Tag Archives: Laurence Olivier

21. Hamlet (1948)

Director:  Laurence Olivier


Alex – 7.0   Elliot – 7.2  IMDB 7.8  Rotten Tomatoes 8.4

Alex’s Commentary:

To be or not to be the best picture, that is the question. I’ve always viewed a “best picture” winner as a movie with a great original screenplay, amazing characters, a larger than life epic, or something unique that possibly we’ve never seen in a movie before. Obviously, Hamlet, being one of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays, is a well-known story with more memorable lines than I had remembered.  But is it a best picture? – I’m not so sure. The film was produced in England so it may be the first film we’ve watched that would be considered a “foreign” film. thw-2011-01-05-12h58m46s227However, I don’t believe this would unique enough to qualify for best picture.

The black and white production is atmospheric but stark and at times visually harsh. Similarly, the musical score I felt was overly melodramatic and distracting. Laurence Olivier, often considered one of the greatest Shakespearean actors, did win the Oscar for best actor and that is an award that is well deserved. He even proved to be an excellent swordsman. Is something rotten in Hollywood? I wouldn’t go that far but Hamlet is definitely not one of my favorite films. Good night sweet prince – on to 1949.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Hamlet is a take on William Shakespeare’s classic play that Sir Laurence Olivier directed and starred in.  The film won Sir Laurence Olivier two Oscars- one for his acting and one for best picture due to his producing role in the production of the film.  Olivier also appeared in an earlier best picture winner, 1940’s Rebecca directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Hamlet was the second film that Olivier directed and his second Shakespearean adaptation. Olivier is considered one of the greatest actors of the 20th century and this version of Hamlet is considered his seminal work.  Olivier was the first film actor to be elevated to peerage (knighted) for his work in film by the queen.  While Olivier obtained four Oscars during his long and prolific career, Hamlet is the only film for which he won a best actor award.  Olivier’s other Oscars besides the two for Hamlet, came from a special award for his work on his first film, Henry V, and a lifetime achievement award given to the knighted actor in 1978.  screen-shot-2013-03-30-at-5-59-01-pmHamlet is also the first film that we have reviewed where the director was also the leading actor in the film. While Olivier did not win the directing award, his achievement of directing a best picture where he also won best actor clearly solidifies his place in the annuls of Oscar history.

While the previous two films we have viewed from the 1940’s dealt with the post-war malaise in American culture and the despicable rise of anti-Semitism in America in the 1940’s, Hamlet pivots away from reality and takes a stab at the escapist entertainment of the golden age of Hollywood.  This import marked the first non-American film to win best picture and was the first film version of Hamlet to include sound. There have been seven post-war versions of Hamlet including this 1948 version, “Grigori Kozintsev‘s 1964 Russian adaptation; a film of the John Gielgud-directed 1964 Broadway production, Richard Burton’s Hamlet, which played limited engagements that same year; Tony Richardson‘s 1969 version (the first in color), Franco Zeffirelli‘s 1990 version starring Mel GibsonKenneth Branagh‘s full-text 1996 version; and Michael Almereyda‘s 2000 modernization starring Ethan Hawke”.  While I had seen a few of the other aforementioned adaptations, this was my first time watching this 1948 version.   

While many of the shots in this depiction of Hamlet seem staged like the theatrical production, it takes the introduction of phantasmagoria to become more abstract.   Using close-up angles and fog, Olivier symbolizes the arrival of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The special effects in the film held up well to modern standards in most scenes, with only the shots of the entire castle suffering from a lack of CGI or expensive budget.  On a somewhat related note, the voice of his father’s ghost coming from the helmet of his armor reminded me of how George Lucas styled Darth Vader in Star Wars.   Perhaps Lucas drew inspiration from this Olivier film.

