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Richard III

Richard III(1955)

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Home Video Reviews

Richard III (1955), the third and final of Laurence Olivier's cinematic mountings of Shakespeare as director and star, never quite received the amount of universal esteem that met his productions of Henry V (1945) and Hamlet (1948). Of the three films, it certainly has the most stagebound feel, and the adaptation has enough deviations from the Bard's text to inspire debate amongst purists. At bottom, though, the film still captures one of the theater's great performers assaying one of the theater's great villainous roles, and The Criterion Collection has done a handsome job of packaging it for DVD release, securing some 20 minutes of long-thought lost footage.

Briefly, the narrative takes place after the cessation of the War of the Roses, when the bitter Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Olivier) decides to spend his energies clearing his path for ascension to the British throne upon the death of his ill brother, Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke). These intrigues include the seduction of the newly-widowed Lady Anne Neville (Claire Bloom), the disgrace and jailhouse assassination of his other brother, the ascetic George, Duke of Clarence (John Gielgud), and the abduction and murder of Edward's young sons. Although these machinations eventually secure him the crown, maintaining power becomes another issue entirely, as brewing rebellion leads him to his fateful confrontation at Bosworth with Henry of Richmond (Stanley Baker).

Olivier's work before the camera in Richard III distinguishes the film much more than his work behind it. The role of the deformed despot has often been cited as Olivier's favorite, and his relish is obvious. As he plays Richard's amoral ambitions out directly to the camera, Olivier seemingly takes the viewer into his confidence, gently showing a perverse brand of puckishness as he does so. As director, he also wrested exceptional work from his distinguished supporting players, who also included Ralph Richardson as his craven ally Buckingham. The shortfall comes in Olivier's staging of the narrative for film, which is surprisingly static; it opens up, and wonderfully, for the action-filled denouement at Bosworth, but never before. Overall, though, it's a memorable effort.

Beyond restoring the print to Olivier's 175-minute cut, Home Vision did a fairly remarkable job with the overall image quality of this older film. Presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio and digitally restored, the filmmaker's use of color is undiminished in its vibrance, and noticeable glitches in the print are few and far between. The full-length commentary track, provided by playwright Russell Lees and former Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company John Wilders, was initially utilized on Criterion's release of Richard III to the laserdisc format in 1992. That fact does nothing to diminish their effective efforts in exploring the whys and wherefores of Olivier's creative choices, such as culling dialogue from Shakespeare's other histories to allow the narrative to stand on its own. They also serve to highlight the contrasts in acting approach between the method-tinged Olivier and the more classically-oriented Gielgud.

Chief amongst the extras on the second disc is the complete episode from the 1966 television series Great Acting in which Olivier undertakes a comprehensive overview of his career with critic Kenneth Tynan. A significant chunk of the broadcast is devoted to the role of Gloucester, and it's an overall must-see for anyone with appreciation of Olivier and his craft. In an unusual maneuver, the film was actually broadcast on British television concurrent with its original theatrical release. Offered on the second disc is a 12-minute "foretaste of the film" created for television audiences, which boasts footage of Olivier and his collaborators-- producer Alexander Korda, associate director Anthony Bushell, production designer Roger Furse, art director Carmen Dillon-- at work on the production. The theatrical trailer and a gallery of production stills, comments by Olivier, and lobby posters round out this remarkable package.

For more information about Richard III, visit Criterion Collection. To order Richard III, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jay S. Steinberg