“THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” (1954) Review

“THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” (1954) Review

A few years ago, I had reviewed an old 1953 Tyrone Power movie called “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. This 1953 movie proved to be a mixture of a costume melodrama and adventure that chronicled the adventures of a Northern-born gambler who moves to New Orleans to start his own casino. The following year saw the release of another movie with a similar theme called “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ”

There are differences between “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” and “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. The latter film featured a top film star – Tyrone Power. And I can only assume that it was one of Universal Pictures’ “A” films for 1953. It was certainly a big hit. On the hand, one glance at “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” and a person was bound to regard it as a “B” movie. The film’s lead, Dale Robertson, was never big as Power. He was mainly known as a television star during the 1950s and 1960s. And his Hollywood career had only started five years before this film.

“THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” began in 1848 Baton Rouge with the arrival of a discharged Army militia officer named Captain Vance Colby, who had fought in Texas and Mexico during the Mexican-American War. In response to a message from a close family friend, Vance planned to travel down to New Orleans on horseback to meet his father, a famous and successful professional gambler named Chip Colby. During his journey, he meets a beautiful Creole aristocrat named Ivette Rivage and comes to her aid, when her carriage’s horse becomes lame. She invites him to her family’s plantation, Araby, where he meets her brother Andre Rivage and her fiance Claude St. Germaine. The two men react coldly upon learning of Vance’s relation to his father, who has recently been accused of being a card cheat.

Following Vance’s departure from Araby, he is attacked by Andre’s hired thug, Etienne. Riverboat captain Antoine Barbee and his daughter Melanie, whom Vance had first met in Baton Rouge, come to the wounded Vance’s aid. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Vance learns that his father was killed and framed for card cheating by three men – casino owner Nicholas Cadiz, Claude St. Germaine and Andre Rivage. Colby Sr. had won half interest in a new gambling vessel that the three accusers had plans to launch. Upon learning this Vance vows revenge against his father’s enemies.

I first saw “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” on late night television when I was a teenager. Which means that MANY years had passed since my recent viewings. I wondered if my opinion of the film would change. To my surprise, I discover that it had not. As I had earlier stated, “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” struck me as a “B” swashbuckler. Although the film was released through Twentieth Century Fox, it was made by a production company called Panoramic Pictures that released a series of low budget films during the 1950s. And yes . . . it was quite obvious that “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” was a low budget film.

I noticed that for a movie set in the lower Mississippi River Valley, I cannot recall seeing any hint or sign of water in it, aside from the swamp (or a back lot pond) where Vance Colby was wounded and the body of water (or back lot pond) where one of the villains fell from a riverboat. I am still amazed that Chester Bayhi’s set decorations and art director Leland Fuller managed to convey the movie’s late 1840s setting with some plausibility – especially in scenes featuring the interior sets for the Araby plantation, Nicholas Cadiz’s New Orleans casino and the parlor of Andre Rivage’s new steamboat.

On the other hand, I had a problem with Travilla’s costumes. His costumes for the movie’s actors, especially leading man Dale Robertson. Travilla did an excellent job in recapturing the men’s fashion for that era, including the U.S. Army officer uniform that Robertson wore during the film’s first half hour. I wish I could say the same for the women’s costumes in the movie. Well, I found most of them a somewhat adequate representation of women’s fashion in the late 1840s – especially those costumes worn by actress Lisa Daniels. But Travilla’s designs for leading lady Debra Paget’s costumes . . . what on earth?

Paget wore at least two or three more costumes in the film that struck me as a bit more tolerable. But she wore the one featured in the image above more than the others Now, I realize that her character, Melanie Barbee, was the daughter of a man who owned and operated a minor steamboat. But this is the 1840s we are talking about. Melanie was definitely not a prostitute or daughter of a poor backwoodsman. Her father owned a steamboat, even if it was second-class. A woman of her background and time would never be caught dead wearing such an outfit out in the open for everyone to see, let alone in the lobby of an exclusive New Orleans hotel.

I might have some issues with “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ”. But if I must be honest, my opinion of the film has not changed over the years. I still managed to enjoy it. During my review of “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”, I had complained about the film’s vague and episodic narrative. I certainly had no such problems with “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ”. I thought Gerald Adams and Irving Wallace had created a solid and entertaining story about a mid-19th century gambler who sought revenge against the men who had killed his father and ruined the latter’s reputation. In fact, I cannot help but feel somewhat impressed by how Adams and Wallace had structured the movie’s plot.

