The Sign of the Cross (1932) ****

Early Christianty, DeMille-style: a feast of perversity and decadence, with a doom-laden atmosphere unlike any of his other movies. If pornography is as much a matter of attitude as degree then surely this is pornography: it is a work of stunning tastelessness filmed with exquisite beauty, descending in its final quarter into voyeuristic sadism that is somehow of a piece with the lurid erotics that precede it.
These two strands of the film are made flesh in the pudgy body of Charles Laughton's Nero, plucking his lyre as Rome burns, almost sliding off his throne with post-coital languor ("My head's splitting; the wine last night, the music, the delicious debauchery!"), and submitting to the political manipulations of Claudette Colbert's Poppaea in exchange for her kneading his flesh like dough. (This is of course the film in which Colbert takes her famous bath in asses' milk, looking straight at the camera as she strokes the breasts that the surface of the liquid can only barely conceal, and which at times – if you pause, reverse, zoom, frame advance, pause again and sit back contentedly to admire your achievement only to realise that your wife left the room ten minutes ago – it cannot conceal at all.)
The pressbook makes the film's focus more than clear: "Beautiful slave girls... courtesans... harlots... their only purpose to outdo each other in the orgiastic rites loved by a lustful Caesar. A flesh-mad emperor... Nero... painting the ancient city red with the warm blood of his victims... just for a sadistic thrill. Naked women... their helpless beauty pitted against the ferocity of frenzied animals... while Nero licks his lustful lips." But the full extent of the film's explicitness was forgotten for decades. For years it was available only in a shortened version prepared for reissue in the early forties, with a silly new prologue and epilogue added set in a warplane flying over Rome, and much of the detail removed to conform with the Hays Code. A far cry from its first run, when Hays himself demanded of DeMille what he was going to do about the film's lesbian dance and seduction scene, and the director replied: "Will, listen carefully because you might want to quote me. Not a damn thing." (His later, more considered explanation - "How are you going to resist temptation if there isn't any?" - is the key that unlocks virtually his entire oeuvre.)
The original, unedited version survived only as single print in his personal vault until its recent restoration. What it revealed is a film like little else prior to Pasolini's Salo in its combination of horror, degeneracy and an all-pervading sense of despair. There is a genuinely apocalyptic feel to the thing. A naked girl is tethered horizontally two feet from the ground as hungry crocodiles scuttle towards her, another is tied to a pole as a gorilla advances, her fate presumably an altogether different one, a battle is staged between gladiators and dwarves, an elephant crushes a man's head beneath its foot, and through it all DeMille cuts to Laughton and the other spectators salivating and laying wagers on the outcome. On a technical level it is superbly put together, with none of the kitsch we might expect of a DeMille epic.