Archive for Hamlet

Cox’s Orange Pippins: “…and lose the name of ACTION!”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2022 by dcairns

Quite enjoyed DJANGO THE BASTARD — the other vengeful ghost spaghetti western. Anthony Steffen is quite a compelling wraith-hero. As with this film’s unofficial twin …AND GOD SAID TO CAIN, there’s a certain loss of tension when your hero is an unkillable ghost and everyone else is a baddy. Best of the bad men is bleach-blond epileptic madman Luciano Rossi, doing the Kinski thing, as “Hugh Murdok.”

Director Sergio Garrone made a bunch of westerns and also some of those noxious Nazisploitation films. I was inclined to hate him, but couldn’t quite manage it in the face of his sheer misguided enthusiasm for wanky directorial gimmicks. His direction is lively but random. Cox picks, as an egregious example, an aerial view tracking Steffen’s hat — a shot that must have taken considerable trouble, and is over before it’s made an impression, replaced with something equally throwaway and meaningless. But I like the hat shot — it’s attractive. Some of Garrone’s other angles are just silly, but as I say, they’re lively. The kind of thing I get cross with Kenneth Branagh for doing in HAMLET, but can accept in something that is after all called DJANGO THE BASTARD.

Then we watched KEOMA together on our larger screen and that was… kind of impressive. My first Enzo G. Castellari film. I don’t know why but Tarantino’s championing him always put me off, somehow. QT’s enthusiasm can be sort of repellent, but in fairness the films he enthuses about are usually at least interesting. (I think BLOW-OUT is a poor film, personally, but it’s not devoid of interest, even just from a pathological viewpoint.)

Enzo is having fun with this very late spag western — it barely rates a mention in the Cox book because he takes the view that there are no good post-1970 Italian westerns, but this is very nearly a proper movie. Castellari’s flourishes are better-motivated than maestro Garrone’s, as when hero Franco Nero holds up four fingers in front of four opponents, a moment you can enjoy in the lengthy trailer.

Weird hearing Nero with his own accent, especially since Keoma is a halfbreed Indian. With his beard and bare chest and wolf-cut hair, FN is a new kind of gunfighter for a new-ish kind of western. Bits seem post-apocalyptic, prefiguring the genre Castellari and all the other genre hacks would dabble in after MAD MAX, other bits seem medieval — there’s a plague ravaging the land, ffs.

Woody Strode has quite a bit to do and has an extraordinary last scene — it is possible that Castellari was a bit too uncritical of his performers, or else urged them to “give it both knees” in Billy Wilder’s phrase when more restraint would have been advisable. But it’s the kind of mad choice that seems acceptable in a nutzoid oater like this.

Spaghetti westerns, unlike most of their American counterparts, always TRY to be progressive about race, though they often slip up in hilarious/uncomfortable ways, due to naivety — the spaghetti west is all like Kafka writing the Statue of Liberty with a sword in her hand: EVOCATIVELY WRONG — and a certain insensitivity that comes with the genre.

The era of Morricone and Morricone-influenced scores is over, as we also saw in FOUR FOR THE APOCALYPSE. This one also has songs — a female vocalist warbling at a high pitch like the bastard daughter of Joan Baez and Tiny Tim, and a gruff, growly man (Nero himself) who mainly sings about what is actually happening in front of us, which gets very funny. (“How did I get in this meeeeeessss?”)

KEOMA — which also has supernatural-Gothic-Shakespearian vibes — led us to JOHNNY HAMLET, originally developed by Corbucci and intended to star Anthony Perkins, but was passed to Castellari and Andrea Giordana. The real star turn in this one is Gilbert Roland, as “Johnny Hamilton’s” chum, “Horace.” The first time Horatio has been the coolest and most impressive character, and the only time a real Mexican appeared in an Italian western (according to Cox — seems legit).

A Perkins Hamlet, even a wild west one, would have been something. An Andrea Giordana Hamlet is just fair. His green eyes look good in Leonesque ECU — this is an insanely colourful film at times — the dream sequence in which the ghost appears is pure Corman, or impure Bava. Funny how Castellari, seeking to present the sequence in a way that doesn’t violate genre conventions — no ghosts in cowboy films — except the aforementioned ones, and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and Elvis at the end of FLAMING STAR I believe — and he ends up with a sequence that has absolutely nothing in common with western aesthetics.