The two screenwriters set up the plot by allowing the protagonist, Vance Colby, to encounter a series of mysteries surrounding his father. From the fight he participated in with another gambler during his arrival at Baton Rouge via steamboat to the discovery of Chip Colby’s death, Vance seemed encounter one mystery after another. Midway into the film, Adams and Wallace allowed Vance to finally discover the true mysteries behind Colby Senior’s recent reputation as a card cheat, Andre Rivage’s murder attempt on his life and Colby Senior’s death. Upon this point, the plot for “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” focused solely on Vance’s desire for revenge against the three men responsible for his father’s death. Through it all, Adams and Wallace created a light love triangle between Vance and two women – the steamboat captain’s daughter, Melanie Barbee; and Ivette Rivage, who proved to be more superior than her morally bankrupt brother.

The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast. By 1954, Dale Robertson had been around Hollywood for five years. Although he never became a big star like Tyrone Power, his excellent performance as the strong-willed and determined Vince Colby made it pretty obvious why his acting career lasted for the next four decades – mainly in television. He also managed to create a strong screen chemistry with his leading lady, Debra Paget. She gave a very entertaining and superb performance as the feisty Melanie Barbee, who quickly fell in love with Vance while saving his skin on at least two or three occasions. Robertson also had a strong screen chemistry with Lisa Daniels, the British actress who portrayed the Creole aristocrat, Ivette Rivage. I believe Ivette proved to be a more complex character than any other in this film. She had to be regarded as the wrong woman for Vance, yet portrayed in a more sympathetic light than her brother. And I believe Daniels managed to skillfully achieve this balance in her performance.

I find it odd that Kevin McCarthy ended up in a low-budget film some three years after appearing in the film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play, “DEATH OF A SALESMAN”. Well . . . regardless of how he must have felt at the time, McCarthy proved to be the first-rate actor and consummate professional who portrayed Andre Rivage as the charming, yet violent aristocrat whose temper and gambling addiction set the story in motion. Another excellent supporting performance came from Thomas Gomez, who portrayed Vance’s new friend and Melanie’s father, steamboat Captain Antoine Barbee. Gomez did an excellent job in conveying Captain Barbee’s friendly and pragmatic personality . . . and providing a brief father figure for Vance. The movie also featured solid performances from Douglas Dick (who portrayed the spineless Claude St. Germaine), John Wengraf (who portrayed the intimidating Nicholas Cadiz), Jay Novello, Peter Mamakos, Donald Randolph, and Henri Letondal. And guess who else was in this film? Woody Strode, who portrayed Josh, one of Captain Barbee’s crewmen. Or only crewman. Hell, I am not even certain whether he portrayed a free man or a slave. But his character did help the main hero defeat the “Big Bad” in a way that will prove to be very surprising for a film made in the 1950s.

I realize that “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” is not perfect. But for a low-budget film, it proved to possess a very well-structured and well-written narrative, thanks to screenwriters Gerald Adams and Irving Wallace. Although I regard the story to be the backbone of any film, director Henry Levin could have have ruined it with bad direction. But he did not. Instead, I believe Levin and a cast led by Dale Robertson did more than justice to the screenplay. Perhaps this is why after so many years, I still managed to enjoy this film.

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“THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” (1956) Review

 

“THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” (1956) Review

It has been a long time since I saw Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 movie, “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”. A long time. When I was young, my family and I used to watch the film on television, every Easter Sunday. By the time I reached my early to mid-twenties, I stopped watching the movie.

I spent the next decade or two deliberately ignoring “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”. One, I had pretty much burned out on the 1956 film by then. Two, I had very little interest in Biblical films. I still do to a certain extent. And three, my opinion of DeMille’s movie had pretty much sunk over the years. By the time, I reached my thirties, I came to the conclusion that it was an overrated film. So . . . what led me to change my mind for a recent viewing of “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”? To be honest, the recent release Ridley Scott’s Biblical film, “EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS”. Both the 1956 and 2014 movies pretty much told the same story – the exodus of Hebrews from Egypt, under the leadership of Moses. I eventually plan to watch “EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS”. But out of curiosity, I decided to watch “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” first.

Anyone who has seen or heard about “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” knows the story. Pharaoh Rameses I of Egypt orders the death of all firstborn Hebrew males upon hearing a prophecy in which a “Deliverer” will lead Egypt’s Hebrew slaves to freedom. A Hebrew woman named Yochabel saves her infant son by setting him adrift in a basket on the Nile River. The Pharaoh’s daughter Bithiah, who recently lost her husband, finds the child and adopts him as her own, despite the protests of her servant Memnet. Prince Moses grows up to be a part of Egypt’s royal family. He becomes a successful general who wins a war against Ethopia and forms an alliance with the country. Moses falls in love with loves Nefretiri, who is the throne princess and must be betrothed to the next Pharaoh. He also becomes in charge of constructing a new city in honor of Pharoah Sethi’s jubilee. But when his rival for the throne and Nefretiri’s hand, Prince Rameses accuses him of being the Hebrew slaves’ “Deliverer” after he institute reforms in regard to the slaves’ treatment. Moses responses by showing the completed city and claiming that he wanted the slaves more productive in order to finish the project. Despite being on top of the world following his construction of the new city, Moses’ privileged world is threatened when Nefretiri learns from a royal slave named Memnet that Moses is the son of a Hebrew slave.

