*. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet is one of the totemic works of Shakespeare on film. Not just for having England’s Greatest Actor playing the title role but for its commercial success and critical accolades — it was the first British film (and the first non-American film) to win the Best Picture Academy Award, with Olivier also winning for Best Actor. That a Shakespeare movie could actually make money was something that before this time had seemed unlikely. Such prestige pictures were seen as sure-fire box office losers.
*. If it was lionized at the time — Pauline Kael: “Whatever the omissions, the mutilations, the mistakes, this is very likely the most exciting and most alive production of Hamlet you will ever see on the screen” — some of the blush is off the rose. Many now consider this to be the least of Olivier’s big three Shakespeare productions (Henry V and Richard III being the others). I’d probably rank myself among them, for various reasons. Also, the then trendy notion of playing up the Oedipal theme has grown tired, to the point of almost seeming put on by the time of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film and Mel Gibson locking lips with Glenn Close.
*. Even as a teaching supplement to be fed to schoolkids its limitations are stark. Not just because of the radical pruning of the plot, eliminating, most notably, Fortinbras and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entirely, but for the dumbing-down of the text. They call us drunkards, not clepe us. The ghost wears his visor up, not beaver. “I’ll make a ghost of him who lets me” becomes “hinders me” (the meaning of “lets” being pretty much the opposite of what we take it to mean today). The cock is the herald to the morn, not trumpet. “Recks not his own rede” becomes “minds not his own creed.” “Very like” becomes “very likely.” And so on.
*. Were Olivier’s instincts, or motivations, suspect in making these changes? He felt that “one great whacking cut had to be made” to keep the running time manageable, and that’s fair. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version played the full text but clocks in at four hours. Both versions work, but I’m all for letting productions of Shakespeare cut what they want and move at their own pace, a matter of tempo that is not to be slighted. Also, as previously noted, this Hamlet did open up the box office. And finally, at this point Larry Olivier could pretty much do as he pleased with the Bard.
*. Perhaps the most famous change is a pure invention: the opening voiceover that tells us “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” That’s another reading that’s available on the evidence, though it’s since been called into question. Actually, Hamlet stays pretty active throughout the play. It’s also the case, as many critics have pointed out both then and now, that Olivier has so much energy that it’s hard to buy him as a ditherer.
*. Even more to the point, Olivier doesn’t emphasize the parts in the play that highlight Hamlet’s indecision, for example cutting the entire “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” speech. This makes you wonder why he wanted to foreground this particular reading by suggesting that indecision is the “mole” in Hamlet’s nature.
*. I mentioned the Oedipal angle. This is helped along by the fact that Olivier was 40 when the movie was filmed and Eileen Herlie, the actress playing Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, was only 29. This is weird, but I don’t think it registers that strongly. Olivier had a face that could be young or old on command. The kisses on the mouth, however, even bother Claudius. They’re a bit of a giveaway.
*. Another interesting note with regard to the casting. This was the first of 22 movies that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing both appeared in. Cushing is easily identified, as Osric is a substantial part and he plays him very well. Lee, however, is only credited as Spear Carrier and I wasn’t able to pick him out.
*. Olivier didn’t win the Oscar for Best Director. That year it went to John Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I think they got it right. What sets the tone here is more the black-and-white photography, which has been compared, perhaps a bit lazily, to expressionism and noir. I guess there are notes of both, but the influence of Welles, especially in the use of deep focus, is more direct. I saw a restored version this time and it really made the high contrast stand out.
*. But mostly it’s a production that just seems kind of a stagey in a cheaper and less artistic way than the canvas and plywood of Olivier’s Henry V. I kept looking at that circular platform and wondering whether medieval castles actually had helipads. I also thought the lack of editing chops showed in some of the scene changes and the amount of time spent looking at the back of the actors’ heads.
*. Also keeping with something Olivier did, I think more effectively, in Henry V are the soliloquies presented as voiceovers. I didn’t think this worked as well here because it made more sense for Hamlet to be talking out loud to himself rather than musing. But perhaps Olivier thought it was a signature move he had to include.
*. Things get off to a rough start. This has to be one of the most disappointing Ghosts in the history of Hamlet productions. It doesn’t hold a candle to Grigori Kozintsev’s spectacular figure. Indeed, it’s just a blur, with the lines read by Olivier but played back at reduced speed.
*. Why, given all that was left out, did they include the pirate battle? It looks kind of silly and feels out of place. But I guess they figured if they were making a movie they had to get something like that in there just to let people know they were watching a movie and not a play.
*. One part that I think really does work well is the play-within-a-play. This stood out for me the first time I saw the movie and I like it even more now. Olivier still doesn’t want to do anything by way of editing but uses a masterful camera movement around the stage that erases the difference between the performance and the audience, letting us watch all the watchers and their intersecting lines of vision. I don’t think the scene has ever been done better.
*. There’s a new wrinkle added in Gertrude drinking the poison cup presumably knowing what’s in it. I’m not sure where she got the idea (if she knew of the plot why didn’t she warn Hamlet in advance?), but I think it works here because the way the play is stripped down there’s more of a focus on her relation to her son.
*. Though heavily cut, it’s still a long journey. 154 minutes. But it holds tempo pretty well and it is a great performance from Olivier. He does seem to be channeling a black-box production at times but it also has some original ideas that Branagh didn’t mind borrowing for his version nearly fifty years later (Hamlet’s jump onto Claudius at the end, and his corpse being carried off).
*. Is it still the most exciting and alive production of Hamlet you will ever see on screen? I don’t think so. Watching it now I could still appreciate it but felt that with all “the omissions, the mutilations, the mistakes” Branagh’s film, despite its excess and overreaching, has surpassed it. In any event, given that it’s now 75 years old you can’t really judge it by contemporary standards. At the time it was a gamechanger, and it still plays today not as a historical curiosity but a production with its own distinct presence and vitality.