Without writing too much of a book report on Hamlet, whose plot and subject matter is some of the most well-known in the entire cannon of English literature, I will instead focus on the cinematic elements.  This cerebral story, with many soliloquies and internal dialogue, has a tendency to drag a bit. With limited action for periods of time, the movie is largely saved by the peaks of action including flashes of violence and emotion. Hamley-Ophelia The acting is superb at parts, but does show flourishes of melodrama typical of earlier films.  Additionally, the sometimes dragging moments are disrupted by the hits of the Shakespearean dialogue with a performance of the “To Be or Not to Be” Monologue delivered with Olivier’s incredible acting chops.  Besides Olivier, the real star of this film is the soundtrack. Between the brilliant score played by the orchestra, the sound effects in the form of heartbeats and gusty corridors add tremendously to moments of introspection and eeriness.   

Overall, I found Hamlet to be a very traditional yet innovative portrayal of Shakespeare’s source material.   While the play was cut down to deliver a film 2.5 hours long, it still captured the major action and dialogue for which Hamlet is known.  In full honesty, Shakespearean English is not my favorite and watching this film was a little bit of a chore. Fortunately, there were sword fights and murder to break up the dense dialogue. Unfortunately, the film ceases to cross the line from cinema to entertainment for my particular tastes.   Olivier’s performance and direction breathed life into the already dramatic story and the themes of betrayal and loss are timeless motifs that will remain relevant for all time.  Additionally, in comparison to other best pictures which we have viewed throughout our journey, this film seemed to do much less to acknowledge the new realities facing post-WWII Europe/America.  While Hamlet is clearly a classical work, it’s hard to pivot from groundbreaking commentaries on antisemitism, treatment veterans returning after WWII and alcoholism that represented the subject matter of our last three entries.  I also preferred the films, The Red Shoes  and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which were both better films than Hamlet in the best picture category that year.  With that said, in order to truly enjoy this film you really need to commit with both of your love of literature as well as the melodramatic style of 1940’s cinema.   

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13. Rebecca (1940)

Director:  Alfred Hitchcock

Alex – 8.5   Elliot – 8.3    IMDB 8.3   Rotten Tomatoes 8.7

Alex’s Commentary:

After the astounding Technicolor visual feast of Gone With The Wind, one might feel that the return to a black and white film would be a step backward; however, given the dark and moody depiction of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, I couldn’t imagine the film not in black and white. In fact, the film won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White. Since the story is considered Gothic literature, the atmospheric and stark cinematography draws in the viewer.  tumblr_ork4zetrXJ1ue4wwmo1_500 It may just be my imagination but it seems that when the film is lighter in tone, the images are not as sharply contrasting as compared to the more exciting, suspenseful scenes that contain more extreme black and white shots. As with many of the films we’ve viewed to date, rain scenes are abundant. I was surprised at the lack of technical sophistication in certain shots, particularly those in the automobile with the obviously fake backgrounds.

I must admit that unlike the women in the Kindler household, I had not read Rebecca. Of course, given director Alfred Hitchcock’s unexpected plot twists, I was glad I was unfamiliar with the story.

This is our first film that I would classify as a mystery / thriller and certainly our darkest Best Picture winner. Laurence Olivier plays the mysterious widower ‘Maxim’ de Winter who meets and falls in love with a shy younger woman portrayed brilliantly by Joan Fontaine. Upon their return to Maxim’s mansion, Manderley, the “new” Mrs. De Winter enters a world foreign to her where she encounters Mrs. Danvers, the head of the household staff, and truly the creepiest character we have yet meet on our film journey.  Rebecca-candleJudith Anderson must have given some movie goers nightmares as she presents a stoic austere persona with an obsessive longing for the deceased “first” Mrs. De Winter. The extent of her mania becomes evident in the terrifying scene in which she attempts to entice the “new” Mrs. De Winter to leap out an open window.

Although Rebecca only won two Academy Awards, it received a total of 11 nominations including all of the major acting awards and Hitchcock’s first directorial nomination. I would be remiss not to mention the Franz Waxman original score that heightens the emotional ride. Rebecca was yet another enjoyable surprise along our Best Picture romp. If you have not seen the film, especially if you are a fan of Hitchcock or mystery/thrillers, it should be on your must see list.

