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Ulysses (1954)

by Glenn Erickson Nov 21, 2020

 

No, it’s not the story of the 18th President of the United States. Kirk Douglas must have been a big hit in Rome, starring in one of the first and best of the Italo epic ‘classics,’ before the musclemen cornered the market. Homer’s tale of the husband who took ten years to come back from Troy is given real star power, a splendid production and best of all, an intelligent script. This disc looks a lot better than the ragged earlier DVD, plus it offers a superior Italian language soundtrack. And don’t forget Gary Teetzel’s recommendation: as an adaptation of The Odyssey, it’s right up there with O Brother Where Art Thou!


Ulysses
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1954 / Color / 1:37 flat Academy / 94 104 117 min. / Street Date November 17, 2020 / Ulisse / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Silvana Mangano, Anthony Quinn, Rossana Podestà, Jacques Dumesnil, Daniel Ivernel, Sylvie, Franco Interlenghi, Alberto Lupo, Benito Stefanelli.
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Film Editor: Leo Catozzo
Production Design: Flavio Mogherini
Special Effects: Eugen Schüfftan
Original Music: Alessandro Cicognini
Written by Franco Brusati, Mario Camerini, Ennio De Concini, Hugh Gray, Ben Hecht, Ivo Perilli, Irwin Shaw from a poem by somebody named Homer
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Carlo Ponti
Directed by
Mario Camerini

The Italo peplum genre hasn’t been shown the respect it deserves. Most big Italo westerns and horror movies have by now been released multiple times on home video, but only a few samples of the enormous field of sword ‘n’ sandal movies have arrived in any form. When they do, they’re likely to show up in American versions only. As tots we dearly loved Steve Reeves in Joseph E. Levine’s recutting and re-dubbing of Hercules; but all we have of it is a sad Retromedia DVD from 2006. The original ‘boomy’ Hercules voice is long gone: “I’VE BEEN TRICKED BY THE GODS.” And the exciting Hercules Unchained, for all I can tell, isn’t available here at all.

Seen in English, Ulysses didn’t seem all that special — although we hear Kirk Douglas’s own voice, the dubbing script goes in for some odd exchanges:

Ulysses (Kirk Douglas):

You witch! While I slept you turned a band of heroes into swine!

Circe (Silvana Mangano, calmly):

It was much easier to do than you think.
 

The beauty of this new disc is the Italian Language track. The movie is no longer a quickie ‘Classics Illustrated’ gloss on The Odyssey, but a fairly intelligent, straight telling of one of the great works of ancient literature. It offers a solid hero, endearing characters and one highly mysterious, ambivalent witch-temptress.

 

The early 1950s was a peak time for Americans to make films overseas, thanks to low prices and favorable taxes. The big studios rushed to Italy, where an industry was just beginning to re-tool after the destruction of WW2. MGM’s Quo Vadis was a huge production that reportedly gave the Italian industry a major boost, bringing Yankee dollars to put the Italian film industry back on its feet. Ulysses is a genuine U.S. / Italian co-production, with Paramount calling some of the shots. The usual string of writers on an Italian film is amended with a couple of Hollywood imports, which I would ungenerously guess were there to keep the Italians honest, and perhaps to protect the star Kirk Douglas. The production of Ulysses dragged out; it was begun in 1953 and restarted in the same year with a new director. The filming and post-production took so long that by the time the epic arrived in America, the new widescreen aspect ratio had taken hold. Joining pictures like Crime Wave, From Here to Eternity and Shane, the flat-Academy ratio Ulysses was in many venues probably shown widescreen, with projectionists racking the gate up and down, recomposing on the fly. But we’re told that the handsome production played well stateside, thanks to the presence of stars Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn. The devastatingly beautiful Silvana Mangano was a huge star in Europe, but something of an art-house flower here.

Producers Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti mounted an impressive production. The Italian star power indeed begins with De Laurentiis’ wife Silvana Mangano, the big attraction from the classic Bitter Rice. In a strong supporting part is the slightly younger Rossana Podestà, who would soon proceed to the title role in Robert Wise’s 1956 Helen of Troy.

