Caligula (1979)

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Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione direct Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy and Helen Mirren in this pornographic retelling of the mad, bad and dangerous to know Roman emperor’s life. 

I have been having an accidental mini McDowell season the past two weeks. He’s cropped up in lots I have watched. An actor who always cuts a big shape on screen whether the scene demands it or not, his reputation rides on his infamy of starring in proper transgressive classics like If… and A Clockwork Orange at the start of his career. Ever since then, he’s had the occasional success (Time After Time, his small but integral role in TV’s Our Friends in the North) but more often than not his CV is littered with flops or low budget villainy or villainy in flops. His acting style is shock and awe, a squawky aggression, a mischievous terror. His boyish looks gave way to grizzled malevolence seemingly over night. You can see a lot of the best and worst of his OTT work in Caligula. The prankish risk taker larking about in the nude with a face of focused concentration, as if every step of the childish dance he is reenacting is sacred. The startled wounded baby bird plea straight to camera when things don’t go his way. The instantaneous shift from gleeful predator to told off, contrite school boy when in the presence of Peter O’Toole’s murderous adoptive father. For an actor as gaudy and settled in his strengths to get lost in any production is a rarity. Like him of not, McDowell is a strong flavour, yet one utterly overpowered by the writhing, rape chaos of Caligula. A Penthouse production of a Gore Vidal script – it is neither a romp nor prestigious. The nudity and intercut hardcore sex is unalluring. You get used to a dick or tit being in every frame after the first ten minutes. Much of what is on show is awkward and unappealing, the opening act is particularly grotesque and forced. Paired with a studied debauchery and violence that is grimly sadistic. McDowell tries to cover up this cold meat view of decadence and orgy by pretending his mad ruler is having the time of his life… but even his gleeful misbehaviour eventually grows grating. There’s things you’ll see in Caligula that have never reached mainstream cinema again…but porn and exploitation movies have lensed it all far more attractively, understanding simple titillation and entertainment are more exciting than excess, gilt and grit. Ultimately, Caligula proves an overlong chore with brief unsettling glimpses of dirty horror.

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