The Spin of Sin

Got Sin?

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I sure do.  Because this is a post all about Sin.  Sin is In!, dear readers.  As I like to say (starting as of right now):  If It’s Got Sin, Then It’s A Win.

Especially if Sinning is right there in the title.

I’m a sucker for movies named Sin.  Even if the Sinnin’ doesn’t live up to its label.  Which it often doesn’t, ‘Sin’ being used as sucker bait for the likes of, um…me.  The Sin of Harold Diddlebock?  My inquiring mind wants to know.  Not much sin-wise going on, though, other than an indulged cocktail (the film didn’t do better retitled Mad Wednesday, ‘Mad’ not packing the punch of ‘Sin’).  The Sin of Madelon Claudet turns out to be unmarried motherhood, rating no more than a shrug today.  The Great Sinner (I mean—Dostoyevsky!) fails to live up to title expectations (I mean—Gregory Peck…), while Sing You Sinners (which sounds kind of Dostoyevsyian) is a musical.  And Mae West, who might’ve saved the day with It Ain’t No Sin, was forced to retitle it Belle of the Nineties.  Which really was a sin…

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(On a side note, Sinbad the Sailor, title-wise, doesn’t count.)

No, for the real deal, Sin-wise, there’s nothing like the Ancient History Movie Epic.  Those Ancients really knew Sin.  And in so many varieties.  I think it’s the excess the genre invites—humongous sets, extras in the thousands, enough weaponry to supply a small armory.  Moderation is not a feature.  That goes for the clothing, of which there’s not much—all those lightly draped ladies and peplum-squeezed hunks romping round the sultry Mediterranean (a tough market for a parka salesman).  Characters are also excessive.  Gladiators are always clashing, Courtesans are always slinking, Emperors are always rampaging.  Things do tend to get a bit kinky.  Then there’s the non-stop action—battles, banquets, parades, chariot races, slave uprisings, Coliseum games, cheesy dance routines—always something to grab the eye.  On the side, a monster or two might pop up, maybe a fulminating deity.  And implicit in all that prodigal activity—hovering in the wings, waiting for its cue—is the promise of an orgy…

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Like, for example, Sins of Jezebel.  What an irresistibly tempting title—meant to dish the dirt on the notorious misdeeds of one really Notorious Lady.  As Oscar Wilde noted on the subject of Temptation, such a film demands yielding to; and I was more than willing.  The posters agreed.  “Ravishing…seductive…shameless…,” blared one placard.  Note the title dame’s misbehaving deeds are in the plural—just how many Sins will there be?

Plenty, I hoped.

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The film is a 1953 low-budget Lippert Pictures production, a cheapo rip-off of those humongo-budgeted Biblical epics of that decade.  Many of us hearing the name ‘Jezebel’ will think of the 1938 film starring Bette Davis as a spoiled antebellum beauty who gets her comeuppance via a red dress.  That film’s title was a pursed-lip allusion to the Biblical story in 1 and 2 Kings, to which the Lippert flick directly refers.  Jezebel, Princess of Tyre, marries Ahab, King of Israel and, as one film source succinctly puts it, “brings the kingdom nothing but trouble.”  Just how much trouble is clear from Jez’s entrance when (wearing a red dress, mind you!), she blatantly ogles Ahab’s hunky captain of the chariots.  Whatever else, Jez intends to live up to what’s been not-so-delicately hinted about her.  Right in the title.

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Per the Bible, Jez’s Big Sin is to introduce into Israel the worship of an alien god, Baal, whose services—at least on celluloid—consist of not-too-heavily-clad dancers spinning, swaying, and swirling in athletically choreographed patterns, when not artily writhing on the floor.  Like down-scale Jack Cole, just down lower.  All this floor thrashing did make me wonder:  Is it thus to Baal (whose cinematic statues depict him as a chunky little fellow seated upon what looks like an Ancient-World version of a stability ball) that we can trace the historical origins of the Cheesy Dance Routine?  If so, then count me in.

