Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #3 & #4

The Kozontzev HAMLET is grand and the ghost is particularly fine. If you want a spectacular, epic vision of the ghost, you couldn’t really do better. Something about the particular tone of this movie isn’t quite up my alley but I have no end of admiration for the showmanship here. Why don’t any of the other versions make use of the possibiities of BILLOWING CLOAKS?

(Does Branagh, perhaps? I’ve forgotten already, but I’ll remind myself soon when I rewatch and write about his ghost encounters. Flowing robes seems a very Branaghlike trope.)

I’m here today to break down the Franco Zeffirelli HAMLET though — the one with Mad Mel. Just two arch-Catholics hanging out together in a Scottish castle.

FZ — I keep thinking that must stand for Frank Zappa, but never mind — foolishly omits the ghost’s first appearance, which gets his film off to a far weaker start. But he has a great cast, except for his Hamlet. Mad Mel has foolishly seized on the chance to do some Great Acting, whereas the thing he could and does contribute most effectively is Movie Star Presence. This is diluted by his attempts to get flowery.

Along with Mel, we have the excellent Stephen Dillane as Horatio, and some other guys I don’t know as Marcellus etc. It’s fine not having well-known faces in every role, in fact it’s preferable to the insanely overstuffed Branagh.

Hamlet is bemoaning his uncle’s wassails, if you’ll pardon the expression, viewing him through an unconvincing grill (I don’t know if you’d want a giant hole in your banquet room ceiling, not in Denmark, although I guess before chimneys were invented you might need something like that so you don’t asphyxiate). In addition to supporting players like Alan Bates, Glenn Close (only 11 years older than her screen son), Ian Holm and Helena Bonham-Carter, FZ has David Watkin on camera and Ennio Morricone on score. Neither of these great talents was doing their most exciting work by this time, but the film looks and sounds good. Watkin and designer Maurizio Millenotti can’t quite convince me the tower set is a real place, and although I suppose with a medieval tower at midnight some form of artifice is always going to be involved. MM was also costume designer, had worked for Fellini, and Gibson would import him for his acclaimed how-to guide to crucifixion, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.

I should mention that unfortunately the only copy I could get is 4:3, and it’s not open-matte, meaning I can’t crop it to the right ratio: we’re missing a third of the image. So any aesthetic judgements come with major provisos — we’re not really seeing the film FZ made, even allowing for the reduction in size and definition. Plus my copy is glitchy.

What’s good about the ghost’s first appearance here is that he’s just a colourless figure in the distance. What’s uncanny about him is that everyone recognizes him as a dead man. He’s far enough away that there could be some doubt, which makes things even more worrying, in a way. At a certain distance, you can be sure you know the person you’re looking at, but you could still try to sell yourself on the idea that you’ve made a mistake.

I think all this would be better if we’d had the ghost’s first appearance, though.

FZ’s editor has some unlikely credits. Richard Marden had cut the Olivier OTHELLO (yikes) before being adopted by Stanley Donen for BEDAZZLED and TWO FOR THE ROAD, and then cut the dazzling SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY for John Schlesinger. But he also cut SLEUTH, which I don’t think is a well-edited movie (but Olivier was having trouble with his lines, which may have caused problems), and also also garbage like CARRY ON ENGLAND and WHAT’S UP NURSE! and returned to Donen’s side for the regrettable SATURN 3.

This would all work great except the first shot of the HFG (Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost) shows Paul Scofield, for it is he, in a medium shot, defying all sense of optical POV. And then he gets another closer shot later. This takes me out of the reality of the scene, and in trying to startle us — and it’s not particularly startling — by having PS enter in MS — the film breaks the reality of the scene. If you were Horatio or his chum, you’d first see a wide shot, and then you might filter out the surrounding scenery and mentally create a kind of medium shot. But you couldn’t start with that.

In other words, all the wide shots of the ghost are great, Mel advancing from the distance to his own MS is good, but jumping in for impossible detail views harms the scene. It’s a bit like the horrific moment in THE PIANIST when Nazis throw a disabled man from a window, and Polanski’s camera watches from the window opposite, never taking you unnaturally close. The drama comes from the sense of REALITY, and attempting to amp it up with close-ups would actually detract from that, by putting us where we couldn’t be.

Good bit of following, and the Mel gets up on the tower and finds himself alone. A nice bit of the uncanny. There’s nowhere else the ghost could have gone. And then he’s there — an equally impossible thing.

Gibson’s attempts to get action movie stuff into HAMLET are NOT actually embarrassing: it’s what he’s best at, after all. So he swirls around with his sword, sees the ghost — and immediately drops it.

Great shot of Scofield, just sitting there, making a strange, ineffectual movement, lowering one hand from the battlement, attempting to look as mild and unthreatening as possible, and looking VERY SAD — sad that his only son is afraid of him, I think. A great choice. As impressive as Olivier and Kosintsev’s ghosts are, they can’t do this kind of human stuff.

