Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

“A Horse, a Horse!” Olivier’s Greatest Vehicle

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Not that it needs a peg but, newly remastered by Criterion, Laurence Olivier’s 1956 version of William Shakespeare’s “Richard III” is unexpectedly topical thanks to the confirmation that a skeleton discovered beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, was indeed that of a much reviled 15th century British monarch.

The strongest and most spectacular of Olivier’s Shakespeare films, “Richard III” was another sort of show business landmark for being televised in color by NBC on Sunday afternoon, March 11, 1956, the same day that it opened theatrically in New York. Just short of seven years old, I saw it on a black-and-white TV and, whether I actually sat through the whole thing or not, it left an indelible memory. Strutting around in a luxuriant pageboy wig that, were it not black, might have been lifted off a Breck Girl, Olivier’s unctuous and malevolent Richard was the embodiment absolute evil—a villain ranking in my childhood cosmology with Hitler and Joe McCarthy. (The scene in which his henchman smothers the princes in the Tower was my second grade equivalent of the shower scene from “Psycho.”)

Seen, again on a monitor 57 years later, I was surprised to discover the most sumptuously florid color movie made in the 1950s UK this side of “The Red Shoes” as well as to find that it was not all Olivier all the time. The cast is remarkable though—it includes John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke, and even Stanley Baker, and might well be the source of my lifelong crush on Claire Bloom. Still, Olivier rules; the movie pretty much spoiled me for any other interpretation of the role. Criterion’s rerelease includes the same extras as their earlier version, along with a restoration demonstration hosted by Martin Scorsese and new notes by Amy Taubin, a critic never better than when drawing on her own experience and training as an actor.

Image: The Criterion Collection.

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  1. I love watching Olivier act in a Shakespeare play. He’s right up there at the top for me — perhaps only seconded by John Gielgud. You’re right, “Richard III” is likely his best vehicle, but I enjoyed “Hamlet” and “Henry V” too. (The latter has those great lines about “returning serve” with cannonballs — and the former contains my favorite Shakespeare verse: “I can be bound up in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space.”) Richard III is so good because he’s so bad (or at least upstart Will thought so). A golden-tongued villain: “And thus I clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ; / And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” Mmmm. So good. Thanks to Criterion for keeping these around for all to see.

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