Though legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis didn't have the immense budgets allotted to "Ben-Hur" (1959) and "Spartacus" (1960), he nevertheless managed to create a engaging Biblical epic with intimate characters, rich locations, and a talented pool of actors. Quinn shines as the guilt-ridden crook, Gassman excels as his Christ-following companion, and character actors Katy Jurado, Arthur Kennedy, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Andrews, and Jack Palance are surprisingly credible in their limited roles.
Often seen on television in grainy and ugly prints, Aldo Tonti's careful widescreen compositions were additionally ruined by nasty cropping and re-framing. Columbia's DVD presents the film in a beautiful transfer, and reveals a unique colour scheme: Tonti's cinematography follows a careful series of off-white colour shades, with a near-absence of dark blues and blacks; there's a soothing amber-orange shading that permeates the film, and the digital transfer maintains a steady balance throughout. What makes these aging widescreen films so exciting is not only the chance to see them in their original ratios, but witness the magnificent sets (and locations) populated by masses of extras, with fine details artfully extending across the panorama frame. Director Richard Fleischer (who remains a much under-appreciated filmmaker today) had an excellent sense of pacing, and his selective camera movements effectively reveal the depth of the rocky, barren landscapes, and exploit production values in the film's several village and city locations.
"Barabbas" does contain a discreet 4.0 surround soundtrack, but the ambience and key effects occur at 4-5 specific moments, such as the superb eclipse sequence, a Christian's stoning, and the sulfur mine collapse. Mario Nascimbene's minimalist score, based on the Gregorian chant, "Dies Irae" (heard to great effect in Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," in 1957), had limited fidelity on the original soundtrack album, but successfully maintains a constant atmosphere of inevitable doom (with chilling experimental sounds) in an otherwise adequate sound mix.
The DVD contains the film's original trailer (non-anamorphic) and no other extras, so it's a pretty economical release that trades special features for transfer quality. A commentary from director Fleischer would have been fascinating - given the film's cast, shooting in Europe, and the De Laurentiis enigma, as sample topics - but admirers can find sufficient production anecdotes (and much wit) in the director's 1993 autobiography, "Just Tell me When To Cry."
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan