I am not typically a fan of bible-era movies, so Salome had me nearly disinterested from the start, but thanks to a strong performance by Rita Hayworth and a decent romantic plot, I ultimately enjoyed this viewing. Although I thoroughly enjoyed Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai and Gilda in which she plays a great conniving seductress, several musical or otherwise light-subjected movies had me sort of jaded about the beautiful star’s talent. Salome stood to be another opportunity for the redhead to gallivant across the screen as merely a beautiful face, but the now-matured star showed her mettle here instead.
Hayworth was 35 when Salome was released and although her face shows nearly no signs of aging, her voice and her manner belie a world-wise woman. She no longer comes to the screen with the gay light of the young and free, but instead gives us an embittered young woman who hates her surroundings.
Salome, the step daughter of King Herod of Galilee, has spent most of her life in Rome where Tiberius Caesar banishes the woman from his city. Caesar’s cousin wishes to marry her, but being a “savage” non-Roman, the union is forbidden and Salome cast out. Her voyage back to Galilee is on a vessel occupied by newly appointed Governor Pontius Pilate (Basil Sydney) and his right-hand man Commander Claudius, played by Stewart Granger. Claudius immediately puts the moves on the sexy lady despite her wishes to have no contact with Romans. Once home in Galilee, Salome is graciously greeted by her mother Queen Herodias, played by an aged Judith Anderson, and is immediately spotted by King Herod as (Charles Laughton) as a desirable conquest.
In the midst of this story is another plot involving John the Baptist, whom the king thinks is the messiah, who preaches about a new religion and speaks against the throne because the queen is an adulteress having left her husband to marry his brother, the king. Herod will do nothing to silence the man despite his wife’s wishes because a prophecy declares any member of the Herod family who kills the messiah is doomed to die an agonizing death. Salome dislikes the Baptist because he denounces her mother, but Claudius is good friends with the prophet.
Salome and Claudius draw nearer to each other as the plot unfolds and the woman begins to realize the evil of her mother. When John the Baptist is arrested, Claudius uses the palace guards to fight him free while Salome dances for the king in the hopes of convincing him to release the prisoner. This dance, which will make Salome the king’s possession, is something to be seen. Hayworth, dressed in layers of colorful, gauzy garment, spins and postures as she removes each successive layer of dress until she is down to a nude-colored, nearly sheer ensemble embellished with beads. This striptease is performed in front of a crowd and is brutally interrupted when a certain character’s head arrives on a platter.
I’ve already noted how strong I found Hayworth’s performance to be. It seems at this point in her career she finally found her footing among strong, sexy roles, much as Lana Turner moved from light-hearted flicks to more compelling ones. Salome came out around the same time as the other two I mentioned liking, so it seems we can track down a good point after which her films become palatable.
The Technicolor extravaganza of Salome was not the best backdrop for Anderson, however, whose age is apparent outside the black-and-white era in which she flourished. That is not to say she did not give her typically evil/strong performance. Laughton of course was splendid in yet another villanous role. He is entirely creepy as he makes eyes at Salome while she dances for him. With Granger I found myself going through the same motions I usually do with him. On first appearance I find myself disappointed that he is the male romantic lead, but as the picture progresses, he wins me over. He does a fine job with such performances and I cannot help but find my heart thawing a bit toward him by the close of each of his similarly romantic films.