Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Julius Caesar (1953)

Julius Caesar is a curious title among William Shakespeare's tragedies.  Many tragedies conclude with the death of their tragic figure, but with Julius Caesar, Shakespeare spends the second half of the play showing the fallout of Caesar's death and how it reverberates through the kingdom and how both his supporters and enemies try to use his death for their gain. As Mark Antony says, "The evil that men do lives after them."

From a narrative standpoint, Caesar appears very little. Yes, the famed Roman general and politician plays a central part in the drama that unfolds, and like other tragedies, his eventual downfall drives the plot, but he is not the protagonist of the piece. His death occurs in the third act and his presence limited to a few scenes. The main character of the piece is Brutus, the praetor torn between his love of Caesar and his fear that Caesar's ambition will make him a tyrant who destroys the Roman Republic. The tragedy of the play is how Brutus's noble intentions ultimately plunge the kingdom into chaos and destruction, everything he hoped to avoid by eliminating Caesar.

In this adaptation, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Brutus is played by James Mason. He is convinced by Cassius (John Gielgud) that Caesar (Louis Calhern) means to become king and must die if the republic is to survive. After much soul-searching, Brutus joins with the conspirators, and the assassination occurs. However, Mark Antony (Marlon Brando), over Caesar's corpse, turns public opinion against the conspirators, driving the kingdom into civil war.

The film is in the tradition of both Shakespeare's work and the Hollywood sword-and-sandal epic. Monologues and soliloquys are performed uninterrupted by voiceover or cuts, and the emphasis is on the performance. At the same, Mankiewicz employs the freedom of film to suggest a larger scope than possible if this were a theater production. Vast crowds of people gather in the city square for Caesar's funeral, soldiers line the street, and the big battle at the end involves hundreds of men falling upon each other in a vast, outdoor valley.

That said, Mankiewicz, unlike Orson Welles or Roman Polanski in other adaptations, doesn't do much create a memorable look or atmosphere for the film. Thinking back on the movie, I'm hard pressed to think of any images or visual sequences that stood out. There are entrances and exits and staging, but it just feels as if Mankiewicz is directing traffic: efficient and workman-like but nothing stellar.

While the visual component might be mediocre, the performances are top of the line. Mason excels as the tortured Brutus who wants to do the right thing for his country, even at the cost of his love for Caesar. Also very good is Gielgud as Cassius who has you believing every word when he says Caesar must die.

And I can't neglect to mention Brando. I'm so used to seeing him in his fat, old, indifferent persona of later roles that's it's easy to forget he was once a dynamic, young actor. He has a commanding presence here, and you always notice him when he walks into a room. When he intones, "Friends, Romans, and Countrymen, lend me your ears," you listen.

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