Olivier's "Hamlet" 1948

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Belle
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Olivier's "Hamlet" 1948

Post by Belle » Mon May 04, 2015 5:37 am

Here's one of the most fabulous film scores you'll ever encounter; William Walton's "Hamlet". I've searched everywhere in vain for the original soundtrack for years but I've found this version from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields on U-Tube, where Marriner uses the original Walton orchestration. Trouble is this recording is actually a Shakespearean "scenario" with the voice of John Gielgud. It spoils the score, IMO.

Though there are some parts of the film score which are faux 'Elizabethan era' music - which was fashionable in films at the time, right up to the early 70's - the majority of the score is superb. Who will ever forgot those closing minutes of the film when Hamlet's body is taken "like a soldier" to his tomb high up on those steps. This is dramatized so that the soldiers' movements are exactly in sync with the music and the moody, long-shot framing of those silhouetted figures providing a stunning and emotional climax to the earlier proceedings. The final item of the score is "Funeral March" and I'd advise anyone to listen to it. I was on my knees with this one, especially the crushing moments from 37'37" to 38'40"!!

The photography and mise-en-scene for Olivier's "Hamlet" is taken straight out of the Orson Welles chiaroscuro model as used in "Citizen Kane". Though the other Shakespearean films made by Olivier are very good, this one in monochrome is visually daring, easily the best and uses the camera to choreograph metonymically the main themes of the play. It's actually a very brilliant film and, in many ways, quite avant garde. I don't know how Olivier was able to achieve this, but its a possible subject for a dissertation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TEDYlp7jpi0

If anyone ever doubted the legitimacy of film acting here's the first part of a 5 part program made in 1966 with Kenneth Tynan interviewing Laurence Olivier. In this he discusses his films. It's insightful and rewarding (remember to keep moving to the next section at the end of the one before): here was an extraordinarily intelligent, perceptive and imaginative human being.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ug5xZjSOC0U

jbuck919
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Re: Olivier's "Hamlet" 1948

Post by jbuck919 » Mon May 04, 2015 6:39 am

I find the film dated and suffering from too many cuts. (While not dated, Olivier's late King Lear is also too severely cut.) Too many decisions made by a great actor to feature him and his cast and too little Shakespeare.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

Belle
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Re: Olivier's "Hamlet" 1948

Post by Belle » Mon May 04, 2015 6:52 am

Undoubtedly the entire play, sans editing, would not have stood a chance at the film box office. But film has the unique ability to visually display lots more information than a play can and much more 'economically'. All Shakespearean plays transferred to film have been edited, but I still regard Olivier's film of "Hamlet" a masterpiece of acting, editing, production design and cinematography. Then there's the music.... And, virtually all of those other actors in "Hamlet" were almost unknown to general audiences (except, possibly, a young Jean Simmons and aged Felix Aylmer). They were essentially stage actors, hence their excellent understanding of the play and how to deliver the lines convincingly.

If anything, the cult of personality is a feature of comparatively more recent Shakespeare transferred to film. See Ken Branagh, Mel Gibson, Laurence Fishburn, Burton and Taylor, de Caprio, Danes even dear old Dr. Spock himself. Then there are the egregious treatments, one in particular from Baz Lurhmann. It was all about "Baz"!! (Isn't everything?!)

Give me "dated" any day.

Do try and watch the Tynan interview with Olivier which I provided on my first post. It's in little segments of about 9 minutes each (for some unknown reason). What it demonstrates is that Olivier was not only a great actor but a phenomenal intellect who had a great understanding of human behaviour. His comments about the essential metaphor of Shakespearean tragedy as being (he says 'roughly') about a character being a perfect statue with a tiny fissure in the hand. He says that Shakespeare dramatized how that fissure makes the statue crumble and disappear. It's a compelling idea and embraces the 'fatal flaw' narrative about which we all know. And Olivier goes further to claim that the 'flaw' is almost always (not always) accompanied by 'self deception' in the central character. Othello claims he is 'not easily jealous' (where have I heard THAT before??) but that, in fact, the opposite is true of Othello - it's his greatest weakness. (I would say self-deception is a major predicament more generally for many people with "issues" - I've certainly detected that myself in interactions with troubled individuals.) What is theatre anyway, if not there to reveal something of significance about the human condition?