Elsewhere, there’s a cemetery in a cave — comedy gravediggers seem ready-made for an Italian western, with the strong antecedent of the coffin-maker in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.

Castellari mounts the camera on a wheel as Johnny H realises the time is out of joint —

There are capering actors, so that we can have snatches of the bard, and an anticipation of Agnes Varda —

Kind of funny how the Shakespearian character who can’t make up his mind becomes this angst-ridden action hero who’s constantly shooting people and getting in punch-ups. Most of this action doesn’t much advance the plot, but neither do the Shakespearian soliloquies they replace (WH Auden observes that Hamlet is unusual in that the big speeches are all standalone bits of philosophising that work just as well out of context). It’s also funny to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern transformed into sadistic henchmen from the rather ineffectual stooges of the original. What “Claude Hamilton” needs in his camp is a deadly Laertes type, but none is forthcoming, though there is, instead, this guy:

A major spaghetti trope I haven’t mentioned — DISGUSTING EATING. Leone’s giant mouth closeups in DUCK, YOU SUCKER! are the apotheosis of this, but in both THE BIG SILENCE and this one, men deliver dialogue through half-masticated facefuls of chicken. There should, now that I think of it, be a spag western called A FACEFUL OF CHICKEN. In this movie the chickenlover is a Mexican bandit called Santana who seems to have no connection to the source text, which means he can do what he likes, so he does.

Johnny, like Steffen in DJANGO THE BASTARD, has just returned from the Civil War, fighting on the side of the South. Cox observes that this is unusual in Italian westerns, which aren’t suckered by the lost cause myth. Cox then embarks on his worst bit of pontificating, throwing out the right-wing talking point that the War wasn;t really over slavery, but over the southern states’ right to secede. I assume somebody fed this line to Cox and he didn’t question it further. But, as sf writer Theodore Sturgeon advises, we should be prepared always to Ask the next question. WHY did the southern states wish to secede? Turns out maybe the Civil War was about slavery after all…

This Hamlet does not go mad, or feign madness, nor does he (spoiler alert) die at the end, though most of the other characters do. These departures from the source text make this not really a version of Hamlet at all. One wonders if Corbucci, who conceived the idea, would have been more faithful, not so much to the play, as to the IDEA. What’s the point of doing Hamlet as a spaghetti western, after all, if you don;t actually follow through? And, while the opening dream sequence (deleted in America) is wonderfully outside the stylistic Overton window of the genre, an insane hero and a tragic ending (as with THE BIG SILENCE) seem perfectly suited to the revenge western. In place of all this, Castellari has his hero crucified — a ballsy move in a production of Hamlet, but rather standard for an Italian western (see also DJANGO KILL! and, in fact, KEOMA) — so that he has to tie his pistol to his hand for the final shootout, a variant on DJANGO. A shame — instead of throwing overly-familiar business at us, under the guise of a Shakespeare update, Castellari could have used the concept to hit us with material that would be genuinely unfamiliar, but perfectly in keeping with the revenge western format. A miss, a very palpable miss. But EGC is a fun stylist, and I’m perfectly willing to see more of his stuff now.

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s scenes #2

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2022 by dcairns

Twenty-one years post-Olivier, Tony Richardson brings HAMLET to the screen in a bold and cheap undertaking, filmed entirely at the Roundhouse Theatre, using every inch of backstage space, a trick comparable to Welles’ use of the Gare D’orsee in THE TRIAL. The comparison is in the repurposing but also in the fact that the environments don’t really pretend to be the places the script would have you believe they are. We can TELL Welles is using a railway station and that adds to the film’s surrealism. We can tell that the redbrick warren — in fact, a former railway engine shed — of Richardson’s HAMLET isn’t a realistic Elsinore of the late middle ages. This doesn’t exactly impart surrealism — in a sense it imparts a spurious taste of realism, the kind Richardson made his name with. It’s an industrial space. It has grit. And it also emphasises the theatrical nature of the venture, since it resists pressing into service as a royal abode, works only as backdrop.

