Tag: Robert Stephens

Cleopatra (1963)

Cleopatra (1963)

The biggest epic of them all – and one of the most infamous – is a mess but at times entertaining

Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz

Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Mark Antony), Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar), Roddy McDowell (Octavian), Pamela Brown (High Priestess), George Cole (Flavius), Hume Cronyn (Sosigenes), Cesare Danova (Apollodorus), Kenneth Haigh (Brutus), Andrew Keir (Agrippa), Martin Landau (Rufio), Robert Stephens (Germanicus), Francesca Annis (Eiras), Isabelle Cooley (Charmian), Jacqui Chan (Lotos), Andrew Faulds (Canidius)

One of the most legendary epics of all time – for all the wrong reasons. Cleopatra is the mega-budget extravaganza that nearly sunk a studio, years in its shambolic, crisis-hit making that turned its stars into a celebrity brand that changed their lives forever. Painfully long, it’s a rambling, confused film that feels like something that was filmed before anyone had the faintest idea what the story they were trying to tell was. Then, just when you consider giving up on it, it will throw in a striking scene or intelligent performance and you’ll sit up and be entertained. Just never quite enough.

In its four hours it covers eighteen years. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) arrives in Egypt after victory over his rival Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus. There he quickly becomes enamoured with Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), the cunning, intelligent witty sister of bratty Pharoah Ptolemy XIII (Richard O‘Sullivan). Caesar takes Cleopatra’s side in the civil war for the Egyptian throne and takes her as a second wife, having a son (and potential heir) with her. Made dictator for life, he and Cleopatra return to Rome – where is assassinated. A friendless Cleopatra finds herself drawn towards Caesar’s deputy Mark Antony (Richard Burton), the two of them starting a passionate affair that will tear the Roman world apart and lead them into a civil war against Caesar’s politically astute but coldly realpolitik nephew (and official heir) Octavian (Roddy McDowell).

Cleopatra’s shoot – and the hullabaloo of press interest around it – is almost more famous (and perhaps more interesting) than the film itself. After a long gestation, filming started in London under the direction of veteran Rouben Mamoulian, with Taylor on board (for a bank-busting fee) with Peter Finch as Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Antony. Then it all fell apart. Taylor caught meningitis in the cold conditions, nearly died and the film nearly collapsed. The script was rewritten (again), Mamoulian, Finch and Boyd all left. Joseph L Mankiewicz came on board to write and direct, London filming (and all the sets) was junked and production moved to Rome. This all took a year.

In Rome, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton joined the cast as shooting began again practically from scratch. The planning however had been so laborious that Mankiewicz hadn’t been able to finish the script. So, instead, he decided to start shooting what he had and write the rest as he went. Sets were built for unwritten scenes and money continued to pour down the drain. This also meant a huge amount of hanging around for all concerned, spare time Burton and Taylor used to start a tabloid-filling affair which became the talk of the world. After nearly two years of filming, the studio ended up with millions of feet of film, a feud over whether to release two films or one long one and no-one with any real idea why they had made the film in the first place.

And God you can tell watching it. Cleopatra is an over-extended, rather unfocused mess that feels like the compromise product it is. What is this film trying to say? No one seems to know, least of all Mankiewicz. Is this an elegy to the loss of the Roman republic? Hardly when Caesar is presented as sympathetically as he is. Was the film looking to explore Antony and Cleopatra as tragic lovers or deluded would-be emperor builders? God alone knows. Is Cleopatra a temptress or a genius, a chancer or a political genius? No idea. Her infinite variety here is basically to be whatever the scene requires at the time, all wrapped up in Taylor’s effortless charisma.

Mankiewicz’s script – presumably written and then filmed almost immediately in many cases – falls back onto what he was comfortable with. Dialogue scenes are frequently over-written and over-long, so intricately constructed it was impossible to cut them down and still have them make sense.  The man who rose to the height of his profession directing witty conversation pieces in rooms, tried to do the same with his three leads in these massive sets. Acres of screen time stretch out as combinations of three leads spout mountains of dialogue at each other, often to very little dramatic impact. To keep the pace up, the film is frequently forced to take huge time-jumps.

