REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:
I recently watched a series of films in a free association mode, beginning with Iphigenia (1977). The movie was adapted from Euripides by the writer/director whose name is usually anglicized as Michael Cacoyannis, and if you’re not familiar with the play, it deals with the agonies of Agamemnon, whose Troy-bound armies get bottled up in Greece when the winds refuse to blow.
As the troops grow restive and mutinous, an oracle tells Agamemnon he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia if he wants to appease the gods and get moving. How Agamemnon deals with the conflict, and at what personal expense, forms a telling drama.
Most of the actors’ names would mean little to you, but there’s a vulnerable and heart-breaking heroine, a convincingly conflicted Agamemnon, and Irene Papas as Clytemnestra (Agamemnon’s wife and Iphigenia’s mother) brings new dimensions to outrage and bitterness.
So after this I had to watch Helen of Troy (1956), producer/director Robert Wise’s super-spectacle on the Trojan War, and a hard film to beat if you like simple-minded action, lavish production, and lots of skin.
Faced with a script that allowed little or no character development; Wise compensate by creative casting: Robert Douglas, the villain of a dozen swashbucklers, plays a crafty Agamemnon, and as soon as he comes on screen, you know all you need to know about the character.
Likewise Stanley Baker’s tough-guy Achilles, Harry Andrews’ lantern-jawed Hector, Sir Cedric Hardwicke as stately Priam and Torin Thatcher as a scheming Ulysses. One actor puzzled me though: Ronald Lewis playing Aeneas seemed terribly familiar, but I couldn’t quite place where I’d seen him. A bit of research revealed why he seemed so familiar; yet unrecognized – he was Mr. Sardonicus.
And after that, of course, I had to finish Agamemnon’s saga with Electra (1962), Cacoyannis again adapting Euripides, this time the story of Agamemnon’s return home, his murder by Clytemnestra, and the vengeance of his daughter Electra — played with steely resolve by Irene Papas, who played Clytemnestra fifteen years later in Iphigenia.
Where Helen was sheer spectacle, painted with a wide-and-brightly-colored palette, Electra and Iphigenia are pure Drama, done mostly outdoors without sets, and they achieve a simple intensity that struck me as remarkable.
If (like me) you languished in the doldrums of Greek Drama in school, you might do well to take a look at these. They are, in every sense, an awakening.
So after that, of course, I had to watch Mourning Becomes Electra, Dudley Nichols 1947 adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s take on the play. In his time, Nichols authored some memorable screenplays (including Stagecoach) but what he was doing here quite escapes me. Admittedly O’Neill can be heavy going, but I can’t think why Nichols apparently told his cast to emote like a troupe of performing seals.
No one who has seen Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday would even recognize her lip-writhing, eye-rolling histrionics here. Or if they did, perhaps they’d just politely look away.
IPHIGENIA. Greek Film Center, 1977. Original title: Ifigeneia. Irene Papas (as Eirini Papa), Kostas Kazakos, Kostas Karras, Tatiana Papamoschou, Christos Tsagas, Panos Mihalopoulos. Director: Michael Cacoyannis (as Mihalis Kakogiannis).
HELEN OF TROY. Warner Brothers, 1956. Rossana Podestà, Jacques Sernas, Cedric Hardwicke, Stanley Baker, Niall MacGinnis, Nora Swinburne, Robert Douglas, Torin Thatcher, Harry Andrews. Director: Robert Wise.
ELECTRA. Finos Film, 1962. Original title: Ilektra. Irene Papas, Giannis Fertis, Aleka Katselli, Manos Katrakis, Notis Peryalis, Theodoros Dimitriou. Director: Michael Cacoyannis (as Mihalis Kakogiannis).
MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Rosalind Russell, Michael Redgrave, Raymond Massey, Katina Paxinou, Leo Genn, Kirk Douglas, Nancy Coleman, Henry Hull, Sara Allgood, Thurston Hall. Based on the play by Eugene O’Neill. Screenwriter/director: Dudley Nichols.