Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 25, 2014)
With 1949’s Samson and Delilah, we get one of the final films from prolific Hollywood legend Cecil B. DeMille. After this, he’d make only two more flicks, but at least he went out on top: 1952’s Greatest Show on Earth nabbed a Best Picture Oscar, while 1956’s Ten Commandments became one of the most successful movies ever to come out of Hollywood.
Given that I wasn’t wild about either of those films, I went into Samson with some trepidation, but I felt curious to check out this lesser-known flick. Set 1000 years BC, the Philistines keep the Hebrew Danites enslaved. Despite this, Danite Samson (Victor Mature) falls in love with Philistine Semadar (Angela Lansbury). She appears somewhat indifferent toward him, but her younger sister Delilah (Hedy Lamarr) desires the Danite strongman/warrior.
With Delilah in tow, Samson slays a lion and earns the right to marry a Philistine. Even though she’s already betrothed to Prince Ahtur (Henry Wilcoxon), the Saran of Gaza (George Sanders) allows Samson to choose Semadar – much to the dismay of a feisty, smitten Delilah.
On his wedding night, Samson wagers with Ahtur and company on the answer to a riddle. Semadar betrays Samson to get the solution and she delivers it. This upsets Samson and he appears to renounce Semadar, who then immediately marries Ahtur.
However, Samson still wanted to wed Semadar, so when he returns with payment for his debt, he feels none too pleased to find his would-be wife in the bridal chamber with Ahtur. In the ensuing fracas, Semadar ends up dead, and Samson spurns Delilah as his new partner. Samson goes on the lam and Delilah swears to get her revenge, two paths that the remainder of the film follows.
DeMille directed the vast majority of his films in the silent era, and as I watched Samson, I wondered more and more if he ever really “moved on” from that period. To be sure, he managed to embrace the techniques that made his films appeal to audiences of the time, so I don’t mean to imply he became a dinosaur. As I mentioned, Commandments was a massive hit, as were Greatest Show and Samson; apparently the latter was the biggest box office success in its release year.
I think about DeMille the silent filmmaker because his movies tend to feel like they would’ve required little adaptation to fit the pre-talkie era. DeMille favors big spectacle and over the top expression, with performances that often tend toward “scenery-chewing”, to put it mildly. There’s a broadness on display as well as a certain simplicity, as it feels like DeMille likes to make events and characters as basic as possible.
When he goes for spectacle, DeMille does pretty well. With the exception of the poorly executed lion-killing scene – which alternates between a stunt double and Mature with a lion skin! - the big set pieces of Samson impress. In particular, the climactic collapse of the temple offers a dynamic conclusion to the flick.
Unfortunately, DeMille falters when he attempts character scenes, and since those abound in the slow, chatty Samson, the movie tends to drag. We get a fairly simple story here, but DeMille pads it to borderline “epic length”. Granted, 133 minutes – which is about 125 minutes if we exclude the opening/closing music – makes Samson about 90 minutes shorter than Commandments, but it remains a moderately long running time, especially given the lack of depth found in the story.
While Commandments told a tale that demanded the “epic” treatment, Samson comes with a more basic narrative that gets stretched to fill time. I suspect the movie could’ve covered all the appropriate bases in 90 minutes or so but apparently DeMille the showman wanted to make it something bigger than it was, so he padded it.
This means the movie really crawls at times. Virtually every scene goes on too long, so even potentially appealing sequences wear out their welcome. By the time the movie finishes, we find ourselves spent, as the whole thing loses punch as it progresses.
As our leads, Mature and Lamarr offer a study in contrasts. While Mature has the brawn for Samson, I think he looks “wrong” otherwise, mainly because he doesn’t convince as a Hebrew; Mature seems better suited to play a guy from Brooklyn than one from Israel.
However, he manages a pretty restrained performance, which comes as a contrast against the wild-eyed Lamarr. She camps up a storm in a rabid, scenery-devouring turn. There’s no chemistry between the two actors, as they often seem to be in different movies.
Even the usually reliable George Sanders can’t bring a pulse to the film, as the tedious feel of the flick brings him down with it. I do like our glimpse of a young Lansbury, though even here, she can’t catch an age-related break, as Samson forces her to play a character of the wrong age. In Manchurian Candidate, we see her as Laurence Harvey’s mother despite the fact he was only three years younger than she. It gets worse in Samson: she plays Lamarr’s older sister though Lamarr was born 12 years earlier than Lansbury!
Even without age discrepancies like that, I find Samson and Delilah to offer a relative snoozer. It occasionally comes to life but it usually provides a slow, plodding Biblical epic that lacks the depth to keep us involved across its whole running time.