Producer/director Otto Preminger didn’t exactly shy away from the clunky dialogue & even clunkier exposition of Leon Uris’s wildly successful novel on the founding of Israel, so you’re never quite sure if the film is working in spite of or because of its blunt design. Dalton Trumbo’s script uses those grinding gears as a dramatic response to the intractable political history of the region, and the simplifications are comforting, dragging you in as it manipulates. Playing the angry leader of the underground army, Paul Newman gives one of his best early perfs, maybe because Preminger doesn’t let him linger. The rest of the huge cast are also kept on an emotional leash (Lee J. Cobb only shouts once), though Eva Marie Saint looks faintly ill from the heat. The biggest surprise is that the story isn’t completely whitewashed, there’s plenty of good & bad deeds & will on all sides. But for film mavens, the real prize comes in seeing the strengths & weaknesses of Otto laid bare. Watch an early fight scene where Sal Mineo struggles with a few British soldiers. Mr. P. seems all thumbs. Yet later, when Mineo is tracked & trapped on his way to a terrorist cell, a score of complicated narrative details are covered with a few handsomely composed master shots. Preminger’s preference for long takes leaves some scenes begging for rhythm & air, but it sure helps this four-hour behemoth go down easy. (Though pulling this off on 4 mill also means you print lots of ‘mike’ shadows & camera gaffes.) But now that homes have larger WideScreen sets, Preminger’s technique finally ‘reads’ properly. Alas, the current DVD edition needs a major upgrade.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Two films from 1960 claim bragging rights for breaking the blacklist with an on-screen credit to screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Technically, SPARTACUS wins with its October release. But even with a December debut, Preminger scored points by announcing his intention to give credit first. One of the many Production Code taboos Otto delighted in breaking . . . and publicizing.