The Murderers

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“Larry is deeply, and I mean deeply, stupid,” says Orson Welles to Henry Jaglom. But it can’t have been altogether true, can it? Of course, some great artists may be brilliant in their own field and painfully naive outside of it, but I’d hold up Olivier’s first three films as evidence that he had something on the ball. Of course, they each have one foot in theatre, and so does their star — how could it be otherwise? But when a filmmaker like Polanski comes out and says Olivier was a great movie director, one should take notice.

I enjoyed Olivier’s RICHARD III in its splendidly restored Criterion release, looking brand new and almost painfully crisp. Fiona disliked his nose and didn’t stay for the rest. “It’s not human!” she protested. I pointed to Douglas Wilmer, down the cast list a bit, sporting a comparable schnozzola. “I think Larry saw that and said ‘Get me one of those.'” Both snouts proceed at a thirty degree angle like an exact continuation of the actors’ foreheads. I was still marveling at this feat of nature and the makeup department when Stanley Baker shows up with his brow overhanging dangerously, a cranial escarpment that defies gravity. His eyes look like they’re straining to hold it all up.

Olivier apparently felt he made a mistake casting Ralph Richardson, and wished he could have gotten Orson for the part of Buckingham. I see his problem — Richardson is a shade too real. While Gielgud makes a song out of everything, and Olivier is Mr. Punch made flesh, Richardson plays a political villain with no hint of artificial “characterisation” — he just says the words beautifully, guided by their rhythm, letting his steely, slightly mad stare hold our attention. Explaining his decision to use theatrical sets in HENRY V, Olivier said he feared otherwise the audience would say, “So that’s a house, and that’s a tree, and that’s a field; why is everyone talking so funny?” Heightened artifice in the production design matches Shakespeare’s blank verse. So the problem with Richardson is that his very convincing-ness isn’t in keeping. It’s not that he’s naturalistic — Richardson was slightly unreal even in real life — it’s just that he’s not one the (putty) nose, like everyone else. If Olivier’s Richard is a villain, what is Ralph? I expected him to turn out to be a good guy.

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We also get a nubile Bernard Hepton (I think I spotted him blowing a bugle), also credited quaintly for “sword play”, but most enchanting are the murderers, played by Michaels Gough & Ripper, two giants of the Hammer horror realm which doesn’t even exist in 1955. But who could be better? I’m reminded that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are both in Olivier’s HAMLET, separately. Presumably, when I watch HENRY V again, I’m going to suddenly recognize Madeline Smith and Ingrid Pitt.

Towards the end, Richard draws the positions of his troops in the dust using his sword-point. And Olivier cuts to a wide of Bosworth Field, and the full-scale army is painted into place by a giant sword-tip, descending lightly from the heavens. Maybe it’s the kind of thing that, when you have something like it, you need to have a couple more things like it to make it fit into the overall style. But it’s brilliant and bold and breathtaking — this man is not stupid.

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25 Responses to “The Murderers”

  1. Henry Jaglom is deeply stupid. And Orson was none too bright for putting up with him in the hopes that he’d put up the cash necessary to complete The Other Side of the Wind.

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    I’m not so sure Welles and his cast adopting “Scottish” accents for MACBETH (48) was a deeply, deeply intelligent thing to do, either. (But I sure like the look of the thing).

  3. One can see why Orson would want to exploit one of the few sympathetic listeners he had, and it must’ve seemed CONCEIVABLE that Jaglom would welcome the positive attention that would have accrued from backing a Welles project. Alas, Jaglom just liked hanging out with the big guy.

    The Scottish accents would’ve been quite reasonable (they roll their Rs a bit in the Polanski) if it could’ve been pulled off with some degree of quality control. A subtler version could’ve been fine. But if you for one instant think “Groundskeeper Willie” while watching it, it’s fatal.

  4. Jaglom was Orson’s “Phoebe”

  5. Olivier is a deeply underrated filmmaker. To the general public he’s now overshadowed by Kenneth Branagh and to many cinephiles his Shakespeare films are squarer than Orson Welles’s (and haven’t been forgiven for getting better press on release). But the only thing wrong with Olivier’s directorial career is that he never got to make his version of Macbeth (though the scripts have recently surfaced).
    After the Shakespeare trilogy he directed a stately version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, but as Olivier admitted, it didn’t have the budget or time to become a fully-realized film.

    Richard III is a wonderfully lush movie. The book-of-hours settings are flimsier than in Henry V but still nicely stylized, and Olivier’s sly, prowling camera has returned from Hamlet (Jane Shore’s scenes particularly benefit from this), staying still for Richard to make love to it during the soliloquies. I don’t know if any film beforehand featured as much first-person addressing to the camera. The film slightly sags when dealing with Richard’s victims–perhaps Olivier was too big an egoist to give their scenes more weight.
    Bosworth Field is also arresting for providing such a tonal contrast–the scorched yellow grass is so obviously non-English–but any realism introduced by nature is soon counteracted by touches like the one you describe with Olivier’s sword.

    Michael Gough gave perhaps his best performance in another Shakespeare production–the BBC version of Cymbeline, which did a fair job of making TV out of one of Shakepeare’s wonkiest romances. Gough speaks the verse beautifully, and his speech in the climax, holding on to his adopted sons, can easily draw tears.