Hollywood of 1953 was not as impressed with Italian camera talent as they should have been, resulting in the importation of the esteemed American director of photography Harold Rosson, of Singin’ in the Rain. Either that, or Paramount wanted one of their own heading the production crew, to avoid Roman work slowdowns. The special effects were overseen by the master cameraman Eugen Schüftan, who was also a major cinematographer in his own right: Eyes Without a Face, The Hustler, Something Wild, Lilith.

The narrative simplifies Homer’s tale in an intelligent manner, relegating the sack of Troy and three of the Odyssey’s major episodes to flashbacks. The interaction of mortals and gods is pared down as well — the warrior king Ulysses (Douglas) is in disfavor with Neptune, and his faithful queen Penelope (Mangano) petitions Athena with prayers for his safe return. The problem is that Ulysses has been gone almost twenty years. Ten of them were spent conquering Troy, an entire epic covered in a couple of action bits and a good matte painting. Another ten are frittered away on his return voyage, trying to overcome obstacles in the Aegean Sea. Near the end of his journey, Ulysses loses his memory on the shore of a friendly kingdom not far from Ithaca. He falls in love with Nausicaa (Ms. Podestà) and is willing to stay forever. But before the wedding, Ulysses has a memory breakthrough in flashback form. He recalls his frightening encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops (Umberto Silvestri) and his sojourn with the enchantress Circe (Mangano again). Circe transforms Ulysses’ men into pigs and distracts him with spells and her own charms. When his crew is lost trying to leave the island in a storm, Ulysses finds the will to move on.

Back in Ithaca, Penelope maintains hope that her husband will return despite the fact that her house has been taken over by rowdy suitors eating her food and spending her money. They entreat her to choose one of them as her new husband (and, we assume, king, lord and master). Penelope’s excuse that she has a tapestry to finish is a trick that can work only for so long. Alpha Male suitor Antinous (Anthony Quinn) shows up and demands that the competition to choose a husband begin immediately. Penelope is desperate. The first thing a new husband will do is murder her grown son Telemachus (Franco Interlenghi). Will Ulysses extricate himself from his engagement to the princess Nausicaa, and return in time?  Can Telemachus hold off the insolent suitors?  Weren’t you paying attention in school?

The story works well enough… we wonder if Homer’s account jumped back and forward in time, “Citizen Ulysses”- style. The flashbacks to Ulysses’ sidebar adventures work well, although the Circe episode is so long that we’re a bit disoriented when it ends… “Oh, he’s still back on the beach.” Ulysses seems chastened to think that he’s wasted so much time enjoying the attentions of Circe and Nausicaa, so is able to return to Ithaca incognito, to see what’s been cooking at the palace in the last twenty years. If he can straighten things out, Ulysses can slip into middle age domesticity with a clean conscience.

The production does not cut corners. They built a handsome full-scale ship for the film, and good sets and colorful costumes abound. The lighting is quite beautiful. Rome had not yet built up an industry of sword ‘n’ sandal pix, so the costumes look fresh, although a couple of the gowns are decidedly odd creations evoking neither modern or ancient styles. In this good transfer, we really appreciate the beachwear of Nausicaa and her handmaidens.

 

The special effects are top-notch. A couple of good split screens are employed in the Cyclops’ cave, but most of the episode makes do with well-chosen camera angles. The monster indeed looks big and Ulysses’ sailors small, with a minimum of effects and no opticals. The final fight in Ithaca displays nice trick action with a bow and arrow. Some of the more expressive sets show off the great work of production designer Flavio Mogherini.

With the superior Italian soundtrack, Ulysses does not seem slow. Kirk Douglas is spirited and earnest, without overplaying. He’s certainly ‘buff enough’ but not quite the lean & mean fighting machine of the later Spartacus. The dubbing is obvious but on the English track both Douglas and Anthony Quinn use their own voices. Quinn takes the show seriously. His nervy suitor-interloper is something of a thankless role. Antinous cruises in, feeds Penelope a pack of lies and veiled threats, and then gets his with the rest of the suitors.

I don’t know if there’s anything comparable in the modern world to Penelope’s problem. The story isn’t exactly femme progressive, as Penelope just seems a Greek housewife, not a Queen who can assert authority to advance Ithacan land reform and more rights for women. Even when I was a child in the 1950s, the approved behavior model for women and girls seemed to be to fold one’s hands and remain constant, waiting for whatever male has hung you out to dry, to remember whose bed he belongs in.  Separations happen — tell me about it, Covid — but making women wait seems to be a prime male activity in our species, as celebrated in this song from the 1600s said to be based on The Odyssey.

