Wednesday 21 October 2009

Serpent of the Nile (1953)

Director: William Castle
Stars: Rhonda Fleming, William Lundigan and Raymond Burr
I'll take any opportunity I can find to watch a William Castle movie, even when it isn't one of his trademark gimmick horror flicks. This time around it's a historical drama, beginning with the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. We'd call Ironside to investigate but that's Raymond Burr standing over his dead body as Mark Anthony. Rome is in turmoil as everyone vies for succession with swords and arrows. This film had a budget of about ten bucks, nine of which were spent on background paintings, but these battles are superior in my mind to those in the far more expensive epic blockbuster Solomon and Sheba six years later. Even though some of these chariots look like they're made of cardboard, the people dying are people rather than dummies, the swords slice into bodies and arrows hit backs firmly and the whole thing is so blisteringly fast that we don't even have time to catch our breath, let alone think about what we're seeing.

It's over soon, the forces of Mark Anthony and Octavius winning the day. Cassius commits suicide, leaving a note in his hand reading, 'The cause is hopeless'. Capt Lucilius brings the news to Brutus, who gives up the fight. He's a faithful servant who's even willing to take his place when they come for him, but Mark Anthony sees through that and hires him, once Brutus is found dead by his own hand, promoting him to general. Even with Rome restored to peace, there are conquests to be made, beginning with the serpent of the Nile of the title: Cleopatra. Luckily Lucilius was head of Caesar's private guard when he was engrossed with the Egyptian queen.

There's much to be engrossed with here. The visuals often look lavish, as long as those scenes that don't reuse sets from Columbia's Salome, made the same year, skip by so quickly you can't concentrate on the Halloween costumes, plastic props and painted backgrounds. The biggest giveaway that there's very little budget to work with are the scenes that dispose of almost everything except the leads and a single set. When Cleopatra's fleet sails into Tarsus, it's a painting backing moving water, while the welcoming committee is Raymond Burr and William Lundigan, who plays Lucilius, looking out of a window. For all his lack of budget though, William Castle was a highly skilful filmmaker who knew how to keep our attention for a swift 81 minutes.

After all, who's looking at the props and the backgrounds when we have Julie Newmar playing a gilded dancer, painted gold from head to foot, writhing around as two female guards brandish whips and assist with the exotic dance. In fact she wasn't even Julie Newmar yet, this being her third film and first credit; she remained Julie Newmeyer on screen, whenever she got a credit, until 1959's Li'l Abner. If Newmar wasn't enough, there's the charming Rhonda Fleming to play Cleopatra and Jane Easton and Jean Byron both outshining her, as Anthony's woman Cytheria and Cleopatra's handmaiden Charmion respectively.

The dialogue plays well, this being written cleverly in the pulp tradition and delivered well. If you can get by the American accents, this would work well as a radio play, though there's not a lot of explanation as to why both Mark Anthony and his general can effectively win Rome and promptly ignore it to live in Alexandria and pursue the queen. There is a story, with all sorts of intrigue and politicking but none of it really matters much in the grand scheme of things. It's pretty easy to forget what's going on and just sleepwalk through it, ignoring things like the hollow wooden bar holding the gate to Cleopatra's palace closed because of the bear wrestling and the fireball throwing and the hard hitting stunts.

Burr may look a little ridiculous in this sort of costume but he sounds as demonstrative as ever. He simply couldn't sound bad even if he was paid to. Lundigan is pretty good as Gen Lucilius. Even though he's hardly the actor Burr is, he's more watchable here because he fits the material better. Burr deserved better but Lundigan fit the B movie mould well. He admitted that he got stuck in B pictures because he was 'so damned cooperative. Not only did I accept the bad pictures but I accepted lousy parts in those bad pictures.' Another reason is that he was just so good in pulp roles, as good here fighting intruders in his Roman nightgown as playing cops and priests and newspapermen.

While a few people contribute, the real credit here goes to director William Castle and writer Robert E Kent, who spin this yarn so fast that we can't help but get caught up in it. It's nonsense, of course, but it's enjoyable nonsense told well. It's a mid period Castle, that third of his career that I've seen so little of. He was a prolific man in the mid fifties, churning out four films in 1953 and 1955 and no less than eight in 1954, all inviting pulp titles like Slaves of Babylon, Drums of Tahiti and The Saracen Blade. Mostly I've seen his early detective serial films and his later horror movies and these mid period films, like The Law vs Billy the Kid and The Houston Story don't stand up too well in comparison. This one fits pretty well with those: fun but inconsequential.

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