John F
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Re: Olivier's "Hamlet" 1948

Post by John F » Mon May 04, 2015 7:35 am

There's no question that Olivier was a "legitimate" actor. He proved it on the stage again and again. But I'm one of those who maintains that film acting is not real acting in a sense that I recognize. The actor is the director's tool, his work is controlled, photographed out of order, and edited by others from multiple takes chosen by them, so he never actually gives a performance of his role. Too much of the actor's function and responsibility is out of his control.

That said, Olivier's Shakespeare films are an exception of sorts, since he not only starred in them but directed them himself, and produced two of them. Thus he had more control over what the audience sees of him than most film actors do, including the other actors in his own films.
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Re: Olivier's "Hamlet" 1948

Post by Belle » Mon May 04, 2015 10:48 am

Your point is well taken and we've had this discussion before. However, I still disagree. It's a little like asking whether a pianist or orchestra are in control of their work when in a recording session because the producer can edit, organize sections of the work based on (often multiple) aesthetic judgments to be subjected to computer enhancements of all kinds. In short, the work can be fragmented just as any acting performance on the screen. Now, as to whether that's NOT real musicianship because it isn't achieved over one complete, real-time performance and is subject to the whims of the recording industry and the concomitant loss of control seems to be a non-question. It's simply a different FORM of musicianship and acting than that which is achieved before an audience, but no less "authentic" for that. One simply cannot get away with non acting, no matter what a Director instructs or how a film is edited, without that non-acting, bog standard performance being obvious to the whole world.

There are legendary examples of poor acting on film and one need only look back to the 1930's and an actor named George Brent to find a really risible on-screen non-performance!! No doubt the director gave him the best instructions in the world. Alas, to no avail. A suit of armour would have more charisma than George Brent; Lassie, greater acting skills. Then there's that 'old coot' recalcitrant Walter Brennan who played the same role - sans teeth - for his entire career. He was the bane of the existence of old "pappy" John Ford and his macho cohort for more than 30 years. Some strange bond of loyalty and affection kept him in the Ford coterie, but could he act? Certainly not.

Then there is the additional fact that stage actors are also instructed by a Director who has a vision of the work. Olivier himself confesses in his interview with Tynan that sometimes he was not able to achieve the same result more than once when acting on the stage - that each night was different.

See Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction".

John F
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Re: Olivier's "Hamlet" 1948

Post by John F » Mon May 04, 2015 11:25 am

Belle wrote:Your point is well taken and we've had this discussion before. However, I still disagree. It's a little like asking whether a pianist or orchestra are in control of their work when in a recording session because the producer can edit, organize sections of the work based on (often multiple) aesthetic judgments to be subjected to computer enhancements of all kinds. In short, the work can be fragmented just as any acting performance on the screen.
Certainly. But except with some opera recordings and others in which complicated logistics affect who can record what when, the music is recorded in its proper order from beginning to end; the musician is actually giving a performance, as a film actor never can. We aren't talking about a "different form of musicianship," as you suggest.. And the editing of a recording session (we're not talking about live recordings, or about direct-to-disc 78s) does not take the performance out of the musician's hands; it's almost always to correct mistakes, or sometimes to choose a take that the musician her/himself prefers. The musician has final approval of the edited result, and can prevent its release if she/he doesn't want to accept responsibility for it. Clifford Curzon recorded Mozart's last concerto three different times, with George Szell, Istvan Kertesz, and Benjamin Britten, and approved none of them; Decca released the Britten only after Curzon's death, making us wonder what he could possibly have found wrong with it. But Decca had no choice but to grin and bear it.

