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Count Orlof, one of Catherine of Russia's many overnight favourites, travels to Venice on her behalf to abduct Elizabeth Tarakanova who has been laying claim to the throne from the Crimea. Once there, he finds the local charms of the Princess hard to resist. Written by
Jeremy Perkins <email@example.com>
Masterpiece of spectacle, photography, and storytelling.
What impressed me about this film was the un-stereotypical plot, which is centred about a power struggle for the Russian and Polish thrones and located mainly in Venice. I was rewarded for ignoring warnings in film guides and elsewhere, by an astonishing display of black & white photography. Erwin Hillier is a master of chiaroscuro, his treating of light and dark the cinematic equivalent of Rembrandt. The only similar film that I can think of in this respect is Powell and Pressburger's 'One of Our Aircraft is Missing', which is filled with mesmerising seascapes and pastorals. Indeed Hillier has immense pedigree, he was the cameraman for Fritz Lang in his expressionist masterpiece M and was the cinematographer on the three Powell & Pressburger movies, Silver Fleet, A Canterbury Tale, and I Know Where I'm Going as well as being director of photography on The Dambusters. Some of the shots, including Orloff's ship silhouetted on the Lagoon at sunset, with the sun devouring its sails and spilling over the decking; spectral views of the Russian prison; and the rooftop chases (at dusk with the clouds scudding above) are utterly inspired.
If I were to make a comparison to another film it would be to the silent film The Eagle (1925) starring Valentino in what is regarded as one of his best roles. Shadow of the Eagle borrows quite heavily both aesthetically and in terms of the plot from this film, but I think that it is superior in many ways. The costumes, hair and makeup are much better, the plot is souped-up, and the acting much more assured.
I feel similarly to the previous reviewer about the feel of the film, there is something tremendously antique about it, and I was astonished to find out that it was filmed in 1950, it feels almost like it was filmed back in the eighteenth century, and I would have guessed at around 1935. This antique feel is perhaps because of the tremendously tasteful art direction; the locations are exquisite: the wonderful room in the Russian Embassy, the glorious church of Santa Maria , and the staterooms in the palace of Prince Radziwill are all masterpieces of Venetian architecture. The costumes are fantastic, and the attention lavished on them reflects the importance that costume played in Venetian society. Another example of the film's scrupulousness is the hairstyles of Cortesa, which put modern coiffure to shame and varied kaleidoscopically from scene to scene. The overall Venetian atmosphere was very well done; I remember reading Calvino's Invisible Cities, which was a fictional collection of descriptions of Venice by Marco Polo, and feel that the atmosphere evoked in this film was as similar and as unique as one of Calvino's vignettes.
Whilst the excellent attention to art drew me into the film, the romantic scenes enraptured me. Valentina Cortesa looked magnificently beautiful as the graceful, lovely, and slightly nervous Princess Tarakhanova and there was clearly chemistry between her and her co-star Richard Greene. I think that women can watch The Eagle and fall in love with Valentino; I watched Shadow of the Eagle and felt myself falling in love with Cortesa. The scenes where they are enjoying the Venetian Carnival together, and later when they are under arrest in the cabin of Orloff's ship are quite memorable. In fact they lifted me out of a particularly black depression.
The action in the film is quite well done but I would warn off those expecting a typical swashbuckler, which this film has been labelled as by others, but which it is most emphatically not. Following in the lead of The Eagle, this film is quite dark, and there are few similarities to be drawn from action scenes in movies like The Crimson Pirate or Robin Hood. The scene of the arrest of Tarakhanova and Orloff is quite terrifying psychologically, almost Lynchian. In the midst of a deserted square, they are surrounded and then swamped by slow moving men wearing dominos and then incapacitated; I feel quite certain that this is the inspiration for a similar scene in a much worse later swashbuckler, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. More darkness follows: towards the end Orloff buries a torturer's face in what might have been either a brazier or a crucible of molten lead, and the principal baddie, General Korsakov, is quite atypically dispatched: In Hollywood movies there usually has to be a contrivance so that the hero is left with no option other than to kill the baddie after having attempted to spare him (a typical 'having you cake and eating it' Hollywoodisation - both mercy and retribution can be achieved). General Korsakov, on the contrary, was surprised and then butchered with a rapier.
All in all I was amazed that a director of little consequence, best known for directing the television series, The Addams Family, pulled off such a resounding triumph.
Criticisms that could be levelled include a couple of minor plot discontinuities, a little plot opacity, and a lack of extras. If you are interested in the first two criticisms then the cinema as an art form sui generis is probably not your cup of tea anyway. Films need to be seen in the round, and are the vehicles for images and emotions rather than great stories - if the Pushkin novel that inspired The Eagle was put into film there would probably be a week's footage. As for any supposed lack of extras, I feel that that criticism completely misses the mark; whether deliberately or by mistake the lack of thousands of participants neatly focused attention on the foundations of the film - the romance between Orloff and Tarakhanova and the antipathy between Orloff and Korsakov. The lack of extras in this film, just like in David Cronenberg's excellent Crash is entirely beneficial to the atmosphere, which is Byzantine and anfractuous. In conclusion I give this film 10/10.
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