It sometimes seems that each of us who have grown up celebrating Christmas has a film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that we know well and have seen repetitively over the course of our lifetime.

The 1951 Alastair Sim version may be the most “canonical” of the various adaptations, but each cinematic take has its partisans. For me, the reigning film adaptation will always be Ronald Neame’s Scrooge (1970), which I watch every Christmas Eve as a matter of firm tradition. It came out at the right time to be a major event in my parents’ childhoods, and they ensured it was part of mine.

Neame’s Scrooge was one of the last gasps of the old-fashioned epic musical film spectacular, and much of its charm was diminished in the pan-and-scan days of VHS. Now that it has released on Blu-ray, Scrooge‘s lavish production design and cinematography can once again be properly admired and esteemed. Scrooge is a proper Christmas feast of a film, a bit overstuffed, but satisfying and pleasurable nonetheless.

As with any familiar, oft-retold tale, the pleasures of a retelling lie in the grace notes applied to the familiar beats, and many of Scrooge‘s greatest coups are simply matters of astonishingly good casting. Albert Finney delivers an irresistibly amusing, astonishingly well-calibrated performance in the title role. Finney understands that Dickens’ Scrooge was always an absurd caricature, and he finds freedom in the character’s cartoonishness, effortlessly charting the character’s journey from extreme malice to abundant joy with surprising fluidity. But if Finney is the centerpiece, his performance is buttressed by a series of great turns from a supporting cast that includes Alec Guinness (surely the best Jacob Marley of them all), David Collings (a tender and endearing Bob Cratchit), and Kenneth More (a Ghost of Christmas Present who feels as great as he is supposed to be).

Bricusse’s lovely score provides the film’s throughline, and perhaps the only reason that its songs haven’t entered into the broader cultural lexicon is that its soundtrack has been stuck in limbo, unreleased. “Christmas Children,” in particular, should be a firm entry in the Christmas songbook.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

There’s something unnerving about watching Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) as 2017 draws to a close. Its apocalyptic vision of corruption, cruelty, and decadence eroding political institutions until the greatest political office in the land is merely a prize to be auctioned off to the highest bidder feels frighteningly contemporary.

The Fall of the Roman Empire marked a different kind of apocalypse in 1964, when it served as the harbinger of the end of the classic Hollywood epic. This expensive folly effectively ended the career of producer Samuel Bronston (who produced King of Kings, El Cid, and 55 Days to Peking), and like Joseph Mankiewicz’s troubled Cleopatra (which was released only a year earlier), Fall offers stunning example of excess as spectacle.

Mann, working in collaboration with cinematographer Robert Krasker and production designers John Moore and Vemiero Colasanti, crafts a film that is simply too huge to be believed (it holds the record for the largest film set ever created: a sprawling replica of the Roman Forum). But Fall‘s images are more than expensive. Mann stages the film as a series of dynamic and expressive tableaus. He transforms a bedroom conversation between the ailing Marcus Aurelius (invested with considerable gravitas by the great Alec Guinness) and his daughter Lucilla (Sophia Loren, as radiant as ever, if somewhat hamstrung by the script) into a beautifully expressive sequence of poses that articulate the complexity of their relationship and its power imbalances.

Fall is not always so artful. Mann’s careful direction cannot entirely overcome an undernourished, albeit well-structured, melodrama with a wooden heroic lead. Stephen Boyd, as the blonde Livius, fails to elevate the stock material, and as such the film tends to stall in its second half, when he becomes a major driving force for the narrative (otherwise, the film feels more like an ensemble piece, with James Mason and Christopher Plummer delivering particularly fine performances). Some flourishes, such as two separate attempts to give characters internal monologues via voiceover, feel strained and silly. Other sequences feel like gratuitous plays to audience expectation, such as a gratuitous chariot race lifted from Ben Hur (admittedly, it boasts some great stuntwork). Still, the film’s thematic trajectory and and its consistently vibrant images make it altogether much more compelling than its more simple-minded remake, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which borrows many of Fall‘s narrative beats but none of its conviction. 

The Fall of the Roman Empire is, like many of the classic Hollywood epics, a close cousin to opera, both in structural design and in its emphasis on music. The first thing to make an impression in The Fall of the Roman Empire is the overture for Dimitri Tiomkin’s maximalist score, a work of accomplished bombast that mingles orchestra and harpsichord and pipe organ and choir. I have long suspected that a viewer’s emotional admiration of the classic Hollywood epics will correlate closely to their attentiveness and receptiveness to the films’ musical scores, which, in the classic Hollywood epics, do not function as mere window dressing, but as a pillar on which the film rests. In these stately films, the (often stilted) quasi-Shakespearean dialogue functions like a spoken libretto to the more passionate, vital underscore. If Tiomkin’s score is not as complex as some of its peers (like Alex North’s rich, precise work on Spartacus and Cleopatra), it nevertheless provides the clearest articulation of the film’s dramatic impulses.