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DVD SAVANT

Richard III


Richard III
Criterion 213
1955 / Color / 1:66 anamorphic 16:9 / 158 min. / Street Date February 24, 2004 / 39.95
Starring Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Cedric Hardwicke, Pamela Brown, Claire Bloom, Laurence Naismith, Stanley Baker
Cinematography Otto Heller
Production Designer Roger Furse
Art Direction Carmen Dillon
Film Editor Helga Cranston
Original Music Sir William Walton
Written by Colley Cibber, David Garrick from the play by William Shakespeare
Produced and Directed by Laurence Olivier

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Shakespeare and Laurence Olivier fans can already obtain Criterion's disc of Hamlet, but this two-disc set of his later Richard III will be even more of a must-have. Not only is the 1955 movie more rare, according to Bruce Eder the disc restores nearly twenty minutes lopped off early in its release. Add on a set of extras that would attract any theater fan, and Criterion has come up with a very desirable item.

Synopsis:

With King Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke) near death, Richard the Duke of Gloucester (Laurence Olivier) puts his plan into effect - to divide the royals, snuff out the proper heirs and get himself crowned King. This includes wooing The Lady Anne (Claire Bloom), denouncing his brother George the Duke of Clarence (John Gielgud), laying a trap for The Lord Hastings (Alec Cunes) and using The Duke of Buckingham (Ralph Richardson) to hasten a coronation. Then it's off to more murders (the boy-heirs to the throne), and the taking of a hostage to secure the allegiance of Lord Stanley (Laurence Naismith. But the Lord Dorset (Douglas Wilmer) flees to safety and returns in short order with Henry, the Earl of Richmond (Stanley Baker) to take back the usurper's crown on the field of battle at Bosworth.

English majors and theater fans probably need read no further, as any of them are going to know a lot more about Richard III than this reviewer. Everything about this picture is impressive. Even the critics called it Laurence Olivier's best job of adaptation and direction. His black-hearted villain ranks up with the nastiest ever, and he's surrounded with talent equal to his own - Richardson, Gielgud, Claire Bloom. Coming at the movie from the position of someone unschooled in Shakespeare, the poetry of the play is fascinating in itself. Like watching a fine ballet, there's a keen awareness that finer points of art, acting and theatrical history are there to be discovered.

Anyone can respond to the intrigues of the play and Richard's unlimited gall as he presses forward on his mad adventure. The crookback's schemes seem timeless, whether building an entire persona based on calculated lies, or enjoying the foolishness of co-conspirators like Ralph Richardson's Buckingham, who underestimates his friend's ambition. Other things may be confusing to the ignorant, such as what exactly becomes of Claire Bloom's Lady Anne, or why the Queen and Jane Shore are dropped from the story entirely. 1

The story changes its tone and scope when it leaves the soundstage and moves to a real Spanish plain for the Bosworth battle. Richard's nastiness overwhelms the stylized castle sets, but out in the open air, he already seems defeated. The picture changes gears to epic scale a bit awkwardly.

Otherwise, it's fascinating all the way through, especially with all the educational aids offered by the DVD format.


Criterion's DVD of Richard III is a handsome presentation free of unnecessary frills. The transfer is surprisingly clear and colorful, and only a few scenes (the recovered ones) show a hint of additional grain. The liner notes say that the transfer was made from a 35mm CRI, with the missing material from surviving prints. On a large 16:9 monitor the enhanced picture is very attractive. The VistaVision framing is much better than the flat clips in the film's extras.

Criterion again pares down the DVD format to its useful essentials without making us sit through tiresome animated menus. In keeping with their strictly academic policy, there are no new docus to fill up the extras list or entertain us. Every added value item is a prime research source, something that would directly interest a fan or a scholar.

Shakespeare adepts will listen intently to the audio commentary by Russell Lees and John Wilders. Their opinions have many answers about the adaptation of the play, including Olivier's dropping of key lines. Richard no longer reveals his motive as pure villainy (even I remember this from the Ian McKellen "fascist" version) and some key lines are imported from other Shakespeare plays.

Disc two gets us straight to the content we want to see. Great Acting: Laurence Olivier is a lengthy sit-down between the actor and critic Kenneth Tynan filmed in 1966. Olivier goes through his whole career up to that point, step by step.

A 1955 network promo begins with "A foretaste of the film", a text line that will tickle any trailer-maker. It shows some behind the scenes shots of Shepperton studios, the editors and designers at work and Olivier entering a screening room with Alexander Korda and actor/director Anthony Bushell. There's also an original color trailer and a large image gallery accompanied by appropriate quotes from Olivier's autobiography.

Bruce Eder's liner notes straighten out the film's odd production history. The reason it has been so difficult to see here is that it was initially broadcast (flat, and in B&W) on network televison, and therefore was not given a wide release. Few people saw it in its original VistaVision proportions.

The disc has removable English titles which radically increase the accessibility of Shakespeare's language. With this format I can follow and understand what's going on much better than I could watching a live performance or simply reading the text.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Richard III rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: New high-definition digital transfer of full-length film, including newly discovered footage; Commentary by playwright Russell Lees, joined by John Wilders, former Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company; Great Acting: Laurence Olivier, a 1966 BBC interview with Olivier by renowned theater critic Kenneth Tynan; Stillls and posters, featuring excerpts from Olivier's autobiography On Acting; 12-minute television trailer. Essay by Bruce Eder
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 24, 2004


Footnotes:

1. It's also the admission of a genre film fan to find so many familiar faces among the cast. Douglas Wilmer The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is the Lord Dorset, Laurence Naismith Jason and the Argonauts is Lord Stanley, and frequent horror actors Michael Gough and Michael Ripper are Dighton and Forrest, a pair of nefarious murderers. After all the twisted horror versions of this story, the original Shakespeare telling is even more interesting ... at least I knew the general outlines of the story.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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