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The Silver Chalice

The Silver Chalice
Warner Home Video
1954 / Color / 2:55 anamorphic widescreen / 142 min. / Street Date February 17, 2009 / 19.98
Starring Virginia Mayo, Pier Angeli, Jack Palance, Paul Newman, Joseph Wiseman, Walter Hampden, Alexander Scourby, Lorne Greene, Herbert Rudley, Jacques Aubuchon, E.G. Marshall, Michael Pate, Natalie Wood, Albert Dekker, Ian Wolfe, Strother Martin.
William V. Skall
Production Design Boris Leven
Film Editor George White
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by Lesser Samuels from the novel by Thomas B. Costain
Produced and Directed by Victor Saville

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Should you still be in a frame of mind to be entertained by movies labeled "Camp", one of Hollywood's strangest major releases just became available in a stunningly good-looking DVD. The Silver Chalice is a quasi-Biblical epic that, along with MGM's The Prodigal, did nothing for the prestige of the genre. Decked out in CinemaScope, WarnerColor and Stereophonic sound, it's an unintentionally hilarious mess -- and very entertaining. The review may poke fun at the movie, but it's highly recommended. Warners is putting it out as part of a new Paul Newman Film Series.

Thomas B. Costain's wooly story rips off The Robe in that it centers on a relic of Jesus' final hours that carries miraculous spiritual power. The cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper doesn't heal the wounded or raise the dead, but it glows in the eyes of Christian believers. When the young Greek sculptor Basil (Paul Newman, in his first movie) is given a drink from it, he is soon converted to the new faith.

Screenwriter Lesser Samuels had previously contributed dialogue to the oddball Christian allegory Strange Cargo, but he also co-wrote the masterful Ace in the Hole. In the Roman city of Antioch, Basil is cheated out of his birthright by a treacherous relative (Herbert Rudley). Sold into slavery, he's forced to fashion silver artwork for his crooked owners. Help comes from two sources. Basil once aided a slave girl named Helena (Natalie Wood) to escape; she's now grown (into Virginia Mayo --- !) and has plans to make Basil her midnight consort. A group of Christians in Jerusalem want Basil to use his talent to create a chalice holder for the revered cup of Jesus. Basil takes the Christians up on their offer and soon attracts the eye of his sponsor's beautiful daughter Deborra, a fervent believer. But he's still hung up on the seductive Helena.

Helena, as it turns out, is married to the wondrously skilled Simon the Magician (Jack Palance). Simon hires on with a radical sect led by the fanatic Mijamin (Joseph Wiseman of Dr. No) that wants to recruit Jesus' followers into a terrorist army and start a revolution against the Romans. Helena thinks Simon is taking a risk consorting with Mijamin, but likes the idea that her husband's campaign with Mijamin gives her the freedom to entice Basil on the side.

A number of adventures later, Basil, Deborra, Simon and Helena are all in Rome. Basil is seeking out Saint Peter (Lorne Greene) while Deborah hopes that Basil will forget Helena and love her instead. Simon's power-mad ambitions lead him to ask Emperor Nero (Jacques Aubuchon) to build a giant tower -- "200 cubits tall" -- so he can demonstrate the ultimate "miracle" that will convince the ignorant masses to abandon Jesus. Simon intends to make everyone think that he can fly ... and is so wrapped up in his superstar status that he begins to believe he can do it without aid of magic tricks.

The Silver Chalice is one of those movies that turns good intentions into something essentially absurd. Little of it works as intended. Franz Waxman's handsome score is much better than the film deserves, but famed designer Boris Leven's sets are distractingly weird. Huge interior rooms (what's holding up all those ceilings?) have featureless walls and oversized doors. Exterior sets are built full-scale but look like cardboard cutouts, reminding us of Leven's purposely artificial designs in the previous year's Invaders from Mars. The matte paintings and backdrops are like something out of Dr. Seuss. The rooftops of Jerusalem could be from a UPA cartoon; Basil's view of a field of crucified Christians is a complete abstraction. Something is amiss with the entire design scheme -- many scenes look like raw conceptual storyboards.

The script gives the characters dialogue stuffed with awkward exposition. One morning meeting between Basil and Deborra has the love-struck girl describing an earlier off-screen event, which is obviously a scene that had to be dropped: "I cannot believe I am home again. When you awakened me in Miriam's cottage I thought it was a dream." Poor Virginia Mayo's sultry seductress is given the worst lines of all: "Hail Lucius Niger, my curly-headed ram!"

