I am just recovering from a cold, and the great thing about a cold is that it enables you to enjoy guiltless leisure. I took the opportunity, such that it was, to do something I almost never do and watch a couple of films: The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Invisible Man (1933). For some reason I got it into my head that I should watch some old films. I probably thought they’d be a safer bet. What has weathered the fashions of the past several decades and is still admired must be good.
I was captivated by The Ten Commandments from the first moment when a screen appeared with ‘OVERTURE’ written in big letters, and we are treated to exactly that. I was not aware such operatic conventions had survived into the Golden Age of Hollywood (there is also an entr’acte). Clearly there has been a progression from opera to musical theatre to film overtures to title credits.
The film is grand and almost pompous. Incredible sets of sphinxes, temples, obelisks and Egyptian statues. The special effects are astonishing, from when Moses turns water into blood to the raising of a giant obelisk to that famous, brilliant moment when the Red Sea parts. All these moments are driven by Elmer Bernstein’s invigorating score. Bernstein was a prolific film composer, also composing the scores for The Magnificent Seven, Airplane and The Great Escape, among many others. It is refreshing not to hear plodding electronica or screeching orchestral horror in the score. This is pure, unapologetic splendour — cheesy, perhaps, but more artful than Hanz Zimmer or John Williams. Here’s the overture, which someone has set to clips of the film:
The most striking thing about the story, which I must admit I was not intimately familiar with, is that it is full of argument. There is always someone, usually the slimy Dathan, giving the counterarguments we are all thinking. Each point is rebutted. The story is argued and won.
The Invisible Man is the Ten Commandment’s antithesis: understated, set in a small town, and characteristically English. The premise is simple: a scientist has managed to make himself invisible, but the chemicals involved have also made him starkers — in both senses. I didn’t notice much music, perhaps being distracted by the mesmerising, hilarious acting of Claude Rains as Dr. Jack Griffin, the ‘Invisible Man’. Take this scene of Griffin prancing about in only a shirt (don’t worry, invisible remember), laughing maniacally. Then he merrily causes havoc about the town.
The effects are ingenious for 1933. He really is invisible. It is as convincing as any computer generated imagery, if not more so, for unlike with CGI all viewers ask themselves that magical question, how on earth did they do that?