I now realized why I had stopped watching “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” for so many years. I had simply burned out on the film. My refusal to watch the movie for so many years had nothing to do with its quality. I am not saying that “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” is one of the best films ever made. Not by a long shot. “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”, quite deservedly, is known for its over-the-top melodrama, bombastic style and preachiness. But the one thing the movie is known for it is the turgid dialogue that seemed to permeate the film. I cannot help but wonder if the screenwriters had disliked actress Anne Baxter or her character, Nefretiri. After hearing her spout lines like – “You will be king of Egypt and I will be your footstool!” – throughout the entire film, I am beginning to suspect that I may be right. Even the other performers – including Charlton Heston, Yul Brenner, Yvonne DeCarlo, Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price, Debra Paget, John Derek, Judith Anderson, John Carradine, Martha Scott, Nina Foch and Sir Cedric Hardwicke – spoke their lines with a ponderous style that left me wondering if this movie had been shot at a slower speed. And to think, movie fans had to endure this ponderous style and turgid dialogue for slightly over three-and-a-half hours. Whew!

However, my re-watch of “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” made me appreciate it a lot more. I appreciated the epic feel of DeMille’s movie, as he guided audiences into Moses’ life – from Moses’ birth to his glory years as an Egyptian prince, to his years as an outcast and shepherd and finally to his years as a prophet and conflicts with Rameses – all in great detail and glorious Technicolor. DeMille even took the time to delve into the romance of supporting characters like Joshua and Lilia. There are some epic films that can bore me senseless with a ponderous style and equally ponderous pacing. Yes, the dialogue for “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” can be quite ponderous. But I cannot say the same for DeMille’s pacing. I found his direction well-paced, despite the movie’s 220 minutes running time. One of the aspects of “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” that I found truly impressive was Loyal Griggs’ cinematography for the film. Shot in glorious Technicolor, Griggs’ Oscar nominated photography left me breathless, especially while viewing scenes such as those shown below:

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I was also impressed by other technical aspects of the film. That last scene, which featured the parting of the Red Seas, led to an Academy Award for John P. Fulton, who had created the movie’s special effects. That scene hold up pretty damn well after 59 years. “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” earned Oscar nominations for Edith Head’s colorful costume designs, Anne Bauchens’ film editing, Sam Comer and Ray Noyer’s set decorations; and for art directors Hal Pereira, Walter H. Tyler, and Albert Nozaki.

What can I say about the movie’s performances? Despite the ponderous dialogue, the performances seemed to hold up . . . okay. Charlton Heston earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Moses. Granted, Heston projected a strong presence in his performance. But honestly . . . I would not regard Moses as one of his greatest performances. I merely found it solid. I was a little more impressed by Yul Brenner’s portrayal of Ramses. He won the Best Actor National Board Review Award for his performance. Then again, Ramses proved to be a more complex and ambiguous character than Moses. As much as I liked Brenner’s performance, it did not exactly blow my mind. Anne Baxter, who was already an Oscar winner by the time she did “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”, was saddled with some of the movie’s worst dialogue. And there was nothing she could do to overcome the bad dialogue . . . well, except in two particular scenes. One of those scenes featured Nefretiri’s discovery of Moses’ origin as a Hebrew slave. And the other featured her character’s angry goading of Ramses to take action against the Hebrews, following their son’s death.

I read that Paramount had submitted Yvonne De Carlo, John Derek, and Debra Paget as possible nominees for a supporting Academy Award. All gave pretty good performances; especially Yvonne De Carlo, who portrayed Moses’ wife Sephora, and Debra Paget, who portrayed Lilia, the slave woman who seemed doomed to attract the attention from the wrong kind of men. There were other solid performances from the likes of Judith Anderson, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, John Carradine, Martha Scott, Henry Wilcoxon and Woody Strode. But two particular performances really caught my attention. Ironically, they were portrayed by Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson, who portrayed characters that proved to be the bane of Lilia’s life. Both gave interesting performances as two very oily men who use Lilia as their personal bed warmer – Price as the well-born Egyptian architect Baka and Robinson as the ambitious Hebrew overseer Dathan, who later proves to be a thorn in Moses’ side.

“THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” proved to be the last film directed by Cecil B. DeMille to be seen in movie theaters. The last in a career that by 1956, had spanned forty-two years. The director passed away over two years following the movie’s release. Frankly, “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS” struck me as a nice high note for DeMille to end his career. Yes, one has to endure the extremely long running time, occasional bouts of over-the-top drama and ponderous dialogue. But the movie’s visual style, first-rate story, excellent direction in the hands of a legend like DeMille and solid performances from a cast led by Charlton Heston; makes this Hollywood classic worth watching over and over again.