To prevent this setting becoming too glaringly false, Richardson makes his movie almost entirely in closeups. This movie may be tighter than Dreyer’s PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. To the immense credit of Richardson and cinematographer Gerry Fisher (who may have operated the camera himself, union rules permitting, or there may be an uncredited wizard at work), the shots are incredibly mobile and inventive, constantly reconfiguring the compositions to switch from one character to another, regroup characters, reposition and reframe individual characters, in some really quite long takes.

Here I was going to quote David Thomson’s amusing Richardson takedown from his Biographical Dictionary of Film, but I’ve just discovered it’s not on my shelves. I definitely didn’t throw it away because Richardson’s wrong about Richardson. But apparently I found some reason to make shelf space for something else. Thomson claims that Richardson was a demonstrably lousy filmmaker. I think a short burst of HAMLET gives the lie to that supposition — you can insist that Richardson never made a film that worked, if you like — that’s subjective, and I would disagree but it’s a claim you can stand behind. But whether Richardson’s HAMLET works as a whole, what we see here is quite a lot of skill. I mean, tons.

The curse of Scottishness, embodied by John Laurie’s Francisco in the Olivier, is now passed to Gordon Jackson as Horatio, and from him, presumably, to Nicol Williamson’s Dane. Other interested parties: Robin Chadwick as Francisco and John Trenaman as Bernardo, or Barnardo if you believe the IMDb. A number of the spear-carrier types in this production went on to considerable careers — Michael Elphick, Anjelica Huston, Roger Lloyd Pack, but these two stayed just as useful background.

Richardson starts off on red brick — start as you mean to go on — then glides DOWN to a brazier, viewed from the inside, Francisco poking at it. We don’t see anyone’s breath but we feel the cold, I think — just from the acting. We cut to see who’s coming, and then it’s all one take!

Only blunder — Jackson should have waited a second before delivering his last line, so he could get his glasses off and stop masking his face with his hand. But that’s the kind of error you get in long takes, the price you sometimes have to pay. With video assist and a very long schedule you can maybe solve every case of it (or with CGI retouching, I guess).

Shakespeare makes a mistake, or at least plays fast and loose too — in the full text, we’re told it’s just gone midnight, but then at the end of the scene it’s dawn. But I guess we’re up north, land of the midnight sun. Poor ghost, condemned to fast in fire in between walking the earth, but it’s 90% fire to 10% walking.

Count the number of different compositions we get in this oner.

The ghost does not appear save as a light on the characters’ faces and a Delia Derbyshire electronic music effect.

The same holds true in the second ghost scene (apologies for the glitch in the middle of this one: my fault). A great solution, if you’re uncomfortable with showing a ghost. Richardson, being a realist, approaches the Jonathan Pryce angle — Williamson voices the ghost’s dialogue along with his own, which makes sense — Shakespeare seems well aware that the ghost is telling Hamlet what he wants to hear, what he already feels to be true (“Oh my prophetic soul!”) So anything that brings that out is psychologically valid. But Richardson doesn’t need to cut the first scene, as Richard Eyre did for the Pryce version.

(Frankly, squeamishness about having a ghost appear strikes me as silly, audiences are capable of imagination and accepting things in drama which they don’t ordinarily believe in. But deciding not to show the ghost is interesting to me as an ambitious creative choice.)

Good long takes again. If we were showing the ghost, it would be harder to avoid a shot/countershot strategy, but from what we’ve seen, Richardson and his team could have managed it. There MAY be a hidden cut when the ghost departs and Williamson turns.

Both our versions so far have ommitted H’s talk of his “tables” — maybe because they’re wary about their Hamlets looking too old to convincingly play students. But Williamson does “set it down,” but by scratching on the wall with his dagger, and then visualising the wall as Claudius and knifing it. (Claudius, by the way, is Anthony Hopkins, a year younger than the actor playing his nephew, which is FINE.) What he actually scratches is something like IILITII — passable gibberish. But his method of writing is only good for runic symbols, it’s hard to say one thing while carving another, and anyway, he’s overwrought.