Paul Newman once took out ads apologizing for his performance in The Silver Chalice and asking people not to watch a television broadcast. Newman is actually quite good considering the awful lines he has to say; we can imagine him tossing in his sleep, fearful that his career could die in the bud while James Dean makes movie history in the soundstage next door. The movie abounds with interesting character actors left floundering by Victor Saville's non-direction. Albert Dekker's bombastic voice overpowers his scenes as a Roman armorer, while Lorne Greene works too hard to telegraph his piety. Greene is given an awkward, portent-laden curtain speech, an inspirational mouthful predicting that, in a perilous future world where men can indeed fly, the teachings of Jesus will be needed more than ever. Trying to underplay their poorly written roles are Alexander Scourby, Michael Pate, Walter Hampden, E.G. Marshall (with a heck of a nice beard). Fringe benefits include stand-still-and-read-the-lines input by Robert Middleton, Ian Wolfe, Strother Martin, Norma Varden and Mel Welles.

Virginia Mayo is poorly cast; she wears some of the most unattractive eye makeup in film history and has little choice but to perform her part like a burlesque queen. It's all the funnier considering that she's supposed to be a grown version of Natalie Wood (in a blonde wig). It's good that Pier Angeli projects such a strong sense of virtue and piety, for without her Newman's part would crumble along with the Christian theme. Still, we can't help but question the film's morality. Basil and Deborra go through with a marriage of convenience, so that Deborra can do an end-run around her father and gain direct control of her inheritance. That way, her grandfather's riches can be spent on Christian good works. Besides the basic dishonesty (and blasphemy!) involved, the focus on money reminds us of the big upswing in postwar evangelism and its emphasis on soliciting mass donations. In the Jerusalem crowd scenes, Jews and Christians alike behave like sheep, following whoever tells them what to believe.

The big excitement comes from actors Joseph Wiseman and Jack Palance. We first see Wiseman's terrorist leader being poked by the swords of some loitering Roman soldiers, until Ms. Mayo sends them away. He's soon spouting vicious rhetoric that seems an amalgam of fascist arrogance and Communist cynicism -- we expect Mijamin to demand that Simon help him "topple" missiles from Cape Canaveral. Palance is truly good as the crazy magician-turned false messiah, keeping his tendency to overact in check ... for a few scenes. Simon outfoxes Mijamin but soon becomes so self-obsessed that he forgets that his tricks aren't real.

Simon's big miracle show before Nero and the assembled throngs (more pitiful matte paintings, natch) must be seen to be believed. Palance dresses in a leotard decorated with what look like squiggly sperm-shaped things. When he straps on a pair of bat-wings, Palance looks exactly like Wile E. Coyote trying out a new purchase from the Acme mail order company. Only Jack Palance could get away with Simon's enthusiastic statement, "I need no wires, no buckles! I need no wheel to be turned! I shall fly by the power of my own will, and all the world will wonder, and worship!"

The chances are that The Silver Chalice didn't raise any eyebrows when it was new, but it now plays as a strange, tasteless artifact from the 1950s. As a mix of undigested cultural themes, it's irresistible; many of its (now) funny lines and situations are entertaining because it's obvious that the filmmakers were dead-sober serious. And finally, the movie has merit as a dire warning to budding writers who think that putting together a great screenplay is easy. Script-wise, there's really not much difference between a big-budget embarrassment and a movie by Ed Wood.

Warner Home Video's DVD of The Silver Chalice is a beautiful transfer, with colors clearer and brighter than even their previous disc The Land of the Pharaohs. The new clarity reveals the film's crazy art direction in its goofy splendor; viewers that have seen the film only in brownish Pan-Scanned TV prints will shake their heads in disbelief. The stereophonic tracks for Chalice and many other Warners 50s titles were thrown away decades ago, only to be rescued from oblivion in the 1990s by accessing magnetic-striped prints deposited in the Library of Congress.

The disc carries no extras. Warners' other titles in its Paul Newman Film Series are The Helen Morgan Story, When Time Ran Out, The Outrage and Rachel, Rachel.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Silver Chalice rates:
Movie: Fair but Excellent as pure cornball Camp ... visually it's one of Hollywood's oddest, ever.
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 27, 2009

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
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