Empires rise and fall in the gaps between scenes, armies assemble and are defeated in the blink of an eye. At one point Caesar and Cleopatra find a murdered character in the garden – the impact rather lost on the audience as this character is never mentioned before or after this. Years fly by and characters swiftly report off-screen events of momentous import, from Antony’s marriage and peace with Octavian to Caesar’s victory over Ptolomy. Caesar himself is murdered – Kenneth Haigh leads a series of stalwart British character actors in glorified cameos – in a silent ‘vision’ witnessed by Cleopatra, that cuts to Antony’s briefly shouting (unheard) his funeral oration (this at least means we don’t need to hear cod-Shakespearean dialogue in either scene).

The other thing that couldn’t be cut was the film’s epic scale. Cleopatra’s entrance to Rome plays out nearly in real time, a never-ending procession of flights of fancy parading into the capital capped with Taylor’s cheeky grin at the end of it at Cleopatra’s panache. The battle of Actium looks impressive – with its boat clashes, flaming ships and colliding vessels – so much so that you almost regret we don’t get to see more of Pharsalus and Philippi than their aftermaths. The huge sets are striking, as are the legion of costumes Taylor has to change into virtually from scene to scene.

Of course, what people were – and always are – interested in is how much the fire off-stage between Burton and Taylor made it to the screen. I’ve honestly always felt, not much. Perhaps by this point both actors were too fed up and punch-drunk from the never-ending project. Perhaps they simply didn’t have any interest in the film. Burton falls back on grandstanding – he confessed he felt he only learned how to act on film from watching Taylor. Taylor is undeniably modern in every frame, but she somehow manages to hold a rather loosely defined character together, so much so that you forget she’s fundamentally miscast.

Of the leads Rex Harrison emerges best as an avuncular Caesar whose well-spoken wit hides an icy interior overflowing with ruthlessness and ambition. The film loses something when he departs just before the half-way mark. (It’s a mark, by the way, of the film’s confused structure that Burton only appears an hour into the film – and that for an inconsequential “plot update” chat with Caesar’s wife Calpurnia). There are decent turns from Cronyn as Cleopatra’ advisor, Pamela Brown as a Priestess, Andrew Faulds as a gruff Agrippa and even George Cole as Caesar’s trusted, mute servant. Best in show is probably Roddy McDowell’s ice cold Octavian – like a version of Harrison’s Caesar with all charm removed – who would have certainly been an Oscar nominated if the studio hadn’t screwed up his nomination papers.

Cleopatra still ended up with multiple Oscar nominations – even some wins – but took years to make back the money blown on it. At four hours, it bites off way more than it can chew and vey rarely comes together into a coherent shape. Scenes alternate between too short and way too long and three leads with very different acting styles struggle to make the best of it. You feel watching it actually sorry for Mankiewicz: it’s not really his fault, the scale of this thing would have sunk any director. Cleopatra has flashes of enjoyment, but much of it drags for the viewer as much as it did for those making it.

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Zeffirelli helps to reinvent Shakespeare on film as vibrant, urgent, young and sexy

Director: Franco Zeffirelli

Cast: Leonard Whiting (Romeo), Olivia Hussey (Juliet), John McEnery (Mercutio), Milo O’Shea (Friar Laurence), Pat Heywood (Nurse), Paul Hardwick (Lord Capulet), Natasha Perry (Lady Capulet), Robert Stephens (Prince), Michael York (Tybalt), Bruce Robinson (Benvolio)

When Romeo and Juliet was released in 1968, it was like a shot of adrenalin into the heart of Shakespeare. It was a play where audiences were used to middle-aged classical actors posing as teenage lovers (not just on stage: the last Hollywood version cast Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer with a combined age of 76). It was a play of wispy poetry, light breaking from yonder windows and stately tragedy. What it definitely wasn’t, was a young play. A play full of vibrant energy, youthful abandon and plenty of sex and violence. Zeffirelli’s film changed that: it was fast, sexy and above all young. It was unlike any Romeo and Juliet many cinema goers had seen before.

