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Richard III: The Criterion Collection

Olivier's Shakespeare: The Criterion Collection

It's not giving anything away to report that Richard, Duke of Gloucester, perishes at the end of Richard III. However, simply dying in the final act doesn't guarantee one of Shakespeare's leading men the status of a tragic hero. For all of his charisma, Richard is not Hamlet nor Lear, Othello nor Macbeth — figures of great nobility who crumble due to the stamp of one defect in character, bringing down the lives of others, and even entire kingdoms, with their eventual ruin. What makes Richard different is that he isn't a flawed human being. Rather, he's a flawed specimen of humanity. He's not as much a person as he is a virus, seeking out a series of hosts on which to impart his malevolent intentions. He's not a nice guy, and he's more than happy to let the audience know this with his first soliloquy ("I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days"). So why then does Richard III endure as one of Shakespeare's most popular scripts? It lacks the innocence of Hamlet or the romance of Romeo and Juliet, but by some accounts it was the most-produced Shakespeare play between 1700-1900 (in the Colley Cibber adaptation). Folks wanting to get a look at the Bard's most famous blackguard can do far worse than watching Laurence Olivier's 1955 film production. The plot itself defies simple summary, this being Shakespeare's second-longest work, just behind Hamlet: With the Wars of the Roses at a conclusion and the House of York victorious, Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke) assumes the throne as the King of England, granting his brother George (John Gielgud) the title Duke of Clarence, whilst Richard (Olivier) becomes Duke of Gloucester. But while the noble title may be enough for George, Richard is far from satisfied — born with a limp and a hunched back, he views people as nothing more than objects to fit within his conspiracies, and he determines to win the crown, first by dispatching his brother Clarence and then imprisoning his nephews in the Tower of London. He also woos the Lady Anne (Claire Bloom), the Lancastrian daughter-in-law of the former king, Henry VI.

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While Richard III did not arrive on screen until the mid-'50s, like all of Olivier's Shakespearean films, it's based on a stage production, this one mounted at the Old Vic in 1944. Olivier at first was worried about taking the part — just as his Oedipal Hamlet arrived after John Gielgud's romantic, age-defining turn, this Richard would come on the heels of one of the most popular production in decades. Typical of Olivier's anti-Method, "outside-in" style, he began fashioning his Richard as if from a painting, with the large nose, the reedy voice, the rapidly blinking eyes, the feminine, coal-black hair. In fact, Olivier's two main influences during this process were a film producer he particularly disliked and the animated version of the Big Bad Wolf. It's since become regarded as one of Olivier's most indelible creations, and even though the size of the prosthetic nose was reduced for the screen, he still plays the part large enough to fill the Globe Theater to the topmost tier. Arriving in 1592/93, Richard III completed Shakespeare's Wars of the Roses tetralogy (preceded by the three Henry VI plays), and it was his first actual hit. No mystery there — audiences find villains more interesting than heroes, and via Richard's soliloquies we are invited to join him on his gruesome quest for the throne (these famous soliloquies, by the way, aren't just a character's introspective asides — they're brutal blood-pacts made with the audience itself). Various actors have employed different tactics over the years to make Richard interesting or somehow uniquely theirs — for Olivier, the essential humor of Shakespeare's dialogue seems to ring the most true. Whether wooing Anne ("Was ever woman in this humor won?") or declaring his brother George's imminent death in a matter-of-fact tone ("He cannot live … I hope"), listening to Olivier's Richard allows us to enjoy the usurping of power just as much as he does. Yes, being a heartless bastard for a couple of hours is fun. Cineastes looking for added value can enjoy the colorful, minimalist art direction, along with Olivier's bold use of long takes, which run five minutes and longer, capturing streams of flawless dialogue in Shakespeare's rich iambic pentameter. It's a nice reminder that some folks are actors — the rest are just movie stars.

Criterion's two-disc DVD release of Richard III features a strong anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a Technicolor source-print that looks nearly perfect with accurate flesh-tones and vivid detail, while audio comes on a DD 1.0 channel. Disc One features a commentary from the 1994 Laserdisc featuring playwright Russell Lee and Royal Shakespeare Company governor John Wilders. Disc Two features an extensive 1966 television interview of Olivier by critic Kenneth Tynan (including film clips), a collection of posters and production stills, and two trailers. Dual-DVD keep-case.

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