Archive for Henry V

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.

Mad in Craft

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2022 by dcairns

Why? Why did I watch Kenneth Branagh’s HAMLET?

Apparently I was curious about it. But not so curious that I watched it in 1996. That would have made sense — I could have seen in in 70mm. I watched it this week.

I was curious about it being the full four hour unexpurgated play, but I came to believe that by not cutting, Branagh had given up a big part of the adaptor’s toolkit — directors typically choose what parts of the play to emphasise, they focus in, by cutting. And, while I can see doing it uncut on the stage makes sense, any uncut Shakespeare text on the screen is likely to suffer from redundancy as the characters take their time describing things we can SEE. Oh boy did that happen here.

I should give Branagh credit where possible: he makes the thing go at a fair lick. And when ones’ eyes and ears have not actually gone blurry, you can still tell what the people are saying. Sometimes, it is true, you wonder why everyone is in such a frenzy when there’s not so much happening, and often, it is true, you feel that a momentary dramatic pause would bring out a lot more meaning than the relentless jabber.

The film is cast in a racially-blind manner, before it was fashionable or popular, and this is good. Hamlet is totally a play you can do this with, and any call for realism can be dismissed outright since the characters are (a) speaking blank verse and (b) not speaking Danish. There are no important Black characters, but there are quite a few minor ones, and one of those is the excellent Don Warrington.

Branagh has a certain boldness. My friend Paul Duane calls him “the worst director who has ever lived,” and he is, essentially, correct, but Branagh does things which are wrong in surprising ways, not just in boring ways, so I can still find him preferable to, say, Richard Attenborough. Who turns up here, because, of course he does.

OK, I think I’m done being nice. It wasn’t a very impressive display of positives, I admit.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore Collection/REX (1596346a) Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh Film and Television

Branagh’s boldness is manifest in the uncut text, in the 70mm format, in a certain gusto with which he throws the camera around, and in the chaotic mix-and-match approach to casting. The guiding aesthetic principle here is the Dunning-Kruger effect. Branagh swirls the Steadicam around his cast, goes into slomo, cuts furiously, because he does, at least, know he CAN, but doesn’t know whether, from moment to moment, he should or should not. We’re on random.

Similarly, Branagh throws together the classically trained theatrical knight, the movie star, the sitcom actor, with gay abandon — it’s admirable in theory — you can see it being exciting — but everybody is playing the wrong part. Brian Blessed — fruity ham — is the ghost. Charlton Heston — grim-visaged axiom of cinema — is the player king. Swap them around and you’d have something.

Jack Lemmon — a potentially fine Polonius — is Marcellus, essentially a random spear-carrier. You wonder why he’s the only American spear-carrier. And whether he’s a bit old for active duty. Richard Briers, a good sitcom actor, is Polonius. And it’s true that Polonius is the most sitcomlike character, and also true that Briers suppresses his natural affability to play the man as a more creepy and august figure, it doesn’t always work.

All the play’s double-acts are mismatched: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two interchangeable doofuses, are Timothy Spall and Reece Dinsdale, a grotesque and a normie. The two gravediggers are Billy Crystal and Simon Russell Beale, Borscht belt and Stratford. Crystal is possibly my favourite performance in the thing: he isn’t funny, his stuff with Beale is a snooze, but there’s a provocative sense of challenge when he’s matched with Branagh. One is a movie star and the other only thinks he is because he has no sense upon which to base his judgement. The result is tension, and the only place where the cutting back and forth between characters adds any excitement.

How badly cast is this film? We are asked to believe that Derek Jacobi has stolen Julie Christie away from Brian Blessed.

Jacobi — always cast as men called Claudius, is miscast as Claudius here. He’s not an impressive opponent. He does OK.

Branagh has realised one thing, I think, but he’s realised it in the edit: the shot/countershot cuts only work when we see who’s talking. It must have been discovered that reaction shots make you lose the thread of the speeches. Or else it was assumed. The result is a Dragnet approach to cutting, where every cut is on the end of a speech, cueing up the reply. I love Dragnet but it has a deliberately inexpressive cutting pattern, suitable for procedurals.

What Shakespeare needs, I suspect, and could very well get in a 70mm film, is dynamic blocking and long-held wide shots where everyone can act together in real time. There’s very, very little of that here, though there are plenty of scenes where the camera just circles the actors for no good reason. This is Branagh’s third Shakespearean adaptation so you would think he’d have a working theory of montage and mise-en-scene.

