Saturday, April 23, 2011

Still he survived

There's a story in the Bible about the King trying to kill all of the Jews' first-born sons so that their infant savior-to-be will never grow up to be their savior. Paul Newman's career could have been nipped in the bud by the disaster that is his first film, The Silver Chalice, which is airing at 6:30 AM tomorrow on TCM.

Newman plays Basil, a Greek silversmith in the first century AD/CE who gets sold into slavery. Along come the Christians, who have just seen the loss of their Messiah. They want a replica in silver of the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus was believed to have taken his last drink. So far so good. Along the way, however, Basil finds himself having to deal with two women. The lovely Deborah (Pier Angeli), a Christian and daughter of Joseph of Arimathea, who is clearly supposed to be right for him; and the horrid pagan harlot Helena (Virginia Mayo, who gets top billing).

That's not all Basil and the Christians have to deal with. There are people out there who clearly don't like the idea of Jesus being a messiah, and so they come up with the brilliant plan of having a messiah of their own, one who is still living! They're just making up a messiah, of course, so they need somebody who can pull off the con, and that would be magician Simon (Jack Palance). You know the Christians are going to win, of course, but they way it happens is a bit interesting: Simon actually begins to believe the garbage he's spewing!

There's rather a bit more in this turgid movie. The basic story shouldn't be that bad, but there's a fair amount of miscasting (notably Mayo, and her Helena character as a younger girl, played by Natalie Wood), and mis-direction. We know that Newman would later go on to be quite a good actor; why is he so off here? On the bright side, at least we have Jack Palance to steal the show. If younger viewers remember him today, it's the elderly Palance who had an Oscar-winning role in City Slickers. At the beginning of his career, though, he played villains and heavies, in movies such as Second Chance. Whether it was his idea or the director's, I'm not sure, but Palance goes over the top here and at least makes things somewhat interesting.

Apparently people at the studio must have known that Newman had more potential than he was able to show in this mess. Either that, or he was already at work on his next film. At any rate, The Silver Chalice is one of the worse Biblical movies of the 1950s, which has gained a bit of cult stauts for having screwed up so badly despite its cast. For that alone, it probably deserves one viewing.

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