RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Two Cities Films

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.

The October Man (Aug. 28, 1947)

The only problem with a really crackerjack opening is that sometimes it can make the rest of a film seem staid.

Roy Ward Baker’s The October Man, which was written and produced by spy novelist Eric Ambler, features a stunning, completely wordless opening sequence in which a bus full of passengers navigates twisting English country roads at night in the rain.

Jim Ackland (John Mills) sits next to a little girl. The two are friendly with each other, and he ties his handkerchief into a rabbit shape to amuse her. The film cuts from them to an axle under the bus with a loose screw, to the sleepy driver, and back to them. When disaster comes, it is swift.

Before the accident, Ackland had a good job as an industrial chemist and was quite sane. During the accident, however, he suffered a depressed fracture of the skull and multiple brain injuries.

The little girl on the bus next to him was the daughter of some of his friends, and he blames himself for her death, twice attempting suicide during his convalescence.

Eventually, though, Ackland starts to get his life back on track. He moves into a boarding house full of fusspots and weirdos and gets another job as a chemist. He meets a nice girl named Jenny Carden (Joan Greenwood) and starts seeing her regularly.

But when one of the other residents of Ackland’s boarding house — a woman named Molly Newman (Kay Walsh) — is murdered, suspicion falls on Ackland. The only person who should know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether he’s guilty or not — Ackland himself — isn’t even sure, since he’s a paranoiac who suffers from blackouts.

The October Man is a good film. It’s well acted and well shot, and the central mystery is intriguing, if not particularly difficult to unravel. My main problem with it is that nothing in the film is equal to the suspense and power of the first minute.

This was the first feature film that Roy Ward Baker directed. (He’s listed in the credits as “Roy Baker.”)

Baker was a prolific director of British film and television who worked into the 1990s, and who died last year at the age of 93. During World War II, Baker worked under Eric Ambler in the Army Kinematograph Unit, which eventually led to him directing The October Man. If you’re a fan of Hammer Studios’ horror films, you’ve doubtless seen films directed by Baker, but he worked in all manner of genres. His most enduring film is probably A Night to Remember (1958), about the sinking of the Titanic.

Odd Man Out (Jan. 30, 1947)

Odd Man Out
Odd Man Out (1947)
Directed by Carol Reed
Two Cities Films

Odd Man Out is a terrific film. It might not be — as the lobby card above boasts — “the most exciting motion picture ever made,” but it’s a damned good one, with masterful direction by Carol Reed and a hypnotic lead performance by James Mason.

The film, which is based on a novel by F.L. Green, opens with a disclaimer that it isn’t “concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.”

Mason plays a revolutionary leader named Johnny McQueen, fresh out of the clink and planning a big heist. The Irish Republican Army is never mentioned outright — McQueen’s group is simply called “the organisation” — but the film takes place in Belfast, so you can connect the dots, if you care to.

However you choose to interpret the obfuscation of the I.R.A. in Odd Man Out, there’s little denying that it’s an apolitical film, more concerned with one man’s existential journey than with making any kind of political statement.

In the first scene of the film, we see Johnny McQueen holed up in a safehouse, planning a payroll robbery of a textile mill with his boys. Also present is the woman who loves him, Kathleen Sullivan (played by Kathleen Ryan). Things look and sound all right until one of Johnny’s boys approaches him, and tells him he’s concerned about Johnny’s ability to handle the job. Johnny was in prison for several years for blowing up a police station. He’s only been on the lam a little while, and confined to the safehouse the whole time.

Johnny brushes off his lieutenant’s concerns, but as soon as the plan is in motion, we realize that Johnny might have been wrong to lead the robbery. In a subjective sequence, we see the busy streets of Belfast from Johnny’s point of view. Cars whiz past, streetcars with grinding wheels pass by close enough to touch, people hurry to and fro, and the whole smoky mess looks too cramped and too large at the same time.