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Not that Jezebel pays much attention to such linoleum-bound writhings.  As the film has it, Baal’s services serve merely as cover for canoodling sessions with her hunky captain.  Hunk-noodling is Jez’s other Big Sin, of which hubby Ahab remains unaware, even unknowingly encouraging it by sending the Hunk with gifts to his bride (“Ahab is generous,” purrs the satisfied newlywed).  But being that Ahab collapses in a drunken stupor on his wedding night, before any action gets started, can one blame the lady for seeking elsewhere?  Fulminating against all this cravin’ misbehavin’ is the prophet Elijah, waxing wroth when Jez stages a ballyhooed public sacrifice to Baal.  “There hasn’t been such a gathering here since the Queen of Sheba came to see Solomon,” observes an improbably cast Joe Besser; and who better to know what lures an audience than this canny show biz veteran?  Playing a guy comically named Yonkel, Besser does his characteristic schtick:  “How many times must I tell you not to Yonkel me,” he whines.  How or why Joe was cast, I’ve no idea, but I ain’t complaining.  Even circa 900 BC, Joe Besser remains, bless him, Joe Besser.  How nice that some things don’t change.

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As the titular sinning lady, Paulette Goddard, who looks about as 900 BC as a Ferrari (and just as gorgeous), glides through the flimsy sets with a great, hip-swaying strut, looking sexy and enticing, and even a little amused, with her mischievous eyes and dazzling smile.  Goddard was obviously used to better things in her career—when she gazes at her new quarters in Ahab’s palace as if they were rooms in a Motel 6 (with no lights left on), I had a feeling she wasn’t entirely acting.  She must’ve known the film was a heap of cheese with a side helping of kitsch, but she eases her way through, giving what’s expected and a little something more—Star Quality, I’d call it.  Warned at film’s end that the revolting army is on its way to toss her to the dogs (literally, if you know your Bible), Goddard plays it with a goddess-like aplomb that would stir the envy of Baal.  “Hand me my jewels,” she says with a fabulous (and earned) cool.  Even co-star George Nader, as the Hunk, looks on in admiration.  The lady was a pro.

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One other thing I’ll note is that for her last scene, as in her first, Paulette is again clad in that blazing red dress.  Could that be an allusion to a certain actress playing a certain southern belle?  It’s gotta be, or I don’t know an intertextual reference when I see one.

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While watching Sins of Jezebel I discovered another seductively titled film:  Sins of Rome (that’s the thing with Sin; like potato chips, you can’t be satisfied with just one).  Now this seems promising, I thought.  Just think—if Sins of Jezebel gave us one individual sinnin’ to beat the band, Sins of Rome should give us a whole cityful!  As I noted in my earlier post on Cecil B. DeMille’s flagrantly lewd epic The Sign of the Cross, “viewers are always willing to watch the antics, both good and bad (but especially bad), of ancient Romans.”; among which viewers I count myself.  If, as the old saw goes, all roads lead to Rome, how much more true than when it comes to Sinnin’ Cinema?

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This 1953 film turned out to be an Italian historical opus originally released under the title Spartaco, about the rebel slave leader Spartacus.  (Though more accurately reflecting the film’s subject matter, it’s not as enticing…)  I’ve seen both the English-dubbed, stripped-to-the-bone, 70-minute US/UK version, and the superior 95-minute one, in Italian with French subtitles (both prints are available on YouTube).  In either version, it’s a movie worth catching.  Director Riccardo Freda alternates slow camera sweeps across massed, charging armies with jagged shots of hand-to-hand combat, as men clash with shields, swords, spears, and rearing steeds.  Long shots of vast landscapes are framed with looming objects in one corner, to contrast, yet emphasize, depth and distance.  The film compares well with Kubrick’s 1960 widescreen, deep-scoped, chest-heaving version, but Freda’s film is both epic and intimate, his intense, sustained close-ups conveying a heightened emotionalism the later version lacks.  You sense how Ancient Rome was to Italian filmmakers what Westerns were to American ones—it’s in their history, their land, their blood.

