Shakespeare has always been pretty dicey at the box office. Perhaps it's the technical prowess of the bard's quill that throws so many film makers off; their strict adherence to his mesmerizing prose married to their zeal to remain faithful to a fault when transcribing Willie's words into cinematic art.
Throughout the decades Hollywood has had a love/hate relationship with Shakespeare. On the one hand - there is still nothing to touch the immense passion for human frailty expressed in plays like Macbeth or Hamlet. On the other, is the barrier of old English - considered perhaps too highbrow for the masses.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s production of Julius Caesar (1953) walks this artistic tightrope with great agility, moving his camera almost effortlessly through Edward Carfagno's mammoth sets. Mankiewicz's interpretation of Shakespeare's famed tragedy is arguably still the best, capturing all of the political intrigue and brutality in the stagecraft, while making the play work in movie terms as cinema art.
The film stars Marlon Brando as the heroic, Marc Antony – heir apparent to a political mantel left vacant after the murder of Rome’s most noble emperor. Antony is besought by a conflicted destiny, to avenge Caesar’s (Louis Calhern) murder, yet justify his own stake against that of the bloodthirsty will of a complicit mob – all too malleable and ready for simple revenge.
James Mason is Brutus, key conspirator in the unholy plot, whose wife, Portia (Deborah Kerr) senses some great tragic fate looming before her husband. Greer Garson appears briefly as Caesar’s dutiful wife, Calpurnia. George McCready Edmund O’Brien and John Gielgud fill out the rest of this cast with strong credible performances.
In hindsight, the casting of Brando is inspired, yet at the time it must have seemed like creative suicide. Although Brando had received rave reviews in both the stage and screen versions of A Streetcar Named Desire, critics were quick to dub the actor, ‘the great mumbler’ – a moniker that stuck with Brando for quite some time thereafter, much to the actor's chagrin. But Mankiewicz saw something else in Brando then - a commanding presence yearning to express itself as something greater than just a common thug or brutish wife beater.
Even from our contemporary vantage, Brando's performance as Antony is a revelation. Reportedly, Brando made a careful study of an audio track of Lawrence Olivier giving Antony’s address to the people in front of the senate. But Brando does not simply mimic Olivier's clear annunciation. Nor does he rely on sheer screen magnetism alone to convey the overwhelming conviction in Shakespeare's potent dialogue.
No, there is something more - something visceral and uncompromising about Brando's delivery of these immortal lines. He speaks with a conviction that is difficult to fake, and impossible to ignore on the screen. He thunders and towers and ingrains himself into our memory as being the definitive Marc Antony. That's no small feat, and all the more startling when one considers that Julius Caesar was only Brando's fourth film and his first dealing with material that makes most classically trained Shakespearean players balk and tremble.
Of course, the actor is given brilliant support throughout the film by stars who know their way around the bard's words. But Brando's performance is still the one that impresses us the most some sixty years later.
Hershel McCoy's costume design is plush and regale. Ditto for Miklos Rosza's titanic score and Hugh Hunt and Edwin Willis' lavish production design. On the surface the film has everything going for it. Yet, its easy to forget how many other Shakespearean based films with as much in their background have been unmitigated artistic disasters and complete financial flops. Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar was, and is, neither, and that alone makes it all the more remarkable.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is wonderful looking. The gray scale has been impeccably mastered with a fair amount of impressive fine detail, deep solid blacks and very clean whites. Occasionally age related artifacts creep into this presentation, but do not distract.
Julius Caesar was recorded in four track stereo but curiously made its theatrical debut with these sound stems remixed into a mono blend. Warner’s DVD give us the rare opportunity to appreciate the film in true stereo for only the second time in its history (the first was on laserdisc in the mid-1990s).
The spatial separation between channels is rather limited - owing to shortcomings in the original sound recording - but otherwise the clarity and overall fidelity of these tracks is quite good.
Extras include a featurette critique of Brando’s acting technique, an introduction by noted historian and TCM host, Robert Osborne and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)