#176 Ben-Hur

Watched: April 13 2018

Director: William Wyler

Starring: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, Jack Hawkins, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, Cathy O’Donnell, Sam Jaffe, Finlay Currie

Year: 1959

Runtime: 3h 32min (at least)

More numbering problems you say? See info here.

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In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea.

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“Uh, yeah, I’m here to register..? Yeah, with my wife. She’s about to give birth. No, no, I’m totally the father. Joseph. J-O-S-E-P-H. Know any good hotels hereabouts..?”

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We all know that story. However, this is not that story, but set in the same time. In 26 A.D. (probably not called that at the time, to be fair) Judah Ben-Hur (Heston) was a Judean prince and childhood friend of newly returned Roman tribune Messala (Boyd). Despite the intense homoeroticism of their interactions, the two have a falling out over political issues (one wants the other to sell out his people. That sort of thing).

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“God, I wish we were Greek instead of Roman…”

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After an accident involving a Roman procession and rooftop tiles, Messala finally has an excuse to arrest the Ben-Hur family and send Judah away to the galleys. His mother Miriam (Scott) and sister Tirzah (O’Donnell) are thrown in a dungeon, the family home is raided, and Judah is sent off.

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“I just thought I’d take a gap year. You know, to travel, sunbathe, grow my beard and learn about new cultures.”

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Strange destiny eventually brings the eponymous hero back to his hometown, now as an adopted Roman with a new fortune, new status in the Roman Empire, and excellent horse racing skills. His hatred for Messala has not diminished though, despite an encounter with Jesus, and he is also out for revenge and for the salvation of his family…

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We all know the best way to really humiliate someone is to beat them at their own game. And also kill them.

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Sometimes it’s hard to get in the right mood to watch an almost 4 hour epic from the ’50s, and we must admit we didn’t rush to pick this one up despite all we’ve heard of it. However, we’re glad we did as it lives up to its reputation (despite Heston’s occasional overacting). We loved the Roman perspective on Jesus, the (possibly unintended) homoeroticism between Judah and Messala, the sheikh, the general epicness of the feature, and the fact that we never actually see or hear Jesus.

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All we learn is that he has fabulous hair and can hypnotise Roman soldiers.

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We also loved the Roman uniforms, but mainly because they reminded us so much of Asterix that we spent the entire film quoting Asterix chez les Bretons (1986) and had to pull some strings to get our hands on the Norwegian dubbed version (AKA the only version worth watching) of our childhood favourite. So thank you, Kristian!

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“Er’re XVI her óg? Da har vi gått feil igjen, da.” – Classic!

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It’s easy to think Ben-Hur is a movie about horse racing (it’s by far the most famous scene), but it is really an epic saga of revenge and redemption with Jesus hanging out in the background. And a badass chariot racing scene.

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“Det skjærer meg i hjertet. Hører du, dekurion? Det skjærer meg i hjertet!” One for all Norwegian Asterix-fans. You’re welcome, people who don’t speak Norwegian and/or have no point of reference for this.

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What we learned: Romans, like most empires/powerful nations, were Biggus Dickuses.

Next time: Imitation of Life (1959)

#166 Touch of Evil

Watched: January 7 2018

Director: Orson Welles

Starring: Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor

Year: 1958

Runtime: 1h 35min

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Mr & Mrs Vargas (Heston and Leigh, respectively) pass the border from Mexico to the USA only to have a car blow up in front of them. Mike Vargas, a Mexican agent, decides to look into it, while American-born Susan Vargas stupidly decides to follow a random dude back across the border.

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She might make stupid decisions, but she’s got spunk and is intimidated by no man!

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Vargas is joined by US police officers Hank Quinlan (Welles) and his partner Pete Menzies (Calleia) and gets to tag along on their investigation. However, when Vargas witnesses Quinlan planting evidence in the apartment of their main suspect, he accuses the veteran police captain and starts to suspect that he, perhaps with his partner, has been operating this way for years.

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“No, no, you silly Mexican police person! This dynamite was always on the premises. It’s just racist dynamite and will only show up if handled by an American.” “Then how did the Mexican suspect handle it?” “Uh, um, he must be half American or something…”

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Quinlan denies any wrongdoing and starts to work to discredit Vargas, or get rid of him altogether. Meanwhile “Uncle” Joe Grandi (Tamiroff) is also putting pressure on Quinlan since Vargas has been investigating Grandi’s brother. To keep her safe, Susan in moved to a remote motel where she finds herself the sole guest only joined by a very strange manager.

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Turns out the motel is anything but safe…

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Touch of Evil is really very tense, especially Susan’s storyline. We were genuinely worried about her, no matter how spunky and independent she was, and she had some really horrible scenes. We loved the film though – we loved Susan, the Mexican being the good-guy protagonist (even if it was Charlton Heston in brownface), the total corruptedness of Quinlan and the naïve hero worshiping of Menzies.

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Also, there’s a brothel run by the fabulous Marlene Dietrich, which in itself is reason enough to watch this movie.

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Welles’ version was reedited and released as a very different movie than the one he envisioned. Since its 1958 debut, two other cuts have been released. We’re pretty sure the one we watched was the 1998 version cut together based on Orson Welles’ notes (we base this on nothing other than runtime, as we didn’t check the DVD-case). Just so you know, in case some of you think this is very important to this informal review.

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Put down the gun, Orson! We’ll watch your (probably) preferred version! We swear!

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No matter which cut you go for, this is a great Noir with a fantastic opening shot (really – check it out!), a great ending, and some kind of a man. Great stuff!

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No caption here. We just liked this picture.

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What we learned: Border towns bring out the worst people.

Next time: Vertigo (1958)