Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Hamlet Project: Laurence Olivier (1948)

In Ron Rosenbaum’s excellent book “The Shakespeare Wars,” he calls attention to the theory of “The Unbroken Chain of Hamlets.” The idea is that the role of Hamlet, going all the way back to Richard Burbage strutting the stage at the Globe, created something with the role that survives to the next man to take it, and on and on. If so, we might wonder what of his survived in the first major screen production of “Hamlet,” that of Laurence Olivier. It is the only Hamlet to have ever won an Academy Award for best picture, and it was directed by the man some still consider the greatest actor of all time.

Olivier wrote years later that he believed someone else should have played Hamlet, as he tended to embody dramatic, energetic roles. That tells us something about what he himself thought of the character, in what he called, pound for pound, the greatest play ever written. It is often thought to be the most problematic of his three Shakespeare films, as he is playing the young prince at age 40. There were some critics, Peter Hall for example, who still felt Olivier’s Hamlet is too direct, and would have killed Claudius too quickly. To tone down his energy, Olivier dyed his hair blonde. He was also insistent that his movie not be a filmed version of the play. One of the transformative experiences of Olivier’s career was working with William Wyler in “Wuthering Heights.” So he begged off color for black and white, wanting deep focus photography for his scenes. He preserves some of the traditional touches though – such as the prince’s doublet, and costumes for the king and queen that resembling playing card conceptions. 

He also had to be conscious of length, so Olivier cut Rosencrantz and Gildenstern completely from the play, effectively removing the politics from “Hamlet” and centering it squarely on the tragedy in the royal family. Because of his time, Olivier put a great deal of emphasis on the Freudian reading of the play, meaning that Hamlet can’t easily kill Claudius because he subconsciously wants to do the same thing as his uncle – kill his father and bed his mother. In his writings, Olivier said he felt the key speech for Hamlet was, “How all occasions do inform against me” ending in the line, “My thoughts be bloody.” In other words, by this time, Hamlet is resolved on his revenge. Yet he cut this line from the film, so that in essence, his opening narration, “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind,” is absolutely true. 

And so you have a movie of a play that, in some ways, is at cross purposes with the title character, and a medium disclosing the flaws of the conception. The prince broods because he knows what he must do, and wrestles with the doing of it. An actor used to action must find a way to dramatize the paralysis of inaction. “Whenever an actor first attempts Hamlet,” Olivier wrote, “he should be aware that it’s a sporadic collection of self-dramatizations in which he tries always to play the hero and, in truth, feels ill cast in the past.” And because of Olivier’s technical decisions, this film of a play occasionally feels exactly how it wasn’t supposed to feel – like a filmed play.

The first image is crashing waves.  We see Hamlet’s body borne on the battlements, revealing the ending for anyone who didn’t read the play in school, and making it clear that this play is, in some ways, about death. In various scenes, “Hamlet” feels gothic and suffocating, almost like a horror film, with the camera panning menacingly through empty passages and past empty throne rooms and bedrooms.  “The story is seen through his eyes,” Olivier observed, “and, when he’s not present, through his imagination – his paranoia.”

Long takes hold the actors in agony, forcing the viewer to pay attention to the dialogue and each reading.  Terrence Rafferty’s observation was that something is stalking our players, as we observe “human behavior, in all its awful futility, through the cold, unblinking eyes of God.” Still, Olivier makes it easy for us. Our first look at Claudius (Basil Sydney) is as a blowhard drunkard, Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) as a thoughtful mother, Polonius (Felix Aylmer)as a fool.

The best technical choices, besides color and camera use, are Olivier’s stylistic decisions with the speeches. Hamlet’s first great soliloquy, “O that this too too solid flesh…” is spoken in voiceover. This is an obvious yet brilliant choice, as we are hearing Hamlet’s thoughts. But then, as Hamlet repeats the phrase, “And yet within a month” aloud, he is engaged in a duet with himself, which perfectly mirrors his actions.  Olivier takes this a step further during the “To be, or not to be” speech, as he is up on the parapet, looking down at the waves crashing against the rocks. The camera is behind his head as we hear his thoughts. We wonder – Is he thinking of killing himself because of what he has just been forced to do to Ophelia? Then, as he mentions sleep, he almost pitches forward, as if in that twilight between sleep and dream.

Olivier isn’t just an actor interested in preserving performances on the screen. As director, he is conscious of the importance of striking images. When he emerges from the fog in silhouette with his sword at meeting the ghost, he looks holy, and his best self-conception. When the ghost recounts his murder, we see Hamlet imagining it, yet we do not see the face of Claudius. The murderer is left anonymous.  When Hamlet crushes Ophelia (Jean Simmons) during the Nunnery speech, he kisses her hair as she weeps, as though he’s trying to tell her that his insanity is all an act. For so much of the first part of the film, Hamlet is silently brooding, looking out of windows, into rooms, mulling over his fate.

The action changes with the coming of the actors. We see Hamlet, in darkness, and once Polonius comes forward with the torchlight, the silence breaks. (Olivier will use the torch later, during the dumb show to expose his uncle’s treachery.) The players and a walking dog enter, there is an explosion of light, sound and motion, which snaps Hamlet out of his indecision. Once they leave, he shouts, “The play’s the thing,” and we wonder if all of this hasn’t perhaps happened a little too fast.
Some portions do not play as well today as they no doubt did back at the film’s release. Ophelia’s death, for example, staged like an old painting, with voiceover to explain her end, is one example. Then again, when Hamlet is at sea, we get about 20 seconds of swashbuckling which almost makes us wish we could see this movie. Jean Simmons’ Ophelia is suitably helpless and tragic, and Norman Wooland’s Horatio, without the restraining influence of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, is all one requires in Hamlet’s friend and sounding board.  

Hamlet is finally resolved to his task just before the sword bout with Laertes (Terence Morgan), even though this act itself doesn’t seem to be getting him any closer to revenge. But once Gertrude drinks the spiked wine, the music slows down, the action slows down, and it becomes obvious something is wrong. The fight is staged well, the action flows, with camera movement and cutting serving to heighten the situation, even as our eyes are drawn back to the doomed queen.

Olivier was most proud of his 14-foot leap at the end onto Claudius. We then see Hamlet without hesitation plunge his sword into the king, then the king grope for the crown, and collapse, after he is surrounded by his suddenly observant guards. Peter Cushing’s sinister Osric, who a moment earlier seemed in on the plot between king and would-be assassin, now holds the dying Laertes.

Hamlet collapses on the throne, king at last, and his body is borne through the castle, past the seat where he first brooded, and past the rooms where our action took place and we arrive back where we started. There is no invading army to bring down the curtain on his kingdom. His indecision has already done that for him. 

Next up: Toshiro Mifune
Previous post: The Play's the Thing...

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