Hamlet (1964)

*. Enter Ghost! And that’s what I call an entrance! He’s wearing what may be the greatest cape in film history. It puts Dracula’s and Superman’s and even the magical cape of Doctor Strange to shame, billowing like a giant black flag in a hurricane and signaling in semaphore of tragedy ahead.
*. Nothing else impressed me quite as much in this version of Hamlet (or “Gamlet” as it apparently translates to in English, for some reason I can’t understand). Though I do think this is an impressive interpretation in a lot of ways, nothing can quite live up to that Ghost.
*. Much of it seems like an odd combination of pieces that don’t always fit together. It has an expansive feel to it, for example, but is a radically pruning of the text. What’s more, the cuts come where you least expect them. And by that I mean not that famous lines are lost (all the lines in Hamlet are famous now), but that the movie builds up toward making you think you’re going to get certain speeches and then you don’t.

*. Just to give some examples of what I mean: (1) I was surprised when the film broke for intermission just when Claudius is praying (or failing to pray) for forgiveness, assuming Hamlet was about to discover him and give his “Now might I do it” speech. But in fact all of this is dropped and Hamlet never sneaks up on him. (2) We get to see Hamlet coming across Fortinbras’s army marching off to fight over a straw, but there’s none of his soliloquy interpreting the meaning of it. (3) Most notably, after being wounded with the bloody rapier Hamlet takes a long walk outside the castle to find a suitably dramatic spot to expire in, then lies down and says merely “The rest is silence.” You had to think he was going to be saying a little more after all that build-up.
*. I guess if you know the play well enough this might not bother you, at least too much. Apparently director Grigori Kozintsev had thought of producing the play as pantomime. There were a few times when I actually turned off the subtitles because I was finding them annoying. I don’t have Hamlet by heart, but I knew the gist of what was being said and that was enough. The translation was done by Boris Pasternak, but the subtitles were given in the original (that is, Shakespeare’s) language anyway.

*. Another example of incongruity: the exteriors, shot mainly around the fortress of Ivangorod, are suitably rugged and imposing, as though Elsinore has been carved out of the cliffs, but they don’t really match with the giant studio interiors. I’m always bothered when the floor of a movie castle looks so clean and smooth you could eat your dinner off of it.
*. Kozintsev: “The general view of the castle must not be filmed. The image will appear only in the unity of the sensations of Elsinore’s various aspects. And its external appearance, in the montage of the sequences filmed in a variety of places.” Even so, I felt like the settings tended to overwhelm the actors and their lines, and the film as a whole seems too intent on showing them off, wrapping as many of them as possible into a single scene through multiple transitions and lots of camera movement.
*. The fragmentation Kozintsev mentions does help him to create the sense of Elsinore being a prison though, as does the motif of shooting through bars and other barriers. This reminded me a lot of the similar effect achieved in Welles’s Othello. Even Ophelia’s hoops and stays are like a cage she’s being put into. Meanwhile, I assume the bird is meant to represent the soul set free. Its most notable appearance comes after the lid has been hammered shut on Ophelia’s coffin.

*. There are some places where the cuts are interesting. I like how they cut the dumbshow before the play, which is something I think every production should do. And Claudius’s response to the play is interesting: he clearly knows what Hamlet is up to, stands and claps a couple of times and then storms off in a rage. That seems to me to be the way it should be played, but it’s rarely done like that.
*. Another interesting cut is the Ghost’s appearance in Gertrude’s bedroom. Not only does he not have any lines, we don’t see him at all. The only thing we see is Hamlet staring at nothing. This puts us in the position of his mother, who cannot see the Ghost in the play, and makes us wonder if Hamlet is beginning to lose his grip.
*. In general, I think it’s a movie that doesn’t handle the big things all that well but does a good job with the little things. As an example of the former I’d point to the fight with Laertes over Ophelia’s grave, which really seems to come out of nowhere.
*. I’ll give a few examples of little touches that I really enjoyed: (1) The way Hamlet taps his fingers on the drum when talking to the players. This nicely represents his distracted state of mind but also how they will all march to his beat. (2) When walking through the castle in one scene Hamlet stops to remove a pebble (or something) from his shoe. That’s a nice, incongruously naturalistic way of grounding him in this stony world. (3) Addressing poor Yorick, sand keeps pouring from the skull. I don’t think a skull needs embellishing as a memento mori, but this does it without feeling like it’s too much.

*. Apparently Kenneth Branagh considered this to be a definitive screen adaptation of the play. I’m not sure what he meant by that. As I’ve already noted, it’s a long way from even being a “greatest hits” version of the text. I think he might have been impressed by its epic qualities, which he adopted for his own version in 1996.
*. I don’t think it’s definitive. It’s too much of a mixed bag. The same director’s King Lear would be a greater triumph. There are a lot of things I really like about this movie, but there are some bad parts as well, especially with regard to what’s missing, like where the cuts just seem too abrupt and awkward. Why does Polonius carp at the Player for going on too long when he’s only delivered a couple of lines? That kind of thing.
*. While it may not be definitive, it is a prominent landmark and compares well with the other great screen Hamlets. A definitive production of Hamlet doesn’t exist anyway. Indeed, we don’t even have a definitive text to work from. This is a long way from perfect, but overall it’s as good as any.

6 thoughts on “Hamlet (1964)

  1. film-authority.com

    ‘Another interesting cut is the Ghost’s appearance in Gertrude’s bedroom. Not only does he not have any lines, we don’t see him at all. The only thing we see is Hamlet staring at nothing.’

    This sounds amazing, where can I experience this for myself?

    I think it was originally called Gamlet, and was written before Genry V and this other Gistory plays.

    Is that you that Gamlet is holding or a football with eyeholes?

    1. Alex Good Post author

      1) You have to go to Elsinore.
      2) Actually, it was originally called Hambone. Then Gamlet.
      3) We call the game with the round ball soccer over here.

    1. Alex Good

      I’ve seen some versions live, but never an uncut version. I think that runs around 4 hours! Branagh did it with his film so I guess that’s the closest I’ve come. A “full” version of Hamlet is kind of a fantasy beast anyway, since the text exists in a few different versions so when people say full they mean some weird combination of all of them.


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