20 Brilliant Seconds

The rap against Joseph Mankiewicz‘s Cleopatra (1963) is that it’s stately, slow-moving, oppressively talky, etc. But the opening credits — black font, a series of faded wall paintings, Alex North‘s music — are arresting, and then fascinating during a 20-second passage (starting a little after 2:35). North’s score slips into a somber mood and then builds into slight fanfare as the final painting becomes more and more vivid in stages, and finally transitions into 70mm live action.

It’s a simple elegant conveying of the fact that the centuries have faded and blurred the histories of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and that this film is not only un-fading and un-blurring what happened, but applying a sharp, super-costly Big Hollywood sheen.

I’ve really enjoyed this portion — a sliver really — of this otherwise negligible film for years, or since it’s been out on DVD, I should say. The full-boat 243-minute version is the only way to suffer through this thing.

There’s a portion of ten or twelve minutes after the credits with Rex Harrison and Martin Landau and the rest that’s fairly efficient, and then — about 16 or 17 minutes in — Elizabeth Taylor arrives, and the film soon becomes draggy, and then tedious, and then suffocating.

In his 6.13.63 review, N.Y. Times critic Bosley Crowther called Cleopatra “one of the great epic films of our day.”

24 thoughts on “20 Brilliant Seconds

  1. DukeSavoy on said:

    Love the epic. Would love to see more epic — but please with better script.

    Opening ‘aftermath of battle scene’ here is good. Spartacus battle is pretty good. But the best Roman epic scene is battle in the forest in Gladiator.

  2. I see that the clip is Part 1.

    Is somebody out there really watching the entire fucking “Cleopatra” on YouTube? Yeeeez.

  3. Thanks. I’ve found that a modicum of effort can often be rewarded with pleasing societal reinforcement. It’s this positive feedback that makes learning so much fun.

    I plan on tackling Na’vi next. Not sure where the good word is coming from there, however. Will need to be an inner-directed process, I guess. Perhaps polarized glasses will help.

  4. The Duke’s computer appears to have been hijacked by a Lithuanian spambot and is posting on its own to websites with relatively low standards of entry.

  5. I like the folklore about how Fox was burdened with two expensive divas, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. Because Cleopatra was too expense to shelve, Monroe was fired and was soon dead.

  6. Wells to Floyd Thursby: I can’t tell you how satisfying it is for me — how stimulating, even — that you declined to explain the ways in which Roddy McDowell is “good.” But you may be overdoiing the word count. Why not just say “Roddy good” or, better yet, “GoodMcD”?

  7. Cleopatra is tolerable up until Caesar dies, then it’s a slog, but what a slog. It’s amazing how good Burton and Taylor could be in other films.

  8. Forget DukeSavoy. The spambots are hilarious. And don’t put down ESL denizens or should I remind you Hollywood was built by people with DukeSavoy’s English skills.

  9. I have to say I don’t remember a thing about this movie. Never seen in a theatre revival, probably in a spotty manner on cable but this opening reminds us of the guy who wrote All About Eve. I loved Tom Mackenwicz(?)’s anecdote about the director talking to Elizabeth Taylor after she almost OD on pills. ‘Elizabeth, do you remember how many did you take?’ ‘Yes’ (director turns to the others) ‘She’ll be fine’

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