Olivier went into HENRY V with a plan: he knew that Shakespeare’s more rousing speeches seem to necessitate a certain building to a climax by the actor. The traditional approach to long scenes in the movies is to move closer. Olivier sussed that this would result in us looking right up his nose just as he was really getting into it with the yelling and gesticulating, so he reversed the pattern, very consciously: as Henry builds to a climax, the camera pulls back.

Actual saliva bubble

Branagh never realised that when he made his own HENRY V, so the film is a spittle-flecked shoutfest in which the King spends a lot of time screaming right in our ear. It’s distracting when you see saliva blasting forth in great gobs: it’s only appropriate to do spit if that’s the only thing you want the audience to notice.

Here we are, after MUCH ADO, and Branagh is still drenching the scenery with his face. He gets started early, when he meets the ghost. This is very bad: we have about three and a half hours to go at this point. How’s he going to top this? Shit, what happens when he goes/plays mad?

Plenty. The Dane froths, simpers, screams, and his voice goes comically high to suggest strong emotion. One of my favourite out-of-control performances is Alan Arkin’s last scene in LITTLE MURDERS. It’s huge and manic and (bouncing) off-the-wall. But it’s one scene. He builds to it, and then he stops. Branagh does have quiet moments — the only scene I’d seen excerpted from this was, predictably, “To be or not to be,” which is perfectly OK, and calm. But he spends about an hour running about doing full loony.

Kate Winslet, at least, is only wildly over-the-top for one scene.

As the film trundled on, I found myself no longer able to notice how badly directed it was. I had lost the aesthetic sense. I was in Branaghworld. But the opening scenes really pop and zing with ineptitude, and cry out for close analysis. I think it’d be fun to look at scenes from the Branagh, Olivier and Richardson HAMLETs, as I previously did with three varied MACBETHs.

But not this scene. This scene I just include because it made me giggle. I’m not even sure why. Do you find it funny? I’ve written before about how certain actors should be put at the tip of an A composition because they can’t help but distract from the big foreground heads. Turns out Jack Lemmon is one. Everything he does is more interesting than what Hamlet and Horatio do, even when he’s just titling screen left so Horatio won’t block him from view (00.13).

But the funnier stuff is inside. Partly it’s weird because we see a normal door, and then Branagh cuts back and forth between two groups in the narrow doorway, and they both have the same background. Despite the fact that the camera angles must, presumably, be at least 90 degrees apart. This is called “cheating” and I generally approve of it — to hell with continuity, make the shots effective. Here it becomes subtly discombobulating and hilarious.

(Louis Malle said he was fond of shooting the closeups in a shot/countershot sequence against the exact same background, but I haven’t looked out examples to see how he gets away with it. He mentioned it in connection with ZAZIE so he may have been after the exact dizzy effect Branagh stumbles upon here.)

But there’s just something about the Dragnet cutting-on-dialogue that becomes hysterical to me when the actors build up a froth and the cutting gets faster. Thespian tennis. What do you think?

HAMLET stars Hercule Poirot; Martin Beck; Petulia Danner; Young Iris Murdoch; King Vultan; Sir Robert Peel; Smee; Airey Neave; Miracle Max; Lavrenti Beria; J.M.W. Turner; Sherlock Holmes; C.C. Baxter; Lenin; Cyrano de Bergerac; Dr. Satnam Tsurutani; Judah Ben-Hur; Aunt May; Johnny Rotten; Philip Smith; Popeye; Iris Murdoch; Lord Raglan; Sid Luft; Pinkie Brown; Captain R.F. Scott R.N.

Return to Dunsinane

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

Fiona wanted to do a direct comparison between Joel Coen’s and Roman Polanski’s THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, so we ran the Criterion Blu of the latter, and my opinion of it rose considerably. (The picture upgrade on that disc, over the DVD my frame-grabs are from, is massive: Gilbert Taylor, who had previously shot REPULSION, was one of Polanski’s finest collaborators.)

The Coen film is a rather compelling blend of film and theatre — everything it does with its visual approach seems to me just right, building on Olivier’s Shakespeare films and Welles and Kurosawa. It does take some textual hints from Polanski and Tynan’s adaptation, building on the idea of Ross as a schemer and traitor to both sides, something not specified in Shakespeare but which makes sense and allows him to grow from a Basil Exposition kind of attendant lord into a proper dimensional character.

