The Fall of the Roman Empire 1964 ****

HD TV’s bring new life to old epics; Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire hasn’t look so good since it was released in 1964 to not much love. Restored and freed of grainy pan-and-scan, the huge size and scale of the production is revealed, with the set for Rome still inspiring awe. The box-office failure may be attributed to the lacklustre central performance of Stephen Boyd, filling a role that both Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas passed on. But the support is A-list all the way, with James Mason, Alec Guinness and Christopher Plummer all nailing their characters with bite, and Omar Sharif and Sophia Loren taking care of the glamour. The final act ties the film in neatly with the action of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator; for anyone seeking a different take on the reign of Commodus, Mann’s sprawling, vivid epic is a neglected benchmark for thoughtful, epic cinema.

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Mute Witness 1995

mute_witness5Writer/director Anthony Waller’s unheralded thriller has style to burn as it unfolds a teasing narrative of mute film-technician Billy Hughes (Marina Zudina) who finds herself trapped in a Moscow film studio by an violent group of men who she catches seemingly in the act of making a snuff film. Mute Witness works best when playing with the real-fake issues of Billy’s predicament, but even though Waller throws in some regrettable sixth-form comedy and a nice but irrelevant cameo from Sir Alec Guinness, there’s more than enough command of the medium on show to make it a shame that Waller didn’t get more recognition.

 

A Handful of Dust 1988 ***

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The work of British writer Evelyn Waugh has produced notable television (Brideshead Revistited) and film (Vile Bodies), although his satirical intent is often diminished. Charles Sturridge, who directed the Brideshead tv show, does a respectful job of converting Waugh’s A Handful of Dust into cinema, with Tony Last (James Wilby) struggling to come to terms with his wife Brenda (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her infidelity with John Beaver (Rupert Graves). Having nailed this complex relationship, Sturridge also has room for a plethora of high-powered cameos from Judi Dench, Anjelica Huston and notably Alec Guinness, who appears at Mr Todd, the African explorer with a taste for Dickens. The change of scene, from the social ladders of Britain to the depths of Africa, was hard for some to follow, but Sturridge sticks closely to Waugh’s book and makes a cinematic mountain out of a molehill of infidelity.

The Quiller Memorandum 1966 ***

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With Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer kick-starting the kitchen-sink spy genre, director Michael Anderson took the bleak feel of the ant-James Bond movement and captured it neatly in The Quiller Memorandum. George Segal is Quiller, who arrives in Berlin to investigate the deaths of two secret agents. His MI6 training is put to the test when he tangles with Oktober (Max Von Sydow), with boss Pol (Alec Guinness) fretting in the background. Adapted by Harold Pinter from Trevor Dudley Smith’s book, this handsome 1966 thriller radiated intelligence from Pinter’s script, and describes an earthier view of secret service investigation than the John Barry score might suggest.