‘Caesar! Beware of Brutus. Take heed of Cassius. Come not near Casca. Have an eye to Cinna. Trust not Trebonius. Mark not well Metellus Cimber. Decius Brutus loves thee not. Thou hast wronged Caius Ligarius. There is but one mind in all these men and it is bent against Caesar. If thou beest not immortal, look about you. Security gives way to conspiracy.’
Artemidorus’s warnings to Julius Caesar, soon to be given dictatorial powers in Rome, falls upon Caesar’s deaf — and soon dead — ears and the Roman conqueror trundles off to the Senate to be stabbed to death by his best friends. In Shakespeare’s play, the rejection of the warning by Artemidorus is more fodder for Caesar’s ballooning ego. In Joseph Mankeiwicz’s 1953 film version of Shakespeare’s classic, Artemidorus’s warning is like a howl in the wilderness. For Mankiewicz, adapting and directing during the height of the period of the blacklist, the warning takes on a different context of a McCarthyesque conspiracy to bring down society, a mass madness so potent that even honorable men become embroiled in the hothouse hysteria.
Hysteria is the subtext of the film, complete with thunder crashes and a ‘strange impatience of the heavens’ presaging Caesar’s murder and the civil war and destruction that follow his death. This desperate end-of-days tone in Mankiewicz’s film takes a choke hold from the opening scenes and never lets go, creating a pestilential mood for the actors to breathe in. And although Mankiewicz hints at ornate Hollywood splendor (foretelling his own massive and bloated Cleopatra of 10 years later — a film which neatly encapsulates Julius Caesar in an Elizabeth Taylor fever dream sequence), being first and foremost a screenwriter he puts the words before the deeds and his actors seize their moments.
And what actors they are. James Mason as the troubled Brutus, conveying the misgivings of his soul. John Gielgud, in his first American film, is appropriately bitter as Cassius, and a pre-battle argument with Brutus hints at something more — a lover’s spat before they pick out the furniture. Louis Calhern, reconfiguring his Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania bluster from Duck Soup, makes his doomed Caesar into a blustery fathead.
But the true acting mantle in Julius Caesar goes to Marlon Brando, here in his fourth film, following The Men, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Viva Zapata!, and just before the seminal roles in The Wild One and On the Waterfront. With his Marc Antony, Brando burns through the screen and takes no prisoners. For the first half of the film, Brando hangs around the edge of the frame as Calhern, Mason, and Gielgud flex their classical acting chops, lying in wait like a hungry cat waiting for a mouse. But with Antony’s funeral oration, Brando cuts loose. In this, the centerpiece of the film, Brando eliminates the middleman. Eschewing performing the scene as an acting oration, Brando actually addresses the crowd he is speaking to, his searing eyes picking out stragglers and cutting them down. Marc Antony toys with the crowd and fashions them to his will, much like Brando, the actor, runs rings around his classically-trained comrades. When Brando exits the scene, having whipped the crowd into a frenzy, Mankiewicz picks up Brando in close-up, a crooked smile on his lips. At that moment, just as Antony has created a Roman civil war, Brando has created a civil war in film acting. Like dead Caesar’s corpse, the old acting style would never be seen again.
The DVD also includes a flowery introduction by Robert Osborne and a featurette called The Rise of Two Legends in which John Avildsen, Dennis Hopper and Laurence Fishburne pontificate on Brando’s greatness.
Here’s here to bury ‘em.