Everything new is eventually old of course. So influential was Zeffirelli’s film, it came to be remembered as a “tights and poetry” epic. Its traditional Renaissance Italian setting and well-spoken cast came 30 years later to represent the very same stuffy traditionalism it was kicking in the shins. When Baz Luhrmann released his William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, full of fast-paced editing, MTV tunes, gunplay and horny, Verona Beach teenagers, it was biting its thumb at the revolutionary style of Shakespeare Zeffirelli had introduced.

But, such is the richness of Shakespeare, there is more than enough room for both visions. Watching the film today is still to be struck by its pace and energy. This is a grimy, immediate film which Zeffirelli frequently shoots with a handheld intensity (particularly in the film’s sequences of violence). The costumes may have a primary-coloured sheen to them, but the emotions are raw and dangerous. There is a comedic zip and energy to its first half, which gives way to a grim sense of inevitable tragedy, that always seems just a few adjusted decisions away from being averted.

To pull the film together, Zeffirelli made some tough decisions. Almost 65% of the dialogue was jettisoned, most notably the whole of Juliet’s speech prior to taking the sleeping drug. Everything was cut and arranged to play to the strengths of his cast. His young lovers were great at the physical and emotional teenage energy, so that’s what Zeffirelli focused on. He cast two unknowns: 17-year-old Leonard Whiting and 15-year-old Olivia Hussey. Both had exactly the sort of unfussy naturalism he was looking for, playing the roles with a breathless, energetic genuineness.

They are, of course, not the greatest performers of the roles you will ever see. But Whiting’s Romeo is passionate, naïve and utterly believable as the sort of love-struck teenager who will choose oblivion when he’s lost his true love. Hussey (who, unlike Whiting, continued as an actor) has a wonderful innocent quality and a forceful determination underneath it. The two of them throw themselves into every scene (and each other) with gusto, rolling on the floor in despair or bounding into fights and arguments as if every word or blow will be their last.

It’s a youthful energy that the whole film bottles up and sells to the audience. Its opening scene takes the “I bite my thumb at you sir” classicism of the initial Montague-Capulet clash, and throws it into a dusty street brawl that sucks in most of the city. The camera weaves among this action, as people fly at each other, onlookers run in panic and extras’ bodies pile into the scuffle.

It’s an effective entrée for the film’s most effective sequence: the plot-turning fight that leads to the death of Mercutio and Tybalt. Zeffirelli brilliantly stages this as youthful bravado and hot-headedness that gets out of hand. Mercutio and Tybalt’s fight is initially more performative than deadly (so much so Mercutio’s friends don’t realise he’s been wounded until he dies) – only Romeo’s attempts to stop it cause it to escalate. Tybalt is horrified at the possibility he has harmed Mercutio and flees in terror. Mercutio maintains a front of all-good-fun that turns more and more into bitterness. Romeo’s revenge on Tybalt starts as an out-matched sword fight but turns into a brutal, dusty scrabble on the ground, with fists and daggers flying. All shot and staged with an improvisational wildness, people in the crowd ducking out of the way. It still carries real immediacy.

It’s particularly effecting as, until then, the film is arguably a romantic comedy. The first half not only surrenders itself to the youthful abandon and passion of the lovers, it’s also not adverse to a bit of knock-about farce with the Nurse (a fine performance of gruff affection from Pat Heywood). The Capulets’ ball is staged as another immersive scene, Nina Rota’s music helping to create one of the best renaissance courtly dances on film. With Romeo blanked by an austere Rosalind (who seems to barely know who he is), it zeroes in on the intense, can’t-take-my-eyes-off-you bond between the two lovers. All of it shot with a dreamy romantic intensity.

