Above, the first shot of Paul Newman's movie career. Below, Jack Palance performs on what is, believe it or not, a major studio set.
This weekend I decided to give The Silver Chalice a fresh look. It's a gravely problematic movie visually, actually quite ambitious in its own way. It was such a way, however, that made it look unambitious to many contemporary observers. Producer-director Victor Saville (who also held the rights to Mike Hammer and produced Kiss Me Deadly the following year) and his design team decided against building big free-standing sets and against realism of any kind as a rule. They opted for a sometimes minimalist, sometimes abstract production design that emphasized clean lines and open spaces when it wasn't obviously self-indulgent or utterly incompetent. To call the results hit-or-miss is to understate the extremes. Sometimes they succeed brilliantly and manage stunning images. Sometimes they look like amateurs. It's the inconsistency rather than the experiment itself that handicaps this film.
Virginia Mayo), a slave who ran away from the old merchant's household and is now hanging out with Simon the Magician. Helena will be torn between Basil and Simon for the rest of the picture, while Basil will be torn between her and Deborra (Pier Angeli), the granddaughter of Joseph of Arimathea. Using Luke the Evangelist as his agent, Joseph buys Basil's freedom and brings him to Jerusalem to craft a silver chalice that will house the drinking cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Helena ends up in the holy city when the Sicarii, a Jewish insurgent group, recruit Simon to be their spokesman and messiah.
Sicarii are a promising but underutilized element of the story. I don't know if they're meant to represent the People's Front of Judea or the Judean People's Front, but as they're shown in the movie the question is really whether they're stand-ins for fascists or communists. Since the year is 1954, let's opt for commies. They're obsessed with violent revolution, but Simon, a fellow-traveller in the parlance of the time (the 1950s, that is), instructs them in the need to project a benevolent front of freedom and spirituality. This movie really needs a band of black-clad sword-wielding thugs to liven up things, but Saville never thinks to stage any anti-Roman mayhem. This film is hopelessly short on action, though things could be worse. At 135 minutes, Chalice is relatively brief by epic standards.
Virginia Mayo has to choose between Newman's youthful ardor and Palance's magic fruit. What would you do?
Nero's palace is one of the film's more successful sets. Within it, Palance adds snake-handling to his wonder-working repertoire.
The Egyptian by a good margin. If you want real sword-&-sandal entertainment from 1954, go with Delmer Daves's Demetrius and the Gladiators. But if you want a genuinely eccentric effort from Hollywood's epic era, then Chalice is on TCM on Easter afternoon for you to judge for yourselves.
Close up, Palance's final costume change makes him look like an unmentionably virile superhero. From afar, it's more like an ancient Acme Bat-Man Outfit.