I certainly agree that film acting is not the same as film acting - indeed, I've said so. And I'll agree to call it "film acting" because there are no other words for it. But I still say that the film actor never gives a performance of her/his role, never grasps and shapes the performance as a whole, and in that respect, what she/he does is acting only in a very limited sense. And here I'll stop repeating myself, because I'm never going to agree with you and it doesn't look like you're going to agree with me. :)
Last edited by John F on Mon May 04, 2015 4:08 pm, edited 1 time in total.
John Francis

Belle
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Re: Olivier's "Hamlet" 1948

Post by Belle » Mon May 04, 2015 11:32 am

When digital recording technology arrived, not so long after the CD, and I was shopping for very good hi-fi equipment I remember having a discussion with a fellow about the artistic compromises from recordings. This same argument was being had at the time in the British "Gramophone" magazine - about who is really in control. If a producer is powerful enough - particularly with a more inexperienced performer, say, like David Fray - then it's a political problem because of egos, the market etc., but commercial decisions are made. I do suggest that film acting is not different from this loss of control but the very act of shooting a film out sequence means an actor MUST be on top of his vision of the role, otherwise it's a disaster.

Now, here's an acting segment marred by complete mediocrity and blandness. I would never react with such bloodlessness should somebody I care for be murdered:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4MVMycDLwU

So, there is acting and there is playing the same part over and over. There are many very great film actors, such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson. You might think the latter plays himself but, no, there's great subtlety in his every move. The man is extraordinary.

On the DVD of Wyler's "Ben Hur" which I have there is supplementary 'bonus' material and one of these is the screen tests for the scene between Judah and Messala when they meet and throw the javelin ("where the beams cross") after many years. An Italian actor and Leslie Nielson did the test and I can assure you that compared with the final film - Heston and Stephen Boyd - the screen test is one-dimensional, flat, uninspiring and a sobering lesson in the skills required for real acting. I found it on U-Tube; see for yourselves:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_4jG0MfzYM

Heston and Boyd had it in spades for "Ben Hur". And the look on the face of Boyd as he says to Judah (who acknowledges that Messala once saved his life as a child), "it's the best thing I ever did" is a thing of real beauty. What an actor!!

As you say, we'll never agree but it's a great discussion to have and I'm between concerts in Vienna so I have the time to contemplate and write about these things!! And it's a pleasure, as usual, exchanging ideas with a formidable brain (I don't suffer fools gladly).

In my earlier posting I mentioned the soldiers at the end of "Hamlet" carrying the Prince up the stairs to his tomb. It was, of course, "the stage" as Horatio had previously said, "let him be carried, like a soldier....and bid the soldiers shoot". So, it was a ceremonial act not an interment.

stenka razin
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Re: Olivier's "Hamlet" 1948

Post by stenka razin » Sun Jun 05, 2016 8:32 pm

One of the greatest movies of all time. Olivier is superb and the other cast members are excellent. In addition, Walton's score is magnificent. 4 stars. 8)


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John F
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Re: Olivier's "Hamlet" 1948

Post by John F » Mon Jun 06, 2016 12:01 am

jbuck919 wrote:I find the film dated and suffering from too many cuts. (While not dated, Olivier's late King Lear is also too severely cut.) Too many decisions made by a great actor to feature him and his cast and too little Shakespeare.
I agree about the cuts in "Hamlet," which I'm sure were imposed on him by the rigid screening time limits of that period. An absolutely complete "Hamlet" like Kenneth Branagh's is rare in the theatre - cuts are almost always made - but the Olivier movie goes too far. By the time Olivier finally came to do "King Lear" as a TV fim, he was physically so frail that he'd long since retired from acting on the stage, and his Lear had to be pieced together from many, many takes. It would have done his memory better service had he said no. The two Shakespeare movies in between, "Henry V" and "Richard III," are brilliantly acted and brilliantly directed, and Walton's scores are certainly effective.

He continued to act for many years after "Richard III," I was fortunate enough to see him in the theatre fairly often in the '60s, and there are films of some National Theatre productions that have been made available on DVD, notably Strindberg's "Dance of Death" in which he gives a harrowing performance as the captain.
John Francis

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