    Welles’s remarks perhaps derive from putting on a catty show for Jaglom, or perhaps stem from his bitter experience trying to direct Olivier in Rhinoceros. Olivier had his own ideas about the play and pretty much usurped the production. When egos collide…

  6. Richard III was how I discovered Olivier (not long before both he and Mel Blanc snuffed it on the same day) and I was instantly converted. I was struck, like revelator60, about the addressing of the camera. David, you’d have a clearer idea of the history of this – but the only precedent I can think of is Animal crackers. When I finally saw RIchard III on the big screen it was particularly powerful. There he stands, at a distance, on set, then he approaches, and approaches, and approaches. Talk about big head of Pola.
    The sets here, the camera roaming around Elsinore in Hamlet, the Globe in Henry V, Olivier really was definitely no idiot. His filmed Shekespeares are simply my favourite. Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus is definitely worth a look too, though. A far, far better film than I was expecting.

  7. Groucho’s Strange Interludes in Animal Crackers are spoofing an actual film, Strange Interlude, based on the O’Neill play and starring Norma Shearer and Clark Gable. So that one’s first. (There are a number of obscure movie parodies in Marx films, which everybody would have understood at the time. I’m pretty sure the trial in Duck Soup is mocking Sternberg’s An American Tragedy (Charles Middleton appears in both as a lawyer) and Groucho directly references the Sternberg film in Horse Feathers.

    Anyhow, Strange Interlude was first, but Larry’s interplay with the prowling camera I think is 100% original.

    I’ve seen a few of the BBC Shakespeares, but not Cymbeline. I’ve been meaning to revisit The Taming of the Shrew with John Cleese sometime.

  8. The BBC Shakespeares are an interesting mixed bag. Early productions, like The Tempest, are unimaginatively filmed and notable mainly for some excellent performances (such as Michael Hordern’s Prospero). The later productions, like the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III, can be very good TV.
    As a play, Richard III only makes full sense as a sequel to Henry VI. To make a stand-alone film, Olivier had to chop out characters like Queen Margaret, one of the prime movers of Henry VI and the great survivor of the cycle. And other characters, like Clarence and Edward IV, take on much greater significance when their roles in the earlier plays are known. Jane Howell shot the cycle on just one set but made excellent use of it and of the intimacy of television. And following the same actors throughout all four plays lends great coherence to the cycle. Ron Cook’s runty, scrappy Gloucester/Richard III took the opposite approach of Olivier, perhaps because in the full context of the tetralogy Richard shrinks into another Yorkist, rather than Satan himself.
    The Henry VI plays are often derided as early works, but as epic, sordid stories of medieval royal strife I’ll take them over Game of Thrones any day.

  9. Better dialogue, anyway.

    Richard III is exactly the same play as Macbeth, it seems to me, only without the interesting Lady Macbeth and the interesting witches.

    The most obvious TV show comparison is not GoT but House of Cards…

  10. I’m pretty sure the Animal Crackers reference is to the stage version of Strange Interlude especially considering the Theater Guild reference. Also the screen version of SI was from 1932.

  11. Wow — so they just kept it in despite the fact that most movie audiences probably wouldn’t get it? No wonder their films weren’t hugely successful!

  12. His last screen appearance was in Derek Jarman’s film of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. He can be heard on the soundtrack reading Rupert Graves poetry and he appears on screen in a wheelchair which is pushed around by Tilda, dressed as his nurse.

  13. Jarman was very excited to be able to work with Olivier. His mum had been a huge fan, even doing speeches from the Shakespeare films in the kitchen.

  14. Olivier admitted in his autobiography that he based his nose in Richard III on the proboscis of Jed Harris, an American producer Olivier had worked with in the early 30s and whom he deeply loathed. Harris was said to be a monster; and I gather Olivier using him as the face of Plantagenet villainy was his way of getting payback.

  15. Oh, that’s nice!

    The objection to the nose would be similar to the objection to Guinness’s proboscis in Oliver Twist (antisemitism aside) — it might be acceptable as caricature but it’s the only thing of that kind in the film, so it, er, stands out too much.

    The scene where he turns menacingly after the little prince jokes about being carried on his shoulder seems to have inspired Alec Guinness’s menacing turnabout in The Ladykillers — and Guinness’s “look” was based on critic Kenneth Tynan, who presumably wrote something AG didn’t like.

  16. estienne64 Says:

    My father, no great fan of actors, was fond of saying that LO played Henry V with a French accent and Richard III with a German one. Unfair, of course; but once that’s in your head…

  17. For Christmas I was given the just released DVD boxset of The Age of Kings, the BBC production of the history plays shown in the early 60s. It made a huge impression on me as a kid, and was a far more effective introduction to that period than any school history lesson. Haven’t watched it yet, but hope it matches my memories. It includes some early performances by people such as Judi Dench, Sean Connery and Robert Hardy. It was broadcast live! Can you imagine the BBC embarking on such a venture today?

  18. I’ve been delving into live telly as part of a current project. Hair-raising. Hasn’t been any BBC Shakespeare for an age, but with the right cast, people would watch! And isn’t it on-the-money for the station’s remit? Justify the license fee in one swoop!

    Hope the box set is a success. I like the sound of it.

  19. It looks like The Hollow Crown didn’t make much of an impression on you!

  20. Wait, that happened? I think they picked the wrong plays though.

  21. Sharon Thomas Says:

    Rupert Graves’s poetry? I think you mean Wilfred Owen’s.

  22. You’re right.

  23. Surprised no one’s mentioned this yet, but Yutte Stensgaard and both of the Collinson Twins made their big screen debuts in Olivier’s Othello! Funnily enough they’re not listed on IMDb, though.

  24. Holy crap! Is this TRUE? There HAS to be someone in Henry V and in The Prince and the Showgirl. What can it mean?

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