Elliot’s Commentary:

As we begin the next decade of Best Picture winners, we are graced with our first film in the mystery genre, Rebecca.  Directed by the master of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca represents a fantastic turning point in the prolific director’s career.  However, it is very important to note that Rebecca is the only best picture win that Hitchcock received during his illustrious career.  While I am not trying to castigate the very institution that has inspired our journey through film history, I would be remiss not to mention the severe injustice of this fact.  Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese are both auteur directors whom the Academy has failed to give proper recognition to.  Both directors failed to have their best films recognized by the Academy, although each has had a more tertiary work win the honor.  At least Scorsese won Best Director to accompany his Best Picture win for the Departed, whereas Alfred Hitchcock failed to ever win Best Director honors.   I will try and keep an open mind in terms of my review of Rebecca, but the failure of the Academy to honor one of the best director’s in cinematic history is a blemish on both the authority and the judgment of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  Besides the aforementioned injustice, I really did enjoy Rebecca. 

Our 1940 winner is the second straight David O. Selznick production to win Best Picture, though it is completely different from the 1939 winner, Gone with the WindRebecca is graced with the subtle nuisances of Hitchcock’s filmmaking style, and layers beautiful cinematography with a devious and mysterious undertone.  The film begins with a voice-over by an unidentified woman yearning for a return to her days at Manderley, which it contrasts with images of an expansive estate in ruin.  After the glimpse of things to come, we are presented with the image of a young and beautiful woman working as a paid companion for the wealthy Edyth Van Hopper (Florence Bates).  The young woman, played by the stunning Joan Fontaine, is not credited with a first name, which alludes to her lack of significance in the aristocracy that employs her.  After her employer falls ill, the young woman is given the ability to explore Monte Carlo, where the two are vacationing.   large-screenshot-3During her brief freedom, the young woman begins to spend time with the widower, Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Olivier).  While their first introduction was odd, Maximilian was staring over a cliff and seemingly on the verge of suicide, the two quickly fall in love in a period of mere weeks.  Their newly blossomed love is consummated in marriage, and the young woman has now become the new Mrs. de Winter.  While the circumstances of the first Mrs. de Winter’s death have been briefly alluded to, the audience is only allowed to ascertain that she drowned in a boating accident.

As the modern setting of Monte Carlo is forgone for the Gothic charm and architecture of Maximilian de Winter’s palatial estate, Manderley, the movie takes a sinister change in tone.  The new Mrs. de Winter is introduced to her staff in a scene similar to Annie entering the house of Daddy Warbucks, minus the song and dance but with the addition of the creepy mistress of the house, Madam Danvers (Judith Anderson).  Madam Danvers wastes no time in making the new Mrs. de Winter feel inadequate, and incapable of filling the shoes of the first Mrs. de Winter.  As the story progresses, we learn that Madam Danvers had a very close relationship with the first Mrs. de Winter, and that she could have had a possible Lesbian infatuation with her employer.  This allegiance to her former employer makes Madam Danvers a direct threat to the new Mrs. de Winters and her acclimation to Manderley.

In classic Hitchcock fashion, the pleasant story that could have been unravels to reveal hidden secrets that have the possibility to derail the happy lives of the new Mrs. de Winters and her husband Maxime.  It would be an injustice to Hitchcock to describe the twists and turns of the Master of Suspense’s narrative, so instead I shall conclude my commentary with my overall thoughts and feelings towards the film.  Rebecca-rebecca-1940-23142390-512-384I certainly could not have predicted the chain of events that lead up to the destruction of Manderley.  I also am not giving away any spoilers, because we are aware of the estate’s demise in the first scene of the film.  I never read the Daphne du Maurier novel that the film was based on, but preliminary research indicates that the film was very true to the novel minus a few liberties it took to be in compliance with the production code.   Hitchcock would go on to direct another classic film based on a Daphne du Maurier  novel, 1963’s The Birds.  While I did enjoy Rebecca, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little underwhelmed by the film compared to some of Hitchcock’s more provocative films like Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho, and Vertigo.  However, compared to his films proceeding Rebecca, Hitchcock showed a clear stride forward under the supervision of David O’ Selznick.  This film is worth watching for the creepy Madam Danvers moments alone, and I was very pleasantly surprised with the quality of this lesser known Hitchcock work.


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