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How did the film do for my purposes, though?  There’s Sinnin’ all right—the ads do promise us “Barbaric Splendor! Wanton Revels! A City Mad with Pagan Pleasures!”  Most of this paganly barbaric reveling centers on the wanton Sabina, a haughty Roman beauty who’s never met a Sin she doesn’t immediately wish to plunge into.  Sabina’s into Sin, all right; early on we learn she has a penchant for picking up gladiators in bars (like, really…).  She also likes to lounge around, in increasing states of undress, at decadent banquets, by decadent poolsides, or in her own lavishly decadent bedroom, where she’s nasty to her slaves (“A slave should guess what her mistress wants,” she hisses at one—how’s that for a performance review?).  And her lust for the frequently bare-chested Spartacus definitely kinks.  “How wonderful to feel you tremble with hate and desire,” she purrs to her unresponsive swain as she massages a muscly pec with a perfectly manicured hand.  Whatever else, Sabina likes it up close and personal.

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The film’s highlight, Sin-wise, is Sabina’s presentation of an epic, amazing Cheesy Dance Routine, taking place on a fully rigged ship sitting on a manmade lake smack in the middle of the Coliseum, its central pas de deux performed by half-naked dancers in a style that can only be called a Slow Grope.  Upping the dance’s already perverse allure is when Sabina releases a party of very lively lions to join in the choreographed frolics.  But, hey, it’s all good, clean, wholesome fun—Sabina-wise, anyway.  As with Jezebel, Sabina pretty much carries all the Sin to be had on her slim, beautifully gowned shoulders, and she does it with ease.  The lady’s a trier; and, as played by Gianna Maria Canale (Freda’s wife), a gorgeous one.  Maybe the film should have been (re)titled Sins of Sabina, in recognition of her heroic efforts   At least give the lady her due.

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Then it was on to Goliath and The Sins of Babylon.  Now that’s a title—packaging, in one phrase, a bulging hero, a sinnin’ City, and Multitudinous Sins.  The way the title’s couched, Babylon’s Sins could themselves be configured as a single, and singular, Character—perhaps to be given a Star’s Entrance on a palanquin (as, coincidentally, are both Jezebel and Sabina), whisking away the curtains to reveal its garishly sinful glory to our gobsmacked eyes.  Add a red dress and you’ve got yourself an Intro on the grand scale.

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The title of this 1963 Italian peplum is something of a cheat.  Its original name, Maciste, l’eroe più grande del mondo (Maciste, The World’s Greatest Hero), is a reference to Maciste, a popular, recurring character in 20th-century Italian action cinema.  Described by Wikipedia as ”a Hercules-like figure, utilizing his massive strength to achieve heroic feats,” Maciste, and his films, date from the silent era; but when Maciste movies were again made in the 1960s (in response to the peplum boom), Maciste himself was renamed/redubbed Hercules, Samson, or Goliath for an American market unfamiliar with Macistean cinema.  Not that it matters—anyway you slice it, the film is pure Peplum.  For which I am very grateful.

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Note the fetching little red peplum…

Along with no actual Goliath in the movie, though, there’s also no Babylon.  Per this interesting article, the film’s wicked city is a fictional “Kingdom of Cafaus,” located Somewhere in Cinematic Greco-Roman Land.  You might argue that city names don’t matter, but ‘Babylon’ does carry a symbolically rich frisson in popular culture, else why stick it (and its sins) in the (new) title?  The story begins with 30 virgins being rounded up in the vassal city of Nephyr to pay as annual tribute to Babylon/Cafaus, as demanded by the enemy king.  My first thought was to marvel that Nephyr was able to muster up 30 virgins yearly; my second was to wonder if that meant there was a virgin shortage in Babylon.  Is sinning so prevalent in that latter city, it now must import virgins from elsewhere?  Only in a Peplum film would you ponder on such abstruse questions of commerce…

