Criterion: Richard III, 1955


After tackling Henry V and Hamlet, Laurence Olivier directed and starred in his third and final Shakespeare feature, in spectacular VistaVision Technicolor. Many consider this to be his magnum opus, and as an actor, the character he is most commonly associated with. It has inspired many actors and performances, ranging from theatrical actors to punk rock singers (Johnny Rotten). It is undoubtedly a performance for the ages.

Unlike Polanski’s Macbeth, which I recently reviewed and highlighted that the character’s speeches to the camera were handled via internal monologue as voiceover, Olivier continues the tradition of speaking to the screen/audience as the ‘Vice ‘ character. One can argue which is the preferable method, but in the mid-1950s, the sort of revolutionary direction that Polanski undertook would have been too radical. Not to mention, the film would have lost something special in Olivier’s performance. His finest moments in the film are when he is speaking to us, beginning with the “Now is the winter of our discontent” to the infamous “My Horse!” line – although in fairness, the latter plea was desperately spoken to everyone.

As Olivier puts it, he prefers to work from the outside-in. He develops the look of the character and uses that as his starting point for the performance. In Richard III, he worse a long, dark wig, a prosthetic nose and walked with a hunched gait in order to demonstrate the character’s disability, which could be seen as his evil motivation. He wore brash, ostentatious costumes, which for half of the film made him appear as if a bird of prey. His look was ferocious, and blended together splendidly with the evil nature of Richard’s inner self.

The performance is the cornerstone of this production, and Oliver shines throughout. There are a couple of scenes where he was extra impressive. The two scenes in which he is scorned by, and later seduces The Lady Anne. He goes from being spit on by her after she suspects (rightfully) that he murdered her husband, to being manipulated into loving him. This is one scene in the play, which Olivier cuts into two in order to make it seem more plausible. Even that is a reach, but through the performance and Richard’s urging The Lady Anne to end him, he makes it somewhat believable. It does not hurt that Claire Bloom is up to the task of playing opposite him.

Other scenes that stand out are when Richard goes from a measured speaking voice, to lashing out at anyone and everyone within earshot. His moods were explosive, larger than life, and he stopped at nothing to achieve his ambitions. Yet, he was also a charismatic leader, which was on display at the Battle of Bosworth Field as he gives a rousing speech to rally his troops.

Olivier was not the only star in this vehicle. Sirs John Gielgud, Cedric Hardwicke, and Ralph Richardson. The other performances are more grounded, solemn, and more in tune with Shakespeare’s blend of theatrical acting, whereas Olivier contrasts them with his emotional and tonally flat reading. The peripheral cast are superb, but they are rigid, and upstaged by the flamboyant and electrifying Olivier. This contrast reminded me some of the British stage actors contrasting with method actors in Hollywood. Richardson’s performance in William Wyler’s The Heiress is an example of this, as he had to trade barbs with method actor Montgomery Clift. This enhanced that movie, just as the supporting performances do for Olivier’s production.

The film is not without flaws. Another contrast with Polanski’s Macbeth is that he shot exclusively on location. The majority of Richard III is shot on a stage, which gives it a more theatrical look and feel. Some of the stages were not very realistic, with obviously painted clouds as background and buildings that look like a theatrical production designer could have created them. The Technicolor, while superb for most of the film, makes these facades all the more evident, and at times it feels like we are watching a stage play that just happens to have a camera there.

There are other problems with the middle acts. The beginning and final acts are electrifying. The former is due to Olivier’s introductory speech and stage setting for what is to come, and the finale for the location shooting and the battle action. The middle seasons suffer as being plodding. Following Shakespeare dialogue is difficult without knowing the play already, and the original audience lived in a time where they would be aware of the history, which happened to be told through previous Shakespeare plays. We are not as in tune with that history, and it becomes difficult to follow the machinations of Richard as he consolidates his power by eliminating his enemies. The only obvious end is in a decapitation scene, but the outcome of The Lady Anne and the two princes are more muddled. Since Olivier had taken license with Shakespeare’s words in the beginning, he could have continued in order to make the play more understandable for a wider audience.

That leaves us with Olivier in arguably his best performance and without question his most iconic on film. The film stands up and is remembered because of him, and he carries it through the long running time of 160 minutes. Even though he is an anti-hero and easy to root against, he sparkles when he is on the screen and we want him to succeed just so we can see where his performance will head next. This is my favorite performance of his, but not my favorite film.

Film Rating: 7/10


Audio Commentary: Criterion has a good habit of using commentaries that complement the film and educate the viewer. Here they use two people involved with the theater, stage director Russell Lees and former governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company John Wilders. While they are educated on the film language, they share details about the theatrical nuances and how they are translated to film. Lees dissects the iambic pentameter style of verse, giving some background into how and why it was used during Shakespeare’s time. He also shows how Olivier deftly plays with the verse to make it oftentimes sound like he is speaking directly, whereas the other traditional actors tend to speak in a Shakespearian manner.

1966 Interview: This is from the BBC series Great Acting, where theatrical critic Kenneth Tynan interviews Olivier as a career retrospective. Olivier is a great subject out of character and talks candidly about various subjects. He does discuss the differences between his and Gielgud’s style, which he defines himself as ‘earthy’ and his rival as ‘spiritual.’ He also speaks about how significant his Richard performance became, and how he modeled the look and demeanor after Jed Harris in as uncomplimentary a fashion as possible.

Restoration demonstration: Martin Scorsese talks about the challenges with restoring this film. One was with the VistaVision print, which most labs cannot scan. Another major problem was that there had been cuts to the film, most notably for the American TV audience. They had to find a Premier print and use that as a guideline for what should be included in the original film, and then re-insert those scenes. In addition the normal scratches and blemishes, there were chemical stains and color fading, all of which had to be corrected digitally. Fortunately we are living in a golden age of film restoration, otherwise we might not be able to see the film as Olivier intended.

Criterion Rating: 8/10

Posted on October 25, 2014, in Criterions, Film and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This is the movie that introduced me to the Criterion Collection and I continue to regard it very highly. In fact, I enjoy Olivier’s performance so much, that I’m hesitant to watch Cumberbatch play the role in the next installment of The Hollow Crown (though I’m sure he’ll be magnificent). One thing I love about Olivier’s version is that when Richard of York states thoughtlessly that Richard “ought to bear me on your shoulder!” Richard (Olivier) turns and gives the boy such a vile, venomous look, that you know the fate of the princes has just been sealed. From my reading, that was something original that Olivier added, but it completely works.

  1. Pingback: 1955 List | Criterion Blues .....

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