Polanski does something very literal, very blunt — he decides to make Dark Age Scotland as visceral and real as he can. Olivier had considered doing this for HENRY V but worried that the audience would say, “Okay, so that’s a tree and that’s a house and that’s a horse… why is everyone talking so funny?” Polanski’s Horrible Histories visualisation begs that question very urgently indeed, and also creates unnecessary problems out of the asides and soliloquies. Can Macbeth talk to the camera/audience, and if not, what does he do instead.

In fact, we see in ALFIE that an actor can do asides in an otherwise naturalistic film, and it’s a device I’d like to see tried more. (It would have been an absolutely natural thing to try in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, frinstance) Polanski has Jon Finch sometimes do quite long internal monologues, making faces to try to match his dubbed-on thoughts, something I never find satisfying or engaging. More successful, because more playful, are the segues from this device into spoken monologue, the character talking to himself like John McClane in DIE HARD (another besieged warrior with marital troubles). Polanski is always keen to credit Olivier as an influence, so I suspect this is borrowed from the similar tricks in HAMLET. But why Polanski didn’t consider using some of that film’s stripped-down theatricality I don’t know. I guess he’s just more of a realist, and not a man of the theatre like Sir Larry.

But rewatching a film is great for seeing past the things that bother you on a first viewing. Polanski’s whole aesthetic may be sort of counter-productive to doing Shakespeare, but he goes at it very enthusiastically indeed, and if the grit and sharpness are an odd fit for the iambic pentameters, they’re surprisingly close to the sharp focus of outright hallucination — Polanski seems to be using his 60s experience of LSD to give us freak-out visions that render Macbeth’s experiences, particularly with the witches, horrifyingly up-close and alarming.

And the casting of young actors, which was absurdly controversial at the time, seems like a no-brainer now. Older actors have more experience of both life and acting and can often do more than the photogenic youngsters. But what they can’t do is BE YOUNG. I think a middle-aged Macbeth could work if you play him as desperately grabbing what seems like his last chance at success, but the whole question of his wanting an heir becomes academic, an anaemic character motivation, if he has a menopausal wife.

I found myself liking Jon Finch’s performance, bad wig aside, more than before. He’s a star who should have been huge, but his biggest roles, this and FRENZY, didn’t do him the most justice, I always felt. His perf in THE FINAL PROGRAMME, on the other hand, MY GOD that is a star turn. But now I think I was too harsh on his Macbeth: there didn’t seem a single point where he didn’t have exactly the right take on the text.

Francesca Annis is also terrific: she seems readily able to seduce Macbeth into his crimes, as opposed to Frances McDormand’s Lady M who essentially bullies her husband forward. The text tells us she has nursed a baby but has no children now, but there seems no reason why she couldn’t be expected to have more kids and so Macbeth can realistically desire to see his children inherit the throne from him.

Annis looks not much like Sharon Tate but I found myself reminded of her a good deal, maybe because I recently saw Tate standing on a castle tower in EYE OF THE DEVIL.

What everyone used to talk about is the violence, which there is a lot of. It’s very matter-of-fact. The men barely react to someone being hanged or bludgeoned to death in front of them, and for the women and kids there’s always bear-baiting. The play is certainly full of mayhem but Shakespeare’s attitude to it is probably a little different — in Shakespearean tragedy, the normal order of things typically goes awry, and you get fathers against sons, eye-gougings, and so on. At the end, typically order is restored and everyone left alive is happy. A bit sad about all the mayhem but happy it’s over. Shakespeare’s politics are roughly speaking conservative — well, he had a monarch to please. Macbeth seems to have been intended to appeal to King James, who was a big believer in witches — a bunch of women in Scotland had just been tortured and killed for supposedly cursing him. Fortunately, there’s a lot more to Shakespeare than his politics.

Well, Polanski seems to see the order of things as continuous violence and chaos, which, given his life experiences is understandable (everyone thinks of the Manson killings here, but the Holocaust is at least as important, and though RP has denied that the film was his direct response to his wife’s death, he’s admitted that the behaviour of Macbeth’s henchman when entering the Macduff family home was based on that of an SS officer he witnessed in occupied Poland. So Duncan’s reign is unspeakably violent and horrible, Macbeth’s is maybe slightly worse, then he’s killed and it looks like the witches are going to recruit another patsy so the cycle of carnage can continue. Joel Coen steals that idea outright for his new film. It’s very modern and very unshakespearean, but like I say, Shakespeare’s politics are kind of his least appealing aspect.

