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Monthly Archives: September 2012

Hamlet (May 4, 1948)

Hamlet
Hamlet (1948)
Directed by Laurence Olivier
Two Cities Films / Universal Pictures

Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet dominated the 21st Academy Awards with seven nominations and four wins. (Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda was nominated in 12 categories — more than any other picture — but only won a single Oscar.)

It was the first time a non-Hollywood production won an Oscar for best picture, and it was the first time an Oscar for best actor was given to an actor who had directed himself. (Besides best picture and best actor, Hamlet also won Oscars for best costume design in a black and white picture and best art direction in a black and white picture.)

These accolades represented something of a vindication for Olivier, whose previous film, Henry V (1944), was nominated for best picture and best actor Oscars (among others), but only received a special Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen,” which Olivier considered “a fob-off.”

Well, sometimes great works require big egos, and Hamlet is proof. It’s a dark, expressionistic psychodrama and a deeply satisfying cinematic achievement, which is no small feat for a film based on a play by William Shakespeare. While Shakespeare is an unassailable and towering figure in English literature, I don’t find most films based on his plays very satisfying. They either treat his texts with stodgy reverence or go off the deep end with ridiculous costumes and set pieces that seem designed to draw in viewers who find Shakespeare “boring.”

Olivier’s Technicolor production of Henry V played around with artifice, beginning by showing the inner workings of a stage play complete with shots of the actors backstage waiting for their cues and slowly became more realistic, culminating in the battle of Agincourt, which was filmed outdoors.

Hamlet, on the other hand, establishes its moody, black and white world with the opening shots and stays the course. Olivier’s camera moves in a lissome fashion around his fog-shrouded castle set, which is a hulking, brooding character unto itself, towering over a dark, roiling sea. The dialogue and the movement of the actors are treated as realistically as possible. Monologues are not delivered in a theatrical fashion toward the audience, but in voiceover as the actor silently broods.

Hamlet was mostly a success with the critics, but Shakespeare purists took umbrage at Olivier’s tinkering with the text, since he cut out roughly half the play, losing whole characters in the process.

There were numerous minor cuts, too, as the very first moments of the film demonstrate. Olivier’s Hamlet begins with the lines from Act 1, Scene 4, that precede the appearance of the ghost. They appear onscreen and are spoken by the narrator. Olivier excised certain lines, which I’ve shown below as crossed-out text:

So oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them—
As in their birth (wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin),

By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that [grown] too much o’erleavens
The form of plausive manners—
that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery or fortune’s star,
Their virtues else (be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo)
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.

The demands of cinema are different from the demands of the stage, and I find these edits sensible and pleasing. However … and this is a big “however” … Oliver ends his prologue with the following line of spoken dialogue, which does not appear in text on screen, but is spoken by the same narrator, and could easily be mistaken for more of Shakespeare’s writing by the unschooled: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

To me this seems like pandering, but I suppose it helps to have a “mission statement” for the more thick-headed among us in the audience.

And this is indeed the story of a young man crippled by indecision. By removing all of the political aspects of Hamlet (the character Fortinbras, for instance, is excised completely and is never mentioned), it becomes a character study. For 20th century audiences I think this was the enduring view of Hamlet, and the aspect people found most interesting. Modern audiences probably miss most of the political undertones of the play, which was written at the tail end of the 16th century, when the age of chivalry was dying and the age of global empire was beginning with the creation of the East India Company. Surely Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw aspects of their own time in the tale of a slain king, a usurper on the throne, and a young prince dealing poorly with political realities.

Even in its edited form, Olivier’s Hamlet runs for a little more than two and a half hours. There simply would have been no way to film the entire play and end up with a commercially successful film. (When Kenneth Branagh filmed a complete version of Hamlet in 1996 it clocked in at 242 minutes and was not widely released theatrically. The cut version was 150 minutes.)

If you can stomach an edited Bard, Olivier’s Hamlet stands as one of the best cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare. The cast are all good, including Jean Simmons as Ophelia, Basil Sydney as Claudia, Eileen Herlie as Gertrude, Norman Wooland as Horatio, Felix Aylmer as Polonius, and Terence Morgan as Laertes. But the real star is Olivier, both in front of and behind the camera.

On an Island With You (May 3, 1948)

On an Island With You was director Richard Thorpe’s fourth film to star the shimmering sea creature Esther Williams.

I didn’t get a chance to see the last film they made together, This Time for Keeps (1947), but I enjoyed On an Island With You a lot more than their second collaboration, the disappointing bullfighting drama Fiesta (1947), mostly because On an Island With You allows Williams to do what she did best — look stunning in and out of the water, and perform some spectacular water ballet numbers. (I’ve also never seen Thorpe’s first film starring Williams, Thrill of a Romance (1945) … what kind of an Esther Williams fan am I?!?)

