Newman - for two very integral (and opposing) reasons.  The first being that it was the iconic actor's big screen debut.  The second being that it was the iconic actor's most hated film of what would eventually become an oeuvre of nearly sixty motion pictures. Newman even publically apologized for his performance in this movie.  Upon finally watching the film this past week (after seeing it listed among Martin Scorsese's favourite guilty pleasures) I can certainly see why Newman disliked it so much (he is rather terrible in it and through probably no fault of his own), but I gotta admit, even with its nearly universal bad acting, a script that makes one's ears bleed and an overall "do-you-like-movies-about-gladiators" vibe, I kinda liked it.  So go ahead and scoff if you must, but I am not going to change my mind.

The Silver Chalice is the true definition of what a guilty pleasure movie should be (as opposed to Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs - also on the aforementioned Scorsese list - which is, by all accounts, says the unabashed auteurist, a legitimately well-made film), which is where one derives enjoyment from a movie that is poorly made and/or sappy and/or cheesy and/or whatever other adjective one wishes to include.  Though in reality the idea of a movie's pleasure bringing on the emotion of guilt is probably a misnomer of sorts, since I feel no guilt from my love of The Silver Chalice - or from any other film one might call, out of necessity of getting your point across to an audience, a guilty pleasure.  Like I said before - and like I will probably say again before this whole shebang is over - I liked the damned film, so get used to it.

Two things in particular stand out to make me like the film so damned much.  Newman's rather lackluster performance (he is right to hate his performance here) is not among them.  The first is the art direction and set design courtesy of production designer Rolfe Gerard, Art Director Boris Leven and set decorator Harold Bristol.  From the gaudy feast of Nero (set inside what appears to be the Roman equivalent of DC Comics' Hall of Justice!), where everyone eats what appears to be silver food (actually looks quite strangely yummy) and scantily-clad, blue-skinned women (the kind Captain Kirk would so take his boots off for!) gyrate around to a poppy jazz score that is so out of time and place it almost goes the entire way around again and becomes perfectly scored, to the simple geometrical designs of Jerusalem that make this holy city an abstract wonder to behold as Newman's slave/artist Basil (a role originally turned down by James Dean) and the gorgeous Pier Angeli (James Dean's one-time lover) flee from Roman soldiers across the rooftops of this strange, exotic city, made even stranger and more exotic through staged architecture.  Everywhere one looks, no matter the lack of charisma from Newman (who would have it in spades in future movies!) and the quite idiotic preenings of co-star and Roman femme fatale Virginia Mayo, one is given a sight to behold indeed.

The other thing that stands out is (of course!) Jack Palance as the dastardly Simon the Magician (I assume based upon Simon Magus), wouldbe usurper to the aforementioned Jesus and all-around sly kook.  Crazier than I have ever seen him, Palance, even while giving such a soft-spoken kind of performance, hands in probably his most queerly wicked role ever.  Practically leaping out of the veritable closet as the no-good Simon, Palance is wonderfully kitschy in a role that he may very well have been oblivious to its camp goofiness.  I mean c'mon.  His playing with snakes and wearing the things he wore.  He must have known, right?  I mean, he is preening about in red superhero-esque tights with a cape and what appear to be giant black sperm designed into them.  This get-up is adorning the actor when he decides that he can fly (a, idea that, of course, does not come off to well for good ole Simon).  He is by far, the most interesting character in the movie.  Of course it is this very campiness that makes the movie so damned enjoyable (guiltily or not!!).

No matter that Newman took an ad out in 1966 (its television premier) decrying the picture and asking everyone to not watch (its ratings were phenomenal thanks to this actually) and would have friends over to watch it, handing out pots and pans and mallets and such in order to loudly criticize, like I said several times already (and I have forewarned of such again) I liked the damned thing - lock, stock and a big smoking Jack Palance.  Instead of placing screenshots throughout the piece (as is my usual modus operandi) I have saved the best for last.  Below are several great shots from the movie, showing just how succulent the imagery was/is, that were only magnified when I watched it up on the big screen.

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