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December 06, 2005

Inner Journeys with James Mason

Journey to the Center of the Earth
Henry Levin - 1959
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

Lord Jim
Richard Brooks - 1965
Columbia Region 1 DVD

Between 1959 and 1962 I lived in Teaneck, New Jersey. Pat Boone, at the height of his stardom, also lived in Teaneck. I never got to see him although some of my elementary school friends reported sightings. I didn't see Journey to the Center of the Earth because I was still restricted by my parents to only seeing movies with the name "Walt Disney" attached to the title. Once again, thanks to the miracle of the DVD, I can fill in those gaps of childhood.

The man who made Fats Domino and Little Richard safe for the suburbs has two semi-nude scenes, one with a sheep! Of course the couple of songs don't sound like anything from the late 19th Century. James Mason is on hand mostly to provide a bit of gravitas to a film that co-starred the ephemeral Arlene Dahl and Diane Baker. Mason was previously in the Disney version of 20,000 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, but it was after this film that one could expect at least one Jules Verne film adaptation every year in the early Sixties. Journey was also the last screenplay written by Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch. A couple of wisecracks slip in to remind us that former collaborator Billy Wilder didn't write all the jokes.

Although the film special effects and sets were considered state of the art at the time, the years have been less than kind. There is one set which looks like a maze of twisted white roots that still looks good. One set looks like it was constructed with Bloomingdale's gift boxes and aluminum foil. The dinosaurs appear to be lizards photographed with extreme close-up lenses. It probably wasn't mean to be symbolic, but there is also a shot of Pat Boone hammering a big spike into a dinosaur's tongue. Bernard Herrmann brought the heavy brass and woodwinds for his score. By Herrmann standards it's O.K. but one is easily reminded of memorable music and a far better movie, as Pat Boone's character has a fear of heights and his own version of vertigo.

A little research shows that forty years before Richard Brooks' version, Victor Fleming made a much shorter, silent version of Lord Jim. It probably was no more successful than this big budget flop that was probably Brooks attempt to meet or beat David Lean with a "thinking man's epic". Joseph Conrad has always been a challenge for filmmakers, but Lord Jim, with its narrative made up of multiple viewpoints and chronologies is the least filmable. Even at two and a half hours, Conrad's novel is pretty much reduced to an adventure movie with philosophical moments. Peter O'Toole looks somewhat like the character that Conrad decribes, but Brooks' filmic language to convey the psychology of Jim is awkward at best and more often heavy handed. James Mason shows up quite late in the film as Gentleman Brown, the character who forces Jim to face himself. Brooks also proved capable as anyone else in miscasting a foreign actress by having Israeli Delilah Lavi as "the girl" from Southeast Asia. The final word on this filmed version of Conrad should go to Orson Welles, who stated: "If I were police commissioner of the world, I would put Richard Brooks in jail for what he did to Lord Jim."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 6, 2005 06:30 PM