In On an Island With You, she’s again paired with Mexican heartthrob Ricardo Montalban — her co-star in Fiesta (1947) — and also with Peter Lawford, who comes off as a real drip compared to the dashing Montalban.

This is too bad, since the audience is supposed to be rooting for Lt. Lawrence Y. Kingslee (Lawford), who fell in love with movie star Rosalind Rennolds (Williams) when he was serving in the South Pacific in World War II. Rosalind was doing a USO tour to raise the boys’ morale, and doesn’t even remember meeting Lt. Kingslee. She had too many brief romantic dalliances during the war to remember one more than any of the others, but for him it was the single most important event of his life.

As is all too common in movies from the ’40s, his romantic brio is so excessive it borders on stalking. During a break in the filming of Rosalind’s latest picture, Lt. Kingslee flies her away to the island where they met against her will. The rub is that real islands aren’t like islands in the movies. There are leeches and sinkholes, and when they’re away from the plane the natives steal the wheels. On the plus side, he remembers where he buried all the cans of Spam around the old Quonset hut where he used to bunk.

There’s a metafictional element to On an Island With You, since the film Rosalind is making with her fiancé, Ricardo Montez (played by Ricardo Montalban), is also called “On an Island With You,” and in all the spectacular dance numbers there are at least a few shots of the cameramen filming the action to remind you that they’re making a movie.

While I thought Lawford was miscast, there’s plenty of entertainment to be had in On an Island With You. Besides Williams’s luminescent screen presence and big water ballet numbers, Ricardo Montalban has some wonderful dances with Cyd Charisse — all high points of the film — and Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra are on hand for some good musical numbers. I especially liked Cugat’s tiny chihuahua.

Jimmy Durante has a big role in On an Island With You, too. He might even have more screen time than Lawford. I like Durante, but he’s not exactly the first person I want to see when I sit down to watch a Technicolor musical that takes place in the South Pacific.

Berlin Express (May 1, 1948)

Jacques Tourneur’s crisp thriller Berlin Express presents occupied Germany in miniature. Every nation associated with Allied-occupied Germany is represented by the film’s characters — the United States, France, Germany, England, and Russia.

It’s filmed in the semi-documentary style that was popular in the late ’40s. Europeans speak to each other in their own languages, with no subtitles (there is a voiceover narrator to explain to the viewer what’s transpiring), and much of Berlin Express was filmed on location in Paris, Frankfurt, and Berlin. (According to IMDb.com, it was the first Hollywood production in Europe after World War II.)

Berlin Express has stylistic elements of the German “Trümmerfilm” (“rubble film”), like Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us) (1946). The German rubble films used the war-ravaged backdrops that were plentiful in German cities heavily bombed during the war. Berlin Express doesn’t have the same gravitas or overwhelming sense of tragedy as the rubble films, but the location footage gives it a sense of authenticity not found in most run-of-the-mill thrillers.

Compared with Jacques Tourneur’s previous film, the film noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947), Berlin Express is a lesser effort, but Tourneur is a pro, and every one of his films that I’ve seen has been a work of solid craftsmanship.

The MacGuffin in Berlin Express is a note that falls into the hands of the Deuxième Bureau that reads: “21:45 / D / 9850 / Sulzbach.” The first part seems to refer to a time of day (9:45 PM), but there are Sulzbachs in every occupied zone of Germany. What’s happening? And where will it happen?

Enter a multinational motley crew of characters traveling aboard the Berlin Express. In compartment A is Robert J. Lindley (Robert Ryan), a United States Government Agricultural Expert. In compartment B is Lucienne Mirbeau (Merle Oberon), a secretary from France. In compartment C is Herr Otto Franzen (Fritz Kortner), once a German industrialist, now a dealer in scrap iron. Compartment D is unoccupied, but is being held for a “person of importance.” Compartment E is shared by two men, a former British soldier named James Sterling (Robert Coote), and a military aide for the Russian Occupation Authority, Lt. Maxim Kiroshilov (Roman Toporow). In compartment F is Henri Perrot (Charles Korvin), once a member of the French Underground, now a man of commerce. And finally, in compartment G, is Hans Schmidt (Peter von Zerneck), whose occupation is a mystery to the viewer (the whistle of the train covers what the narrator is saying, which is a cute touch).

Of course, this is an espionage thriller, so it should go without saying that not everyone is what they appear to be, and there will be at least one big reveal or switcheroo before the credits roll.

Berlin Express was made during that curious little space in time when World War II was over but the Cold War had not yet kicked into high gear. Its villains may not seem very plausible or consequential to modern viewers, but for my money, a good thriller is a good thriller. The voiceover narration is a little heavy-handed, but for the most part Berlin Express keeps things tight, fast-paced, and properly thrilling.

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