 

Rossana Podestà fronts a winning smile and a dreamy peaches & cream complexion. She looks truly upset when Ulysses suddenly remembers he’s got a wife back home. Silvana Mangano is more than effective as the sympathetic Penelope, but her Circe (pronounce CHEER-CHAY in Italian) is a genuine supernatural temptress. The movie doesn’t fiddle about with the character, a witch in search of sexy male consort. Circe promptly gets Ulysses into bed, and that’s before she erases his memory. The Circe episode also has the film’s best lighting, a fact that didn’t escape commentator Tim Lucas.

The story is indeed a wonderful ode to the determination of Ulysses and the patient constancy of Penelope; by the time Ulysses returns, we would expect Penelope to have taken up with somebody else and moved to Las Vegas, where the taxes are favorable. Instead, the reunion is a joyous affirmation of their relationship. Does Homer’s story of Ulysses sound like a hyperbolic defense of male tom-cattery?  I have my suspicions about a classic that makes such elaborate excuses for the absence of a husband. Joliet Jake Blues could have used some of these:

“I was caught by a one-eyed monster!”  “A witch confused me!”  “She looked just like you, honest!”  “I lost my memory — otherwise I would never have touched that woman!”  “I know I never touched that other
one, the really, really cute one…


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Ulysses is a solid transfer of this handsome old-school epic, with a terrific script in Italian and a so-so dub track. Remastered in 4K, very clean encoding seems to come from the same source as used in the 2009 Lionsgate DVD — presumably an Eastmancolor composite made from the original Technicolor separations. The picture overall is rich and atmospheric, especially those great interiors. But some colors can look a bit weak from time to time. The main drawback is that the picture still exhibits the same issue as had the old 2009 Lionsgate DVD — in many scenes the blacks aren’t deep. I’m assuming that if they were darkened, other values would be thrown off, and the blacks would ‘clog up.’

Yes, the posters confirm that Ulysses was filmed in old-fashioned Technicolor. The IMDB says that a 3-D process was used, but that puzzler and others are cleared up in Tim Lucas’s informative commentary track. The G.W. Pabst connection is finally made clear — for quite a while, that German director was in charge of the show, and he’s the one who planned a 3-D picture. Lucas offers a Greek boatload of classical references, and seems to know something about every main technical contributor. It’s also fun when he points out actor Albert Lupo, the one and only Atom Age Vampire. Tim says kind things about Kirk Douglas — according to new books on the actor, he got a handle on his love life while working in Europe, and settled on his lifelong marriage partner.

My own reaction — with the beard Kirk Douglas wears as Ulysses, this is the show where he looks most like his movie star-producer son Michael.

 

Tim Lucas advances his contention that Mario Bava and not Harold Rosson filmed the Circe Grotto sequence, and we’re quick to agree. Color effects that are decorative elsewhere in the show, suddenly take on a spookier tone with Bava’s eccentricity. With Flavio Mogherini’s superior sets the setting does indeed look like their collaboration Diabolik fifteen years later. Tim thinks that Bava may have directed the scene as well, and it certainly looks like his work, a little more flexible than other scenes. Mario Camerini’s staging is fine, but the Circe sequence is a highlight.

The same goes for the episode with the Cyclops, Polyphemus. The sequence is so effects- heavy it’s entirely possible that Eugen Schüftan took charge, making most if not all the directorial decisions.

“Includes both Italian and English Versions” really means that Ulysses is given its now-standard 104-minute cut, in both languages. The IMDB (hey, would they make mistakes?) clocks the 1955 U.S. debut of movie at only 94 minutes, and states that it was originally 117 minutes in Italy. I didn’t catch Tim addressing that issue, but I don’t see anything missing from the show either.

Tim’s statements really make me want to see Hercules and Hercules Unchained again, or for the first time in original versions. In Unchained, Reeves’ amnesiac time-out with Omphale, an enchantress played by Sylvia López, is an intensified revisit of this film’s eerie Circe sequence.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Ulysses
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good ++
Sound: Excellent English and Italian
Supplements: Audio commentary by Tim Lucas, Standard Def opening credit sequence.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
November 18, 2020
(6387ulys)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.