King Of Kings (DVD)

To some extent, director Nicholas Ray was a typical Hollywood studio hand, making Westerns when called upon to make Westerns, helming domestic melodramas when those were in fashion, and so on. But Ray's films were tougher than most, and often more honest. He was drawn to material that kicked off the soft blankets separating genre-driven plots from their chilly psychological origins, and he illustrated them by keeping the stories uncomplicated and the images uncluttered, while applying the opposite approach to the characters. In the brittle 1950 Hollywood noir In A Lonely Place and the human-scaled 1961 Jesus biopic King Of Kings–both newly available on DVD with sharp transfers and scant bonus features–Ray cuts to the marrow, exposing the existential dread and gaudy displays of power that have always been in the bones of these kinds of stories. In A Lonely Place may be Ray's masterpiece: It's a witty and often excruciatingly bleak portrait of a likable loser who gradually reveals the full extent of his occasional dark moods. Humphrey Bogart plays a struggling, smart-alecky screenwriter who takes on a hack adaptation job and becomes a murder suspect when the woman he hires to help him turns up dead. Bogart investigates the crime himself, in part to get the police off his back, in part to impress pretty neighbor Gloria Grahame, and in part because he knows his own temper and tendency to drink, and he's not entirely convinced that he didn't commit the crime. As L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile director Curtis Hanson points out during a 20-minute appreciation featurette on the DVD, Bogart remains a sympathetic character right up to the moment when he loses it and becomes a physically repulsive, sweaty brute. King Of Kings doesn't overtly indulge such character switch-ups, because '60s theatergoers probably wouldn't have appreciated a conflicted, morally inconsistent Jesus. So Ray and screenwriter Philip Yordan balance Jeffrey Hunter's kindly, passive portrayal of the Messiah with extensive subplots. The contrast comes from supporting players, especially Harry Guardino's Jewish revolutionary Barabbas, who offers a direct, violent alternative to Jesus' you-have-to-lose-to-win philosophy. Ray's heart doesn't seem to be in the big battle scenes or the shots with teeming fields of extras, and the movie suffers somewhat from listless epic-bloat. What saves King Of Kings, and what marks it as a clear inspiration for Martin Scorsese's low-budget The Last Temptation Of Christ 25 years later, is Ray's inventive and pointedly unspectacular recounting of the most memorable parts of Jesus' story. Most of the miracles aren't shown, just recounted in a dry government report, while the moment when the rabble choose to release the violent Barabbas rather then the humble Jesus takes place offscreen. The high point of the film is Christ's trial, which features two Romans abstractly debating his guilt while he watches, silent and impenetrable. The movie repeatedly contemplates the manipulation and meaning of power, as the Romans and the Jews look for wealth and control, but can't seem to find or understand what they really want. That's a typical preoccupation for Ray, who often risked unnerving his audience by giving them people to identify with, then illustrating how they, and we, are all screwed up.

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