Criterion Sunday 135: Rebecca (1940)

What a film, eh? Rebecca feels in many ways like the ur-text for every filmed gothic melodrama where people stand in gloomy rooms withholding secrets from one other, whilst dolefully looking out of frame clutching some treasured object. It’s all gripping novelistic stuff that most people will probably be familiar with already — a naïve, unnamed young woman (“I” in the novel) marries a wealthy landowner and finds she can never live up to her unseen but omnipresent (not least in the title) predecessor. It’s Hitchcock’s first proper Hollywood film, even if still largely set in England, and it’s made with panache, employing a fluid, gliding camera in glorious monochrome. Joan Fontaine pitches her role just the right side of coquetry, and Laurence Olivier has the gruff ways of a Mr Darcy type.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writers Joan Harrison and Robert E. Sherwood (based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier) | Cinematographer George Barnes | Starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson | Length 130 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 November 2016

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Criterion Sunday 105: Spartacus (1960)

There’s a certain quality to the classic Hollywood historical epic that by the mid-1950s had become pretty much fixed in the popular imagination, and is the kind of thing that is satirised in Hail, Caesar! (2016). In many ways, Spartacus feels like the culmination of these trends and a bookend of sorts, the sine qua non of the sword-and-sandals epic of the ancient world (aka the “peplum film” from those omnipresent flowing togas). The acting is largely excellent, with fine subtle work — when subtlety is required, but bombastic when not — from Kirk Douglas as the titular slave leader and Laurence Olivier as Crassus, a scheming Roman senator, not to mention Charles Laughton as his rival Gracchus. There are also more wooden efforts, but when they come, as with John Dall’s Glabrus, it’s a solid wood, a really finely-grained aged wood, the wooden hamminess of, say, Charlton Heston, which is after all very much within the generic convention. The direction is solid too, but this isn’t one of Stanley Kubrick’s usual films — he was brought on after production had started — and so it feels wrong to assess it as one of his steely auteurist pieces. Perhaps the strongest credit on the technical side is Russell Metty’s beautiful cinematography, particularly the shadowy interiors where deals are made and Spartacus’s will is most tested. In covering all these vicissitudes of fate (being set in pre-Christian Rome, religion is largely avoided), the film runs long, to be sure, but that’s hardly a criticism: it’s what the historical epic demands. There are the grandly-staged battle scenes, interspersed with smaller one-on-ones between Gracchus and Crassus, or Spartacus and his love interest Varinia (Jean Simmons). There’s also expert comedy relief from Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, introduced running a gladiator school but never one to stick around when things get tough. In short, it’s a fine film, a totem of Hollywood craft and large-scale organisation, and it’s never less than entertaining.

Criterion Extras: A full-to-bursting double-disc edition includes the usual commentaries, which I’ve yet to watch. There’s a clutch of deleted scenes, mostly just extra shots which were ditched, and a heavily cut version of the ending demanded by the Catholic Legion of Decency which entirely excises much of the pathos. There’s also a brief audio snippet of Gracchus’ death scene. There are a few minutes of vintage newsreels of the film’s production (it was one of the most expensive of its time hence the interest), including Kirk Douglas getting his chin print outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Promotional interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons from the time of the film’s release (edited absurdly to allow local news programmes to interpolate their own ‘interviewer’) are joined by an interview with Ustinov from 1992 as he reflects on his time on the production, fairly informative about the change of director, and the script credit issues, including a number of amusing anecdotes about his fellow actors. There are some Saul Bass storyboards for the fight sequences, and a huge number of production stills (as well as advertising material and even a comic book) with brief contextualising intertitles. Finally, but still very interesting, is some silent footage taken during the making of the film as the actors are trained up as gladiators.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick | Writer Dalton Trumbo (based on the novel by Howard Fast) | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons | Length 196 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 4 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1998, and at the film department in April 2000)

Criterion Sunday 82: Hamlet (1948)

If Olivier’s 1945 Henry V was filled with brightly patriotic colours, Hamlet plunges us back into Stygian monochrome gloom, albeit very attractively shot. However, for such a canonical text of English literature, it’s very difficult to inspire a viewer (well, me) to any great excitement, and this feels like a dutiful adaptation of the original, if thankfully somewhat shorter. No doubt many generations of schoolchildren have been marched into this and left feeling bored and uninspired, which isn’t really fair to the play, which has much to like in its writing. However, no one comes off as particularly likeable or sympathetic, least of all its petulantly entitled title character, and it really needs a younger actor to make the drama work (Olivier here is older than the actor who plays his mother). Still, the film is not entirely without merit, and there are some fine supporting turns.

Criterion Extras: Absolutely nothing whatsoever, except for a short essay in the booklet. Still, it’s a fine transfer of the film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson | Starring Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons | Length 155 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 February 2016

Criterion Sunday 41: Henry V (1944)

© The Criterion Collection

When Kenneth Branagh filmed his own dark and politically cynical vision of this play in 1989 it kick-started his career and marked a resurgence of Shakespeare on film, but Laurence Olivier was the original actor/director and puts the play and its hero in quite a different light. Of course, being made at the height of the Second World War, you might expect a more triumphant hue to proceedings. There’s also an admirable commitment to theatrical non-naturalism in the sets and setting — again, this may have been motivated by avoiding anything reminiscent of the actual conditions of war — but brings to my mind Rohmer’s later experiments in staging the Mediaeval story of King Arthur in Perceval le Gallois (1978). Indeed Olivier’s film itself starts through a recreation of a performance at London’s Globe theatre in the early-17th century (strikingly similar to the reconstruction now on the South Bank), before at length moving away from the theatre, without ever quite relinquishing the stagy feel, though that’s as much to do with the beautifully saturated Technicolor cinematography as with anything in the performances. Whatever its limitations, and however carefully it works to work around the more melancholy notes in the play (most obviously its coda of how Henry promptly lost France shortly afterwards), it’s still a fine staging of a classic English play.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Laurence Olivier | Writers Alan Dent and Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Robert Krasker | Starring Laurence Olivier | Length 136 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 June 2015