Saturday, March 28, 2009

Exodus (1960) [UR] ****

A film review by Paul Mavis.

In the Karaolos detention camp on the island of Cyprus, American Kitty Fremont (Eva Marie Saint), newly widowed when her war correspondent husband was killed, finds new purpose in life when she meets Jewish concentration camp refugee Karen Hansen (Jill Haworth). After speaking with the British commander of forces on Cyprus, General Sutherland (Sir Ralph Richardson), who makes no bones about his sympathy for the unwanted Jewish refugees, Kitty starts to become involved in the Zionist political struggle to found an independent Israeli nation. Coinciding with this political awakening of Kitty's is her introduction to Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman), the grim, charismatic Haganah operative who comes to Cyprus to liberate the latest batch of Jews that sailed to Cyprus and were interned there in British camps.

Devising a plan to spirit the hundreds of refugees out of the camp through forged papers, the daring Ari lets the British know that the ship the refugees are on - the Exodus - is loaded with dynamite, and that the Jews aboard will either die of starvation or blow themselves up, unless they're allowed to go to their homeland, Palestine. The ploy eventually works, and the ship sails, but trouble awaits Ari, who becomes involved not only with Kitty, but who also serves as a conduit between his Haganah leader father, Barak (Lee J. Cobb), and his Irgun terrorist uncle, Akiva (David Opatoshu), who is sentenced to hang for a terrorist bombing of a hotel. Emotionally tortured youth, Dov Landau (Sal Mineo), joins the Irgun, and falls in love with young Karen, but their time together may be short once Israel earns its independence, and Arab hostilities escalate.

A massive, three hour-plus action/drama, Exodus plays best when director Otto Preminger, perhaps the first true American master of the widescreen format, lets cinematographer Sam Leavitt capture several exciting action sequences in sparklingly clear Super Panavision 70. When Exodus sticks to the action, it's impressive, with Preminger showing a facility for mounting suspense during the excellent blockade sequence at the beginning of the film (the best part of this long, long movie), and the prison breakout sequence in the second half.

Unfortunately, everything else in Dalton Trumbo's pedantic script plays off-key, with dialogue that sounds like posturing rather than real people talking to each other, and political discussions that can't help but simplify themes and problems that can't possibly be distilled down into a film ten times longer than Exodus. And I would imagine Preminger, on some level, understood this. If screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, reprieved from the blacklist by Preminger's gutsy decision to openly hired the blackballed writer, wanted to impart a message amid the romance and spectacle, Preminger wisely decided to blow up Exodus on the biggest possible screen at the time, using a soon-to-be megastar Newman, and emphasizing the pictorial possibilities of the Super Panavision 70 capabilities (which was in keeping with the late 50s to late 60s preoccupation with huge, road show attractions at the movie houses), to ensure success regardless of whether or not audiences particularly wanted to hear that message.

Unfortunately for Exodus, many of the performances are stiffened as well by the iffy dialogue and what one might assume were the filmmakers' attitude and insistence on making an important film. Newman is utterly humorless here (his character's background may be grim, as well as his duty, but couldn't Newman have found one moment to relay some humanity?), while Eva Marie Saint is, as always, quietly compelling. Sir Ralph Richardson probably gets the most out of doing the least here, while Peter Lawford is appropriately smarmy and obnoxious (he should have stuck with playing villains - he's quite good). Sal Mineo received a lot of kudos for his turn here, getting an Oscar nod in the bargain - and deservedly so. But his partner, Jill Haworth, is useless as the impossibly sweet, angelic Karen. Someone managed to muzzled Lee J. Cobb (a feat for which Preminger should have gotten an Oscar nom, as well), while poor John Derek does what he does best as he plays Taha, the Arab boyhood chum of Ari: he gets screams at his hopeless acting. At its very heart a conflicted film, Exodus' visuals outpace its dramatics.

Labels: action, drama, history, war
Internet Movie Database
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=59, viewers=72)

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