Janus Films/Criterion Collection

Laurence Olivier as Richard III and Ralph Richardson as the Duke of Buckingham in Olivier’s Richard III, 1955

“Restoration” is a lovely word—at least when applied to a work of art rather than, say, an unlamented dynasty—with its promise that a lost or damaged object can be given back in its original state. With cinematic restorations the effect can be uncanny, as if along with the film the whole surrounding era when the film was first shown were being retrieved. The last day of the New York Film Festival this year was marked by the unveiling of a restoration (undertaken by the Film Foundation) of such exceptional quality that many of those watching seemed positively dazed.

Laurence Olivier’s 1955 Richard III is far from being a lost film, but over the years it has often been seen in abridged and faded versions, and even though a Criterion DVD that restored it to proper length was released eight years ago, nothing could prepare one for the impact of this film on a large screen in VistaVision dimensions, with colors impeccably balanced and a resplendent soundtrack audible in its most delicate nuances. A movie that has come to be taken for granted—that has been amusingly parodied (notably by Peter Sellers and Monty Python), and at times dismissed as a relic of old-school stodginess—could suddenly be experienced as if for the first time. The first time, for me and for most other spectators back in 1955, was in truth nothing like this. Many millions of viewers saw the film’s world premiere televised on NBC, abridged, in black and white, and interrupted by occasional messages on behalf of General Motors—a cultural milestone but a grossly inadequate presentation.

When it opened theatrically in New York, as Martin Scorsese pointed out in his introductory remarks at the festival screening, Richard III’s spacious splendor was reduced to the capacity of a small art theater. The VistaVision restoration reveals a film scaled to the proportions of a 1950s epic—a very British epic, certainly, dripping with suggestions of national heritage, taking the Crown of England as its central visual motif and stinting nothing in the way of brocade and heraldic trumpets and all-around ceremonious pageantry—and keenly aware of what visual expectations a moviegoer would have in the era of spectacles like Ivanhoe and The Egyptian and Helen of Troy.

The vibrant reds and yellows that fill the screen have the eye-popping brightness of a widescreen poster. The corridors and throne rooms through which we roam are not moldering stone heaps but as spick-and-span as a model castle just out of its Christmas wrappings. It’s a bright and sharply defined medieval world being offered up, suitable for the kind of untroubled heroism so notably absent from the proceedings. Richard III could not have been better chosen as a vehicle for undercutting the moral assumptions of most epics of that era, an effect only enhanced by the grand luxurious trappings. When Olivier gazes winkingly at the camera to engage the audience directly in his malevolence, he seizes intimate control of the giant screen by comical subversion.

The goading energy of that opening monologue spills over into the whole film, and also demonstrates the free hand that Olivier takes with the Shakespearean text, as he excises what he doesn’t need (or won’t need until later) and weaves in an extensive chunk of Henry VI, Part 3. He shows the sovereign disregard of an old-school showman for authorial intentions, chopping up and reordering scenes to achieve a continuity more in line with the norms of 1950s cinematic storytelling, dropping in serviceable bits of dialogue from antique crowd-pleasing versions of the play by Colley Cibber and David Garrick, and omitting whatever does not serve his scheme. This notably involves the entire omission of the railing figure of Henry VI’s widow Margaret, whose prophetic curses on all the central characters of the play take up a large portion of the original text, in scenes whose extreme stylization would have strained the film’s tone to the breaking point. Olivier’s pathway to Shakespeare was through realism, as he made plain in a 1966 interview with Kenneth Tynan, so it was natural for him to excise those more ritualistic elements of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, elements much in evidence in Richard III.*

With workmanlike cunning he worked out a visual scenario, a VistaVision equivalent of Elizabethan dumb show, to accompany the text, using every possibility of staging to clarify in the most literal fashion the meaning of passages and the identity of characters—when Richard speaks of the queen’s brother Lord Rivers as “her brother there,” Rivers is clearly singled out in the back of the frame, glimpsed between pillars, and when the queen later on addresses the Tower as “you ancient stones” we see the Tower looming just across the way through a window. He adds a character—Jane Shore, the lover of Edward IV and the Duke of Hastings, so seductively incarnated by Pamela Brown that she imposes her presence in a nearly mute performance—and plots a series of strategic walk-ons for her, purely to avoid puzzlement over the many references to “Mistress Shore.” Such devