Masters Of Cinema #34 - Cleopatra - Blu-ray Review

'Claudette Colbert delivers folded lines of silk to combat the stiff collars of her compatriots.'

The reports from those who have seen The Hobbit in forty-eight frames-per-second have been largely of the opinion that watching the film in this way causes the viewer to undergo a brief period of adjustment. The way the image is displayed has been described as 'hyper-real', a new, unfamiliar way of consuming a film.

A similar experience may take place during the first fifteen minutes or so of Cecil B. DeMille's 1934 piece of extravagance, Cleopatra. Beyond the image - which maintains its grain and varying light perception, even on Blu-ray - the dialogue may be a new, or at least rare, experience for many. Partially due to the year of production, partially due to DeMille's direction, the line readings by the entire cast - with one notable exception - fold out on screen with the flexibility of a heavily starched shirt collar. It is an acquired taste. Distrust, even laughter, may greet the opening scenes, before your ear becomes accustomed to this new audio reality and the film continues at pace.

The one notable exception mentioned above is, of course, Cleopatra herself, the ravishing Claudette Colbert delivering folded lines of silk to combat the stiff collars of her compatriots. DeMille has an aim for the entire film in this regard: Cleopatra must be different from the other characters, both male and female, we must believe she is the object of desire of many, the heroine of legend.

Whilst the film dips in other areas, here DeMille and Colbert are supremely successful. Obvious staging devices help. As Marc-Anthony (Henry Wilcoxon) arrives, tricked, on to Cleopatra's ship, he is dressed darkly, framed against a white background. Pivot to Cleopatra: a vision in white and luminescence, as dark feathers fan her from behind. Earlier, Cleopatra has been paraded in to Rome, behind Julius Caesar (Warren William), the most powerful man on Earth. DeMille's camera needs to show more here than it does but even so, Cleopatra nearly gets a full pan. Caesar gets barely a head turn.

'The director's shot of a harpist caressing his instrument whilst a near-naked Cleopatra lies 'behind' it in the background typifies DeMille's approach; he has mastered the depiction of Cleopatra as both strong and sensual.'

If the character of Cleopatra is a somewhat risqué presentation in the masculine world of the thirties, then her visual presentation seems partially designed to soften any male complaints. Sure, DeMille needs her to be a strong heroine but don't be fooled: she is also titillation in a film released during the period where the newly-introduced Hays Code was poorly enforced. The base metaphor of the thrusting model Caesar operates in an early scene is a clear sign from DeMille that this is a film partially about sex and why, therefore, should it not also be sexy? The director's shot of a harpist caressing his instrument whilst a near-naked Cleopatra lies 'behind' it in the background - picked out by Craig Keller in the luscious accompanying booklet - typifies DeMille's approach; he has mastered the depiction of Cleopatra as both strong and sensual.

But what of the men this alluring woman conquers before we inevitably switch focus to tragedy? In all honesty, they get short shrift. Caesar barely lasts for the first act and neither he nor Wilcoxon, as Anthony, get the same attention lavished on them as Colbert does. Their dress is invariably drab - not quite starched shirts but similar - whilst Cleopatra goes through more costume changes than a Vegas show, all of them somewhat reflective of her approach at the time. Note the appearance of the feathered headdress with the snake in the centre; DeMille and uncredited costumer designer Vicky Williams again perfecting the portrayal of the main character's dangerous beauty.

In fact, the men are so marginalised in terms of character that ultimately it takes little for the Queen of Egypt to win them over. Anthony is almost literally swept off his feet by off-key music, before DeMille wisely avoids censorious wrath by bringing a curtain across his male lead and Colbert's embrace. In an hilarious, almost too-literal visual stab at the censors, the curtain is embellished with a cross made of flowers. Nothing to see here. Too dangerous.

In an extract from DeMille's biography, edited by Donald Hayne, he talks of how he had trouble convincing his extras to act in 'one of the crowd scenes'. It is likely that he is referring to one of the scenes in Rome but he may as well be talking about the finale, which is full of weak and messy action, saved only by some charming miniatures. The director cuts quickly between these and close ups of Wilcoxon and Colbert, anonymous battles in deserts and the new conqueror, Octavian (Ian Keith), arriving. He doesn't need to. The film is at its best when it is quieter, more concerned with Colbert's beauty, and Cleopatra's ravishing heroism. Atune to the dialogue and all this will wash over you in starched spades of well-produced desert sand.

Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

Cleopatra is released in the UK on Monday 24th September

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