If you’re a fan of realistic heist movies, the robbery scene in Odd Man Out will meet with your approval. It’s not overly complicated, and it’s accomplished quickly, but it’s full of tension, especially since Johnny seems about to crack at any moment.

He and his boys make it out with the money, but a mill guard tackles Johnny as he hesitates on the front steps of the factory. The two men wrestle, and each takes a bullet. The wounded Johnny falls off the running board of the getaway car, and his boys lose him in the confusion.

Odd Man Out is a tense film. It takes place over the course of the night following the mill robbery, and Reed and his cinematographer, Robert Krasker, box their subjects in. The members of “the organisation” are pursued by police on foot, through dark alleys, over rooftops, and even through middle-class homes. (Reed frequently juxtaposes the activities of the city’s regular citizens with the activities of its criminal underclass.)

James Mason has little dialogue in the film, but his performance is amazing. He feels guilt, remorse, confusion, anger, loneliness, and even suffers hallucinations as he loses blood and seems to always be marching toward death. His performance is sympathetic, but keeps the viewer at a distance. This isn’t a film noir about a regular Joe who’s caught up in circumstances beyond his control. Every move Johnny made in his life has led him to this point, and he knows it.

Aside from Mason, most of the actors in the film were regulars on the stage of the Abbey Theatre (which could be why none of their accents sound quite right — they’re all from the wrong end of the island). Fans of British cinema and television will recognize plenty of them.

Reed’s most famous film is The Third Man, which he made in 1949. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen The Third Man, but I thought Odd Man Out was a stronger picture. Mason is a more compelling central presence than any of the actors are in The Third Man, and the music, cinematography, editing, and direction are all tighter in Odd Man Out.

Odd Man Out is a difficult film to classify. It starts out as a straightforward crime picture, but by the end of the film, Johnny’s journey takes on a surreal quality. A scene late in the picture in which he’s sheltered by a mad painter (Robert Newton) has the quality of a lively Samuel Beckett play.

The film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1947, and received the BAFTA award for Best British Film in 1948. Fergus McDonnell was nominated for an Academy Award in 1948 for best editing, but Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish ended up winning for Body and Soul.

Hungry Hill (Jan. 7, 1947)

Daphne Du Maurier’s 1943 historical novel Hungry Hill covers a period of 100 years (1820 to 1920) in the lives of five generations of two feuding Irish families. Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1947 film adaptation narrows the scope of the story to three generations and a roughly 50-year timespan, but it’s still a lot to take in over the course of just 100 minutes. If you’re a fan of romantic yet gloomy historical melodramas, Hungry Hill is a filling dish. And if you’re not, Hungry Hill might leave you feeling stuffed and queasy.

Margaret Lockwood gets top billing (and the most time onscreen) as Fanny Rosa, a beautiful and headstrong young woman who marries into the wealthy Brodrick family, who live in a castle called “Clonmere” in County Cork. The patriarch of the clan, John Brodrick (Cecil Parker), has several children, John (Dennis Price), Henry (Michael Denison), and Jane (Jean Simmons). (Honestly, there are a lot of characters in Hungry Hill, and he might have had more children than those three, but they’re the only ones I was able to get a handle on.)

The patriarch of the Donovan clan, old Morty Donovan (Arthur Sinclair), violently objects to John Brodrick’s plans to mine for copper in Hungry Hill, and curses Brodrick and his entire family. (Hungry Hill is located in the beautiful Caha Mountains, which I’ve hiked, so I was disappointed that there wasn’t more location footage — most of the film takes place in drafty old rooms and the bowels of the Brodrick copper mine.)

While the copper mine ends up providing plenty of employment for the Donovan clan and other roustabouts, tensions are always simmering. A labor riot leads to the death of one young man, and a visit of reconciliation leads to a deadly typhoid infection.

Hungry Hill follows a familiar three-generation rise-and-fall story arc. By the time Margaret Lockwood’s hair is brushed through with gray and her face is lined with age makeup, it should come as no surprise to anyone that her handsome son, Johnnie Brodrick (Dermot Walsh), is drinking a bottle of whiskey a day, loving and leaving the ladies, and frittering away his family’s fortune. The scenes between Johnnie and his mother are well-played and affecting, but by that point in the movie I was starting to lose interest in the dismal goings-on.