That carries across to the balcony scene, that again stresses the dynamism and sexual longing that revolutionises the poetry-and-posing the scene had become in people’s minds. This is after all a young couple who can’t keep their hands off each other to such an extent, they have to be physically separated by Friar Laurence (a cuddly Irish Milo O’Shea, over-confident and ineffective) before their marriage.

It makes it all the more striking then when the second half tips into melancholy and heartbreak. Zeffirelli brings the focus even more intensely onto the lovers. As well as Juliet’s speech, the Apothecary and Romeo’s killing of Paris (shot but cut as there were worries it would make the hero less sympathetic) are ditched, and the action is streamlined and runs inexorably to Romeo’s decease and the camera’s focus on Juliet’s hand as she begins to come back to life.

It’s a film full of interesting little side notes and character interpretations. John McEnery’s energetically manic and witty Mercutio (he, along with O’Shea handles much of the actual Shakespeare) is excellent, with more than a hint of a repressed homoerotic longing for Romeo. Natasha Perry’s austere Lady Capulet flirts openly with Michael York’s fiery Tybalt (their secret affair now a popular interpretation) while Paul Hardwick’s bluster as Capulet carries an air of desperation, with Zeffirelli capturing sad glances at his wife. To bolster its Shakespeare credentials, Olivier speaks the prologue (as well as dubbing multiple members of the Italian cast) for no pay or credit (though he must have known there was zero chance of his famous voice not being recognised!).

Zeffirelli’s film may just be, in its way, one of the most important Shakespeare films in history. If Olivier had shown Shakespeare could work as spectacle and Welles that it could be art, Zeffirelli showed it could be exciting and cinematic. That energy and filmic motion didn’t need to serve the poetry. It became so influential, that it eventually came to be seen decades later as “classical Shakespeare”. But it helped lay the groundwork for a series of films and productions that would leave posing, poetical renditions of the Bard behind.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely explore the mysteries of the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Robert Stephens (Sherlock Holmes), Colin Blakely (Dr John Watson), Geneviève Page (Gabrielle Valladon), Christopher Lee (Mycroft Holmes), Irene Handl (Mrs Hudson), Clive Revill (Rogozhin), Tamara Toumanova (Madame Petrova), Stanley Holloway (Gravedigger), Mollie Maureen (Queen Victoria), Catherine Lacey (Old Woman)

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes may just be the best Sherlock Holmes film you’ll see. It’s certainly one of the most original. Wilder’s semi-pastiche, described by Mark Gatiss as “both reverent and irreverent”, was a major box-office disaster at the time, but it’s a film that has grown richer and more enjoyable with age – particularly as we’ve caught up with its “fan fiction” style, its placing of the great detective in unusual emotional and social situations. 

Wilder’s film follows two “buried” cases of Sherlock Holmes, both suppressed by Watson. In the first (taking up the first quarter of the film), Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) and Dr Watson (Colin Blakely) are invited to a production of Swan Lakeby the Russian Royal Ballet, where a curious and unusual case is proposed to Holmes. In the second story, a mysterious woman suffering from amnesia (Geneviève Page) winds up on the doorstep of 221B Baker Street. Investigating who and what has brought her there leads into a case that covers continents, the upper echelons of the British government, and (possibly) the deeply hidden depths of Holmes’ own heart.

First off, it’s impossible to talk about Private Life without noting we only really have half the film. Not only did audiences not get it, nor did the studio. Both were expecting a traditional Holmes adaptation. Getting an amusing and wry exploration of Holmes’ psychology, built into a film where the great detective makes several errors, was categorically not that. So half the film was cut and chucked in the bin (including two whole cases). The footage no longer survives (there is an excellent recreation of what is left on Eureka’s new blu-ray) – but it’s a film that might have been.

It’s also a film that was apparently hell to make. Wilder had always been demanding – he demanded a completely faithful interpretation of his text, and often gave scrupulous line readings. It went to extremes here: epic rehearsals before every shot, with every line and movement dictated. For Stephens – a fragile alcoholic going through a divorce – it was too much, and part way through filming he attempted suicide. Shooting was delayed while he recovered, though Stephens’ pale, wan face needed to be overly made-up to compensate (in the opening scenes he genuinely looks like a drag act).