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The Hunk Squad

Whatever.  The film doesn’t leave time for such ponderings, but dives right into its story of how Goliath/Maciste and a coupla dozen fellow hunks plot to free Nephyr by overthrowing the slimy, Babylon-abasing Nephyrean ruler and placing his righteous niece, Princess Regia, on the throne.  The plotline is confusing (the dubbed English-language version I saw may be a cut print), with little exposition and lots of action, almost non-stop:  Land battles, sea battles, sword fights, fist fights, spear fights, bow-and-flaming-arrow fights, chariot races, daring escapes, body tossing, lion-and-leopard tussling, boiling oil, guys bonked on the head with a blunt instrument, and a Bronx cheer.  Seriously.  A kinky kick is provided by Regia chariot-racing against Goliath, for reasons I couldn’t for the life of me figure out, when she’s not wooing one of the hunks in her spare time.  Don’t ask me which one; after a bit all those muscle-bound guys started to look the same.  It wasn’t helped by what I was sure was the voice of Paul Frees dubbing at least three of them.  At times it sounded as if Frees were talking back and forth to himself onscreen.  Seriously.

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The film, though, is well-done, a cut above usual Peplum fare.  The director, Michele Lupo, has an eye for placing his camera at unusual viewpoints (such as a shot of a marching army seen through a vista of pillars), and keeping the near-constant action fast but coherent.  A mention must be made of the Babylonian king’s costumes, which are fabulous; I especially loved his black leather top with gold accents, accessorized by silver lamé trousers.  (Peplum always makes the best fashion statements!)  The film’s highlight, a sharply edited torture scene (what else?…), is a whopper:  A bound and strapped Goliath on a table watches as spears fall from the ceiling, their points to drop into the table or to hover just centimeters above the more sensitive areas of his anatomy.  The suspense, as the torturer gleefully explains, is to wait and see which spear will finally take the plunge and drop into our hero instead.  Just good, clean, wholesome fun, Peplum-style.  What other way would you have it?

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So, what do I conclude from my brief survey of Epic Cinematic Sin?  One, schlocky subject matter doesn’t equal a poorly made film.  Sins of Jezebel may have been limited by budget, but Sins of Rome and Goliath (and his Buddies) were well-done and exciting, even serious movies.  Two, Sin, like so much in life, is a matter of taste.  I go for the cheesy dance routines, whereas bonked heads leave me cold.  Others may choose differently.  Three, if I have one complaint, it’s that not one of these films featured a real, honest-to-god orgy.  True, there was plenty else going on, but still…  And, four—

But hold on a minute—number four’s gonna have to wait.  Something’s just popped up on my algorithmic radar.  A little item titled…Sins of Pompeii.  Pompeii, eh?  And sin?  Plus, wasn’t there that little bit of volcanic activity on the side?  Now there’s a title I can’t resist.  Sheesh—I’m not even gonna try

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Sin City, here I come…



> Want Sin?  Then click on the following YouTube links for your sinfully enjoyable viewing pleasure:

Click here to watch Sins of Jezebel (AKA The Lady in Red)

Click here to watch the 70-minute, English-dubbed version of Sins of Rome (in a somewhat dark print)

Click here to watch the 95-minute, Italian-dubbed with French subtitles version of Sins of Rome (in a better print; it’s also the better version)

Click here to watch Goliath and The Sins of Babylon, in a pretty good print.

And click here if you want to watch only the torture-by-falling-spear scene from Goliath and the Sins of Babylon.  Drinking-game suggestion while you watch:  Take a slug every time you hear the dubbed voice of Paul Frees.  See if you’re still sitting up and watching by clip’s end.


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