One thing I can recommend unequivocally is the casting, which is excellent. Not only does Hungry Hill feature the cream of the crop of up-and-coming British actors, but the Brodrick men really do all look like members of the same family, and the Donovans resemble one another, too. Of course, this is a double-edged sword, since it’s sometimes difficult to keep them all straight.

Hurst himself clearly didn’t hold this film in the highest regard. In a letter to John Ford dated April 9, 1951, in which he sang the praises of Siobhan McKenna, who played Kate Donovan in Hungry Hill (Ford was interested in casting her in his film The Quiet Man), Hurst wrote, “There must be a copy of a rather indifferent film I made of Daphne du Maurier’s even more indifferent story ‘Hungry Hill.’ You could get hold of this through Eagle-Lion, but don’t inflict the whole of the picture on yourself. Just see about the last four reels, because she doesn’t come in till then.”

Henry V (June 17, 1946)

Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play Henry V was originally released in the United Kingdom in November of 1944. (The date I’ve listed above is the release date of the film in the United States.) Following its release in the United States, Henry V was nominated for a 1946 Oscar for best picture, as well as Oscars for best actor, best score, and best art direction. It didn’t win in any of its nominated categories, but Olivier did receive an honorary Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”

The recognition was well deserved (even though Olivier considered the award a “fob-off” from a jingoistic Academy). This film is a splendid achievement, and holds up remarkably well. Not only is it a fine cinematic adaptation of a great play, it’s a beautifully crafted film within a play within a film, in which Olivier the director has fun with convention while Olivier the actor delivers an assured and commanding performance as Henry, only recently a monarch after a misspent youth (chronicled by Shakespeare in Henry IV parts one and two).

The film’s full title is “The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift With His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France,” and that’s how the title appears on the opening placard, which invites people to attend “Will” Shakespeare’s play, performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe Playhouse this day, the first of May, 1600. There follows a panoramic vista in gorgeous, nearly surreal Technicolor of the London of Shakespeare’s day. It’s obviously a model, but it’s an effective one, with wisps of smoke rising from chimneys and tiny vessels dotting the Thames.

The beginning of the film attempts to faithfully recreate the theatrical experience one would have had at the Globe during Shakespeare’s time. There are no set dressings, and the Chorus (Leslie Banks), in each of his appearances, invites the viewer to suspend his or her disbelief, vividly describing the scene that is about to be played, and in so doing draws attention to the artifice of the play. As the film goes on, however, it moves out of the confines of the theater and becomes increasingly realistic, reaching its apex when Henry finally leads his troops in battle against the French at Agincourt.

Artifice and realism aren’t strictly delineated in Henry V, however. When the film first moves out of the theater to the court of France, the ocean is a static sea of waves that looks like the backdrop for a puppet show in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And after the impressive battle, which was filmed in County Wicklow, Ireland (as a neutral country, it wasn’t ravaged by the war), artifice slowly returns in the form of phony-looking backdrops and a return to the stagey castle set of the French court.

When Olivier first appears on screen, it is as Oliver the actor, standing backstage in full costume, waiting for his entrance cue, and coughing into his hand in a decidedly unheroic fashion. As soon as he steps on stage, however, his voice commands attention. By the time he delivers his famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech, I was eating out of his hand. This is no mean feat, either, considering the historically accurate haircut Olivier saddled himself with, as well as his very noticeable eye makeup.

It’s common knowledge that Henry V was made with the cooperation of the British government and designed to be a nationalistic morale booster in the days following the Allied push into Normandy. Consequently, the scene in which Henry threatens to rape women and kill children was excised from the script, along with the hanging of Bardolph and Henry’s order to kill French prisoners. But it’s all in keeping with the tone of the film, which is more a celebration of theater and patriotism than it is a nuanced character study.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 369 other followers