As with Macbeth, Romeo, Juliet, and others, the role of Hamlet is nearly always played by actors older than the character seems to be. (Is Hamlet two ages? How long is he away in England? I get the impression it’s not long at all, but he’s thirty when he comes back.) The assumption is always that a really young actor won’t be able to pull it off, but I imagine there would be gains as well as losses in having someone who looks like they could be a student. Hamlet’s agonies are somewhat adolescent.

Williamson, pasty-pink Scotsman, is nobody’s idea of a student. But he makes a very credible madman. And he covers a wide span between the conversational, making the words seem like he’s just thinking of them as we watch, and the truly freakily overdone. I would like him to keep more cool, but Hamlet is a fairly histrionic fellow I guess (the adolescent side).

Although this is fairly different from Olivier’s approach — and I think Hamlet benefits from a less controlled performance — both approaches are valid, though — both films go for a vaguely Elizabethan wardrobe (hard to work out who Richardson’s designer is — Jocelyne Herbert is credited as production designer, and she did do costumes on occasion — Philippe Pickford is wardrobe master, per IMDb — but I presume he just looked after the stuff and got it onto the various bodies. I like spoken word credits, but they always have to leave out so much.

There’s maybe a dash of medieval in there too. I think, in a film, there has to be some sense that this is a different historical period, so you can have swordfights and stuff. I forget how the Michael Almereyda version handled the swordplay — mainly I remember Ethan Hawke doing “To be or not to be…” in a video store, and when he gets to “…and lose the name of action,” you realise he’s in the Action Movies section. But you can also see WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? on the shelf. Which is the kind of blunder you’d get in a real Blockbuster, but is rather distracting during the big soliloquy.

I’m not going to do the Almereyda. Should I do the Zeffirelli? The old bastard did rather impress me with his episode of 12 REGISTI, so I think I should…

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2022 by dcairns

It’s good to start with Olivier’s HAMLET because we have A SPY ON THE SET.

The other Laurence, Laurie Knight, late friend of Fiona and I, was an assistant on this — third AD. But not for the whole shoot, I don’t think. He reports that Olivier wanted to record a real human heartbeat for the ghost’s appearances. He may have heard about Rouben Mamoulian running up and down a flight of stairs so he could get a suitably pounding chest for the transformations in DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, but the athletic thesp uncharacteristically delegated another assistant — possibly a runner, which would be appropriate — to run around the soundstage once or twist before having the mic pressed to his bosom like a stethoscope.

“Nothing but indigestion!” Laurie reported with a wheeze of laughter. So they quite simply got a drum in.

I really love the way the camera pulses in and out of focus as the pounding comes in. Still an effect that’s rarely copied, but it’s wonderfully expressive.

Asides from Mamoulian, I assume Olivier’s under the influence of CITIZEN KANE a bit, and has grasped how the optical printer can be used to spice up footage and create semi-seamless joins between distinct shots. I even wonder if the focal pulse effect might be created in post. This is a kind of advance on his HENRY V, whose effects all happen for real in front of the camera. We gradually move from theatrical sets to more lifelike one, as if we were being swept up in the “reality” of the play.

The KANE influence is also felt in the deep focus, the chiaroscuro, and the cavernous Xanadu-like space of Elsinore. Instead of the big gimmick of Olivier’s HENRY V: a theatrical performance which slowly becomes “real”, the stylised sets eventually replaced by real locations, HAMLET attempts to create a space midway between theatre and cinema — cavernous, unfurnished, but richly textured.

Olivier said he was driven to that HENRY effect by his concern about matching real sets and unreal dialogue. “Why’s everyone talking so funny?” HAMLET takes a different but parallel route. An environment just odd enough to allow the iambic pentameters not to seem out of place.

From my Making-Of book, The Film HAMLET: Carmen Dillon, tasked with executing Roger Furse’s designs, says, “sets soar into the sky without any attempt at persuading the audience that they do, in fact, support a roof or that they have any geographical relationship one with another.

