Archive for Laurence Olivier

The Murderers

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2014 by dcairns

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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.

The Monday Intertitle: And Then the Phantoms

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2013 by dcairns

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As part of my research for the blogathon, I watched Alain Resnais’ most recent film (but not his last — he already has another on the way), VOUS N’AVEZ ENCORE RIEN VU aka YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET! — in which a group of actors (the creamy cream of the French acting establishment playing versions of themselves) gather in a secluded and stylised theatrical mansion to hear the last will and testament of a director who had worked with all of them in various productions of the Oresteia (this is based on a play by Anouilh). As the will is delivered by the dead man himself via a film, and the assemblage is then shown film of a new production of the play that unites them, which they then begin to interact with in various impossible ways, I was reminded of two wildly different films — THE CAT AND THE CANARY for the plot device and specifically the Radley Metzger ’70s version for its playful Pirandellian approach to the screen within the screen (at one point an aged retainer in Metzger’s flick dodders behind the screen only to appear, in perfect directional continuity, ON the screen in a younger incarnation. When this youthful image passes out of the edge of frame, the real-life older model takes his place, back in reality.) — and it’s nice if Resnais is referencing Metzger because Metzger was certainly influenced by MARIENBAD — and Olivier’s HENRY V, which seems to function as much as a commentary on the theatre-going experience as it does an adaptation of the play itself. For the first half hour or more we are amused but somewhat distracted by the fact that Resnais is showing a play with the roles played by a series of different actors, and in settings that vary from the actual screening room where the actors are gathered, other rooms nearby which MAY be part of the same building, and locations or CGI environments illustrating the places in the play.

But after a while this ceases to distract and despite all the apparent alienation devices, the story is quite involving. And indeed the emotional pull of the scenes is strangely increased, particularly when they’re performed by actors too old for the characters they play. Because we get not only the emotion of the scene but a kind of nostalgia (in a good, unsentimental sense) for the youth they once possessed and the feelings they must have originally brought to the roles. Or maybe it’s just that old actors are better than young actors.

Except that the character of Death is played by only one actor, Mathieu Amalric, and he’s not that old but he’s electrifying. His trenchcoat made me think of the figure of Fate in Carne and Prevert’s LES PORTES DE LA NUIT.

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But there’s another movie reference too, and it’s certainly intentional. As he’s setting up the plot, which he does in a bare-bones way, cheerfully acknowledging the artifice, Resnais uses a couple of intertitles, including this one (above). “When they passed through the gate, the phantoms came to meet them.”

Which is a paraphrase of one from NOSFERATU ~

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The translation of that we used to read was something like “And when Hutter crossed the bridge, the phantoms came forth to meet him.”

But the subtitles provided now that we can see the original German-language title card say something like “the uncanny faces came out” or the “spectral images came out” — but I’m guessing Resnais is familiar with the same translation as me.

You can read it at 18:12.

This talk of phantoms refers to vampires in the Murnau film but to memories and movie images in the Resnais. Which feeds into my growing suspicion that phantoms and memories and movie images are all different manifestations of the same, misunderstood phenomenon…

The Wizard of Osric

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2012 by dcairns

A lovely Dublin bookshop had a large collection of second-hand film books, all dealing with British or Hollywood topics — I got The Westmores of Hollywood (from which much classic movie lore and gossip derives), The Celluloid Mistress or The Custard Pie of Dr Caligari, which I don’t yet know how to describe, and The Film HAMLET, which deals with Olivier’s movie in a pretty in-depth way for 1948, and for such a slender volume.

I was taken with the stuff pertaining to Peter Cushing’s Osric (the film features both Cushing and Christopher Lee, though Lee’s role is minute and they never meet onscreen) ~

“Osric, that sinister Beau Brummell of the Danish Court, fell pat into place. Casting our stage production of ‘Born Yesterday,’ in the autumn of 1946, Laurence and I had seen a clutch of young actors for the juvenile lead, among them a striking looking character, Peter Cushing, who stuck in our minds by a frank refusal even to attempt an American accent. Weeks later, watching another actor at the Q Theatre, I was struck by a performance of the Frenchman in ‘Where the Sun Shines,’ so true in style and accent that I looked for a French name on the programme. It was Mr. Cushing, and he speaks no French. Here evidently was an actor, and his test for Osric disposed of the last of our problems on the male side.”

Casting director Anthony Bushell there.

Cushing must have been thrilled, being a great Olivier fan — he admired Larry’s athletic approach, and you can see his emulation of it in the vigorous climaxes of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, and the swashbuckling approach he takes to playing Sherlock Holmes in HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. Holmes is constantly exulted by his own intelligence, so that he spends the film on an adrenalin high.

Here’s costume and production designer Roger Furse’s sketch of Osric ~

My late friend Lawrie was an assistant on HAMLET, and described the ghost’s appearance in the opening scene — Olivier had wanted a pounding heart on the soundtrack, like Rouben Mamoulian’s in DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (the director recorded his own elevated heartbeat after charging up and down a flight of stairs), so a junior employee was sent racing around the sound stage to get his pulse pounding. A microphone was pressed to his abdomen — “Nothing but indigestion,” reported Lawrie. When you see the film, the role of the heartbeat is played by a big bass drum.

But the cool thing is the way they’ve used an optical printer to make the shot throb in and out of focus each time the infernal heart beats…

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