Though when it comes to cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare my heart belongs to Orson Welles, Sir Laurence Olivier holds an incontestable second place. Welles may be more weirdly, idiosyncratically cinematic, but Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) is undeniably spooky and moody, and his Henry V (1944) an eye-popping rouser. But his adaptation of Richard III, newly restored and released by Criterion, is all this and more: an eye-popping, frightening, rousing and, at times, quite moving experience.
Having already attained a huge success with the play on the stage, Olivier, along with producer Alexander Korda, adapted it for the screen as just one of a series of proposed Shakespeare films, before Korda died tragically in 1955 (as film critic Amy Taubin relates in her booklet essay for this DVD release).
It’s a shame to think of the films we might have had, as Olivier is so assured with the material. Both Welles and Olivier played notoriously loose and irreverent with the Shakespeare texts. Here Olivier doesn’t just transpose the stage version wholesale to the screen, but makes crucial recalibrations in character and execution that render the material more cinematic while still firmly theatrical. He provides “interpolations”, including a scrolling introduction setting the historical stage, and also trims the text here, re-situates there, cutting the play to force the focus onto Richard and his nefarious machinations.
Cinematically, Olivier relies generally on long takes and fluid tracking shots, allowing the actor’s line deliveries to flow rather than chopping them up or over-punctuating through montage. There are more strictly cinematic elements, such as the optical overlays of the visitation of the ghosts on the battlefield at Bosworth, but the camera movement is mostly unobtrusive or minimal as when, for example, it subtly dollies forward and back onto Claire Bloom’s Anne as she delivers her lamentations.
Yet Olivier doesn’t ignore the camera, rather much the opposite. In the film’s greatest cinematic strategy, Olivier transmutes Richard’s stage asides—necessarily more projective and distributive in the theater, ordered to reach the bleachers—into cinematic direct address. Richard dispenses his darkly eloquent sarcasm right into the camera, his unflinching gaze pinning us to the screen. The close-ups are especially disquieting, his nimble morbid mind and his pointily accusatory nose too close for comfort, as he gives us and only us privileged glimpses behind closed doors both actual and mental. Yet such privilege is fatally proscribed, as we’re really prisoners to his treacherous wit. Thus he doth implicate us, and render us accomplice!
Other changes are more physical. One of the many DVD extras is an episode of the BBC series Great Acting, hosted by critic Kenneth Tynan, in which Olivier talks of his career in general, and Richard III in particular. The interview is fascinating, as it gives insight into his performance rationale and working methods. He speaks of altering his putty nose for the camera (like Orson Welles, Olivier never met a false nose he didn’t like), and reveals that one of the models for his conception of Richard was the Big Bad Wolf. In the end, all these importations make of Richard a multi-animal mélange: wolf, rat, pig, and stalking, molting owl or vulture. At times, he even recalls the vampire Nosferatu, exploiting that hawkish profile like a grotesque parody of John Barrymore.
Aiding and abetting this conception is Olivier’s vocal delivery. Taubin links Richard’s adenoidal squawk to Hitler’s abrasive bark, a vocal attack that is tyrannical and paranoid, monomaniacal but vexed, exhibiting a will to power yet a terror of usurpation. Richard may remain confidently irredeemable throughout the play, but especially as played by Olivier, he is also somewhat of a whiny tyrant who oscillates between murderous connivance and physical insecurity. Because he has “No delight to pass away the time / Unless to see my shadow in the sun / And descant on mine own deformity,” he can’t resist inflicting his deformity on others, through merciless, malformed actions.
Shadows are stressed visually throughout the film. They precede their persons into scenes or see them out, giving different shape to the characters, a sort of secret self truer to internal form. In one concise visual metaphor, Richard’s lumpen shadow muddies the hem of Anne’s pristine gown.
Claire Bloom’s Anne, though underdeveloped, provides a kind of through-line of grief. A steadily weakening wraith, she floats heavily, druggily throughout the film, particularly after being wooed by Richard, the man who has decimated her entire family. Her interactions with Helen Haye, as the Duchess of York (likewise underdeveloped) are like small bits of grace in a film without redemption.
Ralph Richardson, as Richard’s rube Buckingham, is nearly as brilliant as Olivier. Willingly assisting Richard with his murderous climb to the throne, Richardson’s Buckingham is brought short when pressed to murder the two children, Edward and York. So when Richard dismisses Buckingham with the famous “I am not in the giving vein today,” Richardson’s registering of betrayal is bloodcurdlingly palpable. Similarly, John Gielgud, as the doomed Clarence, imprints and elevates every truncated scene he’s in.
But there is no doubt as to whose show this is. Olivier is one of those special performers with both stage and camera presence. His gestures can be bold and big, concentrated and riveting. After tricking the townspeople into accepting him as king, he straightens his hump-backed frame, a proud Quasimodo, pressuring Buckingham to his knees and offering his deformed hand for a royal kiss. When he finally takes the throne, he does so with a histrionic flourish the sheer wind of which forces Anne, his enforced Queen, to collapse.
As evil as is Richard before being crowned, he is twice that afterward. Knowing he is more vulnerable as visible King than as invisible villain, his paranoia and savagery increase accordingly. He nonchalantly orders the children’s deaths (played here as a ghastly double smothering), and shouts, “Off with his head!” to anyone he perceives as obstacle. Olivier progressively isolates the character, with Richard murdering every ally, until he’s left with not even a horse. His insecurity manifests most strongly on the night before battle, as the whispering ghosts of his victims are all “sitting heavy in thy soul.” The power with which Olivier plays a villain he inverts here into a timorousness just as forceful. Only the thought of battle, of more killing, restores him (“Richard’s himself again…”), though not for long.
Richard’s death would seem horribly ignominious—the opposing forces slit his throat like a pig, then set upon him—yet Olivier transforms this “muddy death” into a thing of violent beauty. He plays the death throes to the hilt, literally. In a gesture that manages to be both elegant and ugly, he arches his humpback, balances his sword delicately near the hilt in his malformed hand, and strikes a ghoulishly theatrical, nearly balletic pose. In the Great Acting extra, Olivier characterizes Gielgud as celestial or spiritual, and himself as more “earth [and] blood.” In Richard III’s final scenes, Olivier combines all these elements into something unnerving, universal and close to the bone. It’s impossible to hate his hatefully human Richard.
Besides Olivier, the other star of the film is the restoration itself. In a demonstration extra, hosted by director Martin Scorsese, we see comparative frames, before and after restoration. While the old print had become a yellowy incomplete mess, the newly restored original Technicolor and VistaVision are now bright and beautiful, with the luscious vibrancy of an illuminated manuscript. ‘Tis a visual feast, indeed!
This royal treatment is adorned with extras. Besides Amy Taubin’s essay, there is audio commentary by playwright Russell Lees and John Wilders of the Royal Shakespeare Company; the BBC episode of Great Acting; production stills captioned with excerpts from Olivier’s autobiography; the restoration demonstration; and a rich selection of trailers.