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Egyptian, The (Blu-ray Review)

8 Aug, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available at ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$19.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Edmund Purdom, Gene Tierney.

Personally produced by then 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck and directed by Michael Curtiz the same head-swimming year he did White Christmas, this artifact-packed flop blockbuster with opulent trimmings and a fabulous score is famed on at least one might-have-been level. This is the movie where Edmund Purdom replaced Marlon Brando when the actor balked at making the picture — though the latter did agree to make the equally un-Marlonish-ish Desiree as restitution. (By the way, when will that Napoleonic clunker come to DVD for Brando completists?) As baseball trades go, this wasn’t playing fair at all — being somewhat akin to Cincinnati taking Milt Pappas for MVP-bound Frank Robinson, the famously notorious switcheroo Susan Sarandon references in Bull Durham.

Still, this is one beautiful release for fledgling Twilight Time — apparently utilizing a transfer that Fox Entertainment commissioned when it was envisioning The Egyptian as a full-fledged retail project and not just something for the specialized limited-edition market. And besides, Purdom has a pleasant enough speaking voice in moderation (except that he’s all over the place here) and seems sincere enough in the role. The real acting villain here is poor Bella Darvi, whose casting as a bona fide Whore of Babylon (she doesn’t have to go streetwalkin’) is said to be what drove off Brando.

Whisked from the gambling tables (and casino debt) of Europe and into suspect stardom, she was the most conspicuous of Zanuck dalliances to land leads in Fox movies (now, there’s a Fox Movie Channel retrospective in the making) in what must have been one of the first cracks in his studio empire. Set 13 centuries B.C., The Egyptian is a shaggy pyramid saga about the long life of Pharaoh Akhenaton’s court physician (at least when things are going harmoniously between doc and the court) and all the events that have contributed to his age lines and gray hair before the film’s opening flashback begins. Foremost is ‘B’-girl Nefer, played by Darvi sometimes in an array of provocative bewigged hairstyles, including one that looks something like aqua dreadlocks. Sharing all or nearly all of her scenes with a low-key co-star, the actress stops the picture dead every time she appears, which includes a big chunk of its midsection.

Better are Jean Simmons and Victor Mature, though it’s likely Vic’s detractors will use his frequent pejorative character designation here (“son of a cheese eater”) to make fun of his performance — when, actually, he is what the movie needs more of. Simmons plays a modest (can’t read or write) servant of great inner spirituality who never seems to age, and if you’re a movie fan who like to make connections from picture to picture, note that she and Mature had made two movies together just the year before (Fox’s hugely successful The Robe, on which The Egyptian was supposed to capitalize, and contemporary Affair with a Stranger for Howard Hughes’s RKO). If this is a mere curiosity, you’d have to be myopic not to hone in on the occasional dynamics involving Simmons and Peter Ustinov (as a one-eyed slave), which unambiguously and even ticklishly anticipate 1960’s Spartacus.

Michael Wilding, then married in real life to Elizabeth Taylor, has some touching moments as the pacifistic pharaoh, who — were it not the century it is — might be pegged as someone who’s listened to a lot of sitar-heavy George Harrison albums at his stoner girlfriend’s. But Wilding is a low-key actor, as is Purdom — so, as with Purdom and Darvi, no sparks emanate from their shared presence anywhere in a 2.55-to-1 frame. Surprisingly OK here is Gene Tierney, whose tough off-screen problems had aged her a lot in the decade following Laura. Whereas she was transcendently somnambulant in that noir all-timer, Tierney gets to cut loose a little bit here — a political schemer who somehow finds a way for Mature, with his cheesy bloodlines, to ascend to the throne. You have to dig a woman who can say “bring me my chariot” to a servant with so much authority.

It’s been famously said that no one ever goes to a movie for the sets and costumes, but there are times where I disagree. This is one, especially when such a big-scale production (whose losses probably equalized Fox’s ’54 profits of Three Coins in the Fountain) gets this kind of rendering; even with my nose almost touching the screen in an experiment, this transfer looked spectacular. Alain Silver and James Ursini do the commentary (lots to talk about), Julie Kirgo’s liner notes are often funny, and there’s an isolated soundtrack of the famous score — split between my two favorite screen composers ever (Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman) because there were too many screen minutes (140) and too little time. Decca released an LP of the soundtrack back when this was a still fairly uncommon practice, and it was popular enough to be still in print when I special-ordered it from my neighborhood record store sometime in the mid-1960s. Both movie-music titans are in peak form, and their individual contributions are unmistakable.

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