So you can’t forget the turmoil that brought it to the screen. But the end result (what remains) is largely a delight, even if it isn’t perfect. But it really is decades ahead of its time. Just like Sherlock (and it’s certainly the parent of that show), its main interest is not the case but the detective, his foibles and his emotional hinterland. Motored throughout by the wonderful chemistry between Stephens and Blakely (the two actors were good friends), it’s a wonderfully written film, full of wry humour and banter, mixed with moments of genuine heart and emotion. 

The film asks: who is Sherlock Holmes? Is he the cold fish he appears to be? While it doesn’t want to answer the enigma, it enjoys trying to unpeel those layers. Stephens’ Holmes is wry, witty, slightly fey, playful but also distant. He stands off from genuine intimacy and emotion – and why is that? As he spends time with Gabrielle Valadon, how much does he warm towards her – when he ruminates on his fears about trusting people, particularly women (in a marvellous late night conversation in an overnight train bunkbed), the film asks us to think: how damaged can this man who lives to investigate crimes but seems to have only one friend, be? It’s everything Sherlock took further: in fact the relationship between Holmes and Vardon has more than a few echoes in A Scandal in Belgravia.

The film’s real genius though is its opening short story, revolving around Holmes, a ballet company and a serious of unusual requests. This pastiche is very funny, very clever, beautifully played and crammed with invention and wit. The dialogue is beautiful, while both actors are perfect: Blakely is hilarious as a Watson full of joie de’vivre while Stephens’ drily amused Holmes works hard to never let surprise penetrate his raised eyebrow. The story goes down some mysterious alleyways – not least some curious questions around Holmes’ sexuality and experience with women. But it’s just about a perfect half hour of Holmesian pastiche: probably the best of its kind ever made.

The larger story doesn’t quite live up to it, but there are some beautiful moments in there, not least the growing bond between Holmes and Vardon in which nothing is ever said or done – and much is left open to interpretation – but where Holmes shows more of his humanity than he has perhaps ever done. The case itself is half humour, half expansion of Conan Doyle. By the end we are left asking ourselves how much on the back foot Holmes was for most of the case: and the case’s resolution eventually sniffs of satire. But the film itself ends on a bittersweet resolution, with Holmes facing the impact of emotions in a way he perhaps never has before.

Wilder’s film is sharp, witty and crammed with great scenes and jokes. It’s very well acted, particularly by Blakely as a hilarious Watson, full of good humour and bombast but with a sharp sense of cunning. He may not be as bright as Holmes, but he’s certainly bright enough to get the most out of life. Stephens is a little uncomfortable as Holmes (this film sparked a career nosedive that it took nearly 20 years for him to emerge from) but at certain moments he gives the part a really unique lightness masking an unknowable emotional hinterland.

It’s a film that’s easy to mistake for straight comedy, but it really isn’t. It’s a fascinating, entertaining and rewarding exploration of the leading character’s psyche, by writers who clearly know of what they speak. It throws in a case framework that smacks of the high-blown, Giant Rat of Sumatra-style cases Watson makes passing reference to in the stories. It’s a film that focuses on character and relationship – that captures a sense of friendship between Holmes and Watson that few other films have managed – and that spoofs the cannon while still feeling very true to it. 

It’s not perfect: it’s overlong and sometimes the pace drags or the sparkle fades. But Wilder and Diamond’s script has plenty of jokes and cannon knowledge (this was the first pastiche to explore Holmes’ cocaine use – and the psychological reasons for it) and has some terrific performances. Christopher Lee makes a wonderful urbane, whipper-thin Mycroft while Irene Handl is a wonderfully bumptious Mrs Hudson. Not only did it inspire Sherlock – it must also keep inspiring all fans of the great detective.