(The biggest exception may be KING LEAR, where the few survivors are so shattered by what they’ve been through (The biggest exception may be KING LEAR, where the few survivors are so shattered by what they’ve been through and seen, none of them have the heart to really take stock of the situation, which seems somehow apocalyptic.)

I’ve written elsewhere about how Polanski films have a tendency to arc back to their own beginnings, swallowing their tails — from TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE through REPULSION, CUL DE SAC, FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, PIRATES. Even if they don’t literally end in the spot they began at, or near it, often the ending is a call-back in some way — CHINATOWN begins with its main title, and ends in Chinatown. It’s a rather despairing vision of the world, where we always end up back where we started only substantially the worse for wear.

Polanski and his co-adaptor, Kenneth Tynan, have not only moved Macbeth’s decapitation from discretely offstage to graphically onscreen, an almost essential change which nearly every filmmaker has followed, varying only in their explicitness, he’s chopped all the summing-up by the survivors which reassures the play’s audience that the line of kings will now continue in a legitimate way. Most other movie adaptations follow the same pattern, based on a reading of the play’s TRUE subject as Macbeth himself, not the crown of Scotland. When he’s dead, it’s mostly over.

One of Polanski’s most brilliant and alarming touches is the aftermath of Finch’s lopping, with his head whooshing about on the end of a pike, and handheld shots that COULD be his point of view, as if consciousness has not quite fled and he has a chance to take in, in a wobbly sort of way, the scene of his death.

At times, the film’s visual ideas clash with the playscript — when the witches say “Hover through the fog and filthy air, before they exeunt, it’s pretty clear Shakespeare’s suggesting they’re flying, as witches are said to do. Here, they just say it, and don’t even waddle off: it seems to be just something witches like saying. (The Coen film has no broomsticks, but strongly implies that the witch/es can turn into crows.) And the fights are terrifically staged by the great Bill Hobbs, but I don’t quite get why Banquo’s injuries should be so different from what the murderers’ describe in their report to Macbeth. Interestingly, when he sees visions of Banquo, some of them accurately show the axe in the back which he has no way of knowing about. But witchcraft can do that.

Deft little additions make Lady M’s swift descent into madness almost TOO gradual. I chatted with Angela Allen, the film’s script supervisor, who spoke somewhat sceptically about Polanski’s temper tantrums and karate chops (he’d had lessons from Bruce Lee and could snap great beams with the edge of his little hand), and while she was full of praise for Annis, she felt Finch knew the performance he WANTED to give, but perhaps couldn’t quite reach. But he’s physical, brooding, handsome, and he can speak the verse. And he probably gets over more of the character’s slow corruption than the other big movie Macs. “Macbeth is a play about the slow decay of the moral sense,” says Ltnt Kinderman in EXORCIST III. But he practically starts off with regicide, regarded as the worst crime possible in Shakespeare’s day. Say rather it’s about guilt, which destroys Lady Macbeth’s sanity and turns her husband, progressively, into a monster. Because one way of dealing with guilt is to deny it, to keep doing the stuff that makes you feel guilty, trying to prove that there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not a GOOD way of dealing with it, but it’s quite popular.

Polanski faithfully stages the spectre at the banquet just as the text suggests (Macbeth doesn’t sit because there’s somebody in his chair, but nobody else can see this person…), only adding some weird special effects so that the ghost is differently horrible each time we see it. And our view of it is tied to Macbeth’s — it’s only seen in his POV shots.

(Important to keep things straight — Banquo’s ghost is a manifestation of Macbeth’s guilt, which he’s not emotionally smart enough to process. In the Coen film, the ghost is associated with crows, and this with the witches. This is quite, QUITE wrong.)

Best of all, perhaps, is the witches’ sabbat, a Goyaesque bad trip. The mirrors within mirrors, a giddy fast-motion rush of shots spliced together with artful opticals, perfectly visualises Macbeth’s cry of “Will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?”

I’m glad I got over my feeling that Polanski went at this the wrong way. I still think he did, but he went at it so aggressively he basically made it work.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH stars Jerry Cornelius; Lady Jessica; Judge John Deed; The Bloody Barron; Keats; Adolph Bolm; King Vishtaspa; Engywook; Mr. Tupper; Book Person: Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ (uncredited); and Robin Hood Junior.