And then the scene is McKellan’s, and we’re in very good hands. Scofield is quite old to be Gibson’s dad, just as Glenn Close is quite young. The positive side of this is we can imagine her preferring Alan Bates. But that voice! No better casting was possible.

The cutting of the dialogue here is quite good — whenever we see Gibson, it is possible to imagine everything the ghost says being in his mind (the ghost tells Hamlet exactly what, in a sense, he wants to believe, hence “Oh my prophetic soul!”) If Gibson were stronger I’d say hold on him more, but as it is the balance is good and Gibson gets through the scene respectably, mainly just listening and reacting. His bigger moments seem forced.

Slow track in on Scofield, and an even weirder hand movement at 4:08. Somehow Lynchian, in that one senses some crazy backstory there we’re not getting. “But that I am forbid to tell…” The movement seems to ward off whatever harrowing power forbids the ghost.

PG Wodehouse has forever ruined “like quills upon the fretful porpentine” as a dramatic line, if it ever did work, so I don’t miss that bit.

At 4.47 Scofield is suddenly being viewed from a new angle, even though Hamlet, whose POV we assume it to be, hasn’t moved recently. It seems likely that, having no doubt already pruned the text, FZ and his cutter have decided to snip out a chunk of footage. Indeed, all through this scene the dialogue has been savagely slashed, but it kind of has to be for a movie. Even for a play.

Scofield has the best male voice maybe ever. I mean, Richard Burton, yes, and I am partial to a bit of James Coburn, but Scofield is somehow less obvious, he achieves his gravitas without the need for Sensurround rumble. He’s much of what makes Patrick Keillor’s LONDON and ROBINSON IN SPACE two favourite things — I can’t watch Keillor without Scofield, the vacuum left is unfillable.

I started to wonder whether, at some point in this sequence, Hamlet might not want to go to his father. Sure, the man’s a ghost and therefore scary, but as the scene goes on and Hamlet gets over his initial doubt and feels pity for his poor old dad, might it not be a good idea to dramatise that by having him actually approach. And FZ takes my hint — the ghost comes forwards, saying “Adieu” — a bizarro choice but Scofield, but one he sells — if you’re a ghost, you can vanish while walking towards someone — and as the ghost reaches out, Hamlet in turn reaches up — whether to fend off the spook, embrace him, or to stop his own head from exploding, we cannot know — and the reverse angle reveals the HFG has indeed vanished.

The ghost’s “Remember me” is absolutely heartbreaking and haunting.

Now the floor is Mel’s, so things get quite a bit worse quite fast. It’s not a bad choice to have H return to where he has a view of his uncle’s revelling, so he can be looking right at the damned villain while he curses him. But FZ and his cutter include closeups of Bates, midrevel, and have neglected to shoot it from a high angle, so I find its inclusion jarring and clumsy. H then has the line about his “tables” but he hasn’t got any school jotter on him, so the schoolkids in the audience are destined to remain puzzled — he borrows a leaf from Nicol Williamson’s sweaty book and tries to carve his vow on the castle’s stonework with his sword. Sparks fly! Not convinced he could wield a sharp sword that way without losing some fingers.

I think directors should probably listen to the author when he has Hamlet call for his tables, and actually give him some tables. I expect this was done a lot on the stage until it came to seem cliche. but you can enliven tired business, you don’t have to chuck it out completely.

The last bit feels like H should still be writing, but Mel does it as H swearing on his sword, then hyperventilates a bit — this is all quite forced — then suddenly drops out of view. The rest is silence — until Kenneth bloody Branagh rocks up, a mere six years later. Tune in next time to hear Prince Hamlet say… absolutely everything.

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4 Responses to “Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #3 & #4”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Somewhere out there is a television production with Richard Chamberlain as the melancholy Dane. A big TV star as Dr. Kildare, Chamberlain came to Birmingham in 1969 for a stage production and seems to have not embarrassed himself. In 1970 he played it in a Hallmark Hall of Fame special; not sure how much of the Birmingham production was carried over.

    I remember seeing that one. For the ending tableau the four leads managed to fall dead with their feet all aimed at a central point, where Fortinbras stands and surveys the carnage. We get a Busby Berkeley shot from above, and even this high school drama ham thought, that’s silly.

    A few years later at UC Santa Cruz I missed out on a nearby semi-pro production, infamous because the director decided the times needed Hamlet to be an unambiguous good-guy hero (Among other choices, Polonius runs onto his sword and is accidentally impaled). Rumor was this Hamlet had done porn films.

  2. Wow! There’s the 1964 TV Hamlet at Elsinore with Christopher Plummer, directed by BBC mainstay Philip Saville, and a German version with Maximilian Schell which turned up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 even though it’s not scifi and not terrible.

    The Richard Burton Broadway version directed by Gielgud was caught on film and I plan to see it but not for the filming. I anticipate heartiness and glowering.

  3. The Chamberlain, in the worst quality imaginable, made even worse by the uploader by cropping it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLoCQAu6iWg&ab_channel=Stybz

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