JULIUS CAESAR (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953)

Producer John Houseman and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, culture-vulturing, made a film from one of William Shakespeare’s few boring plays, Julius Caesar; the one claim on our interest is, perhaps, that the film recycles sets from other M-G-M films. Like the play, the film is about the assassination in Rome, in 44 B.C., of Julius Caesar, whom others among the elite worry, or pretend to worry, is too politically ambitious. They convince themselves and one another that he may turn dictator on a dime.
     This is a ridiculously inept and unconvincing film. Let us consider, first, Caesar’s chaperoned march to the Roman Senate, where he is turned into a pin-cushion by a swarm of knives—the only vivid moment in the film. It is the Ides of March, and a soothsayer has already warned Caesar of danger on that day, and now Calpurnia, his adoring wife, has had what she is convinced is a prophetic dream, in which a statue of him is mass-stabbed, resulting in a thousand rivulets of blood-loss that kill him. Lovingly, Caesar decides to stay home to soothe his wife’s worries; but when those tempting him to this blood-flood arrive and explain away the dream, adding that he is about to be given total power, Caesar reverses himself and heads out to his funeral. In the play, the governing idea is clear and sharp: Caesar is so driven by a desire for power that it overwhelms his judgment. But nothing of the sort comes through in the film. By making of Caesar a near-doddering fool, we blame foolishness for his fatal decision, although this signature quality of his makes it impossible to believe that the masses would have wanted to be ruled by him in the first place. There never would have been a need to assassinate this Caesar. For the record, Mankiewicz was wedded to the scene of assassination, which is rendered again ten years later in his Cleopatra.
     And this is only one in a series of missteps, the most disastrous of which is Mark Antony’s speech to the crowds, overturning the effect of Brutus’s speech right before it which convinced the Caesarians that the murder of Caesar saved Rome from tyranny. Marlon Brando plays Mark Antony, and as Brando delivers that speech, with his phony accent, jerky cadences and histrionic air, and bringing absolutely no force at all to rhetorical ironies that without such force would go quite over the heads of the crowds, it is impossible to believe that the people of Rome would be moved, pricked and swayed, sending the conspirators on the run.
     From start to finish, this is a terrible movie, with nearly all the actors giving either superficial/histrionic or one-note performances. Briefly, however, Deborah Kerr is a lovely Portia, Brutus’s wife. James Mason is good as Brutus, one of several roles for which the National Board of Review named him best actor of the year.

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