I’m all in favour of cutting Hamlet, which is outrageously long, and directors shape it and choose what they want to emphasise by their cuts. In Jonathan Pryce’s performance. this whole scene was cut, so that the ghost could be portrayed as a psychological effect, a voice issuing from H’s subconscious. It gave Pryce the excuse for a bravura Linda Blair/Mercedes McCambridge act, and you could argue that the voice’s echoing of H’s own suspicions and resentments is already implied in the text — he’s rather thrilled to discover he’s right to dislike Uncle Claudius.

But these cuts do tend, as Tom Stoppard pointed out, to make the beginning of the play rather stodgy. It’s a bunch of people at a party making speeches. Whereas WD begins his play with the words “Who goes there?” and it’s immediately gripping. Plus the bell tolling midnight, all very atmospheric. Olivier wouldn’t have consciously aimed to make his adaptation seem like a horror film, but the KANE influence ensures it does anyway (I believe Welles may have admitted to a slight James Whale influence on his MACBETH).

Olivier has cast his film very well indeed, without resorting to the Branagh approach of stuffing stars of stage and screen into every crevice. From the urgency of the first lines we drop into the casual, throwaway dialogue that makes this film occasionally quite naturalistic, when Sir Larry himself isn’t around. Francisco and Bernardo are John “We’re all doomed!” Laurie, who would apparently tell you about his own triumph as the Dane as soon as you met him, and Esmond Knight, recently blinded in the war and taking his life in his hands on those unbanistered stairs.

Starting on Laurie is a great idea: a gloomy Calvinist immediately makes the appearance of the supernatural more plausible.

They’re soon joined by Norman Wooland and Anthony Quayle, equally good. wooland maybe the realest and most moving actor in the film. I think Olivier has done great in finding actors who can do the classical bit but also seem believable onscreen. It was maybe easier to find such people then.

Olivier, of course, isn’t of their number. He’s something else.

Next bit: Hamlet meets the ghost.

Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson writes that Olivier wanted to “make the scenes without so much cutting from shot to shot.” There are bits in the ghost’s second appearance where we just stare at his inexpressive silhouette for quite a while, until the shot almost “goes dead.” It seems a good way to allow the audience to concentrate on the words without getting bored. The image is still striking and beautiful, even if it’s not doing anything new. It beats Peter Brook’s moronic idea in his KING LEAR of shooting the backs of the actors’ heads. “Sometimes, with Shakespeare, you don’t want the image to add anything, but you can’t just have a black screen.” I think a black screen would make as much sense as the back of Paul Scofield’s head.

Remember the wise words of Roger Corman: “The eye is the organ most used in movie making. If you don’t engage the eye you’ll never engage the mind.”

The ghost here is John Gielgud — one of the legendary stage Hamets (captured on film by Humphrey Jennings in A DIARY FOR TIMOTHY), later the director of Richard Burton’s version, and one of the most distinctive voices. But the slow whisper and echo effect make him not so recognisable, so that his uncredited performance isn’t a coy gimmick. The ghost would have seemed all the more mysterious by being unknown.

Gielgud at 17.24-19.22

Steven Berkoff had an interesting idea — I don’t know how good his production was, quite possibly ham(let)fisted (he has a way of leaning into things) — but it was an interesting idea. Since the ghost says he’s doomed “to walk the earth,” why not have him in constant motion? And thus Hamlet, having followed him away from his chums, has to keep tagging along. He might even get in front and then have to keep backing up since the ghost can’t stop.

At 3.18 the backlight produces a dark halo around the ghost in the fog. Beautiful.

I think the least effective part is the visualisation of the King’s death, though I can see why they did it. King Hamlet as a living person is NOT played by Gielgud, but by a Santa Clause-looking guy who overdoes the old dying act a bit, rolling out of his divan and clutching the air. Claudius as poisoner has kind of gone into silent movie acting mode also, Is this the way Hamlet would visualise it? Possibly.

Branagh will cheekily borrow a couple of Olivier’s moves — collapsing face-down when the ghost departs, and kissing his sword when he swears. Shakespeare’s text offers few stage directions beyond “enter” and “exit” and we’re not convinced Shakespeare even wrote those. He does add “writing” when Hamlet makes a note in his tables, but Olivier’s cut the words and the action to make room for his hilt-kissing.

Next: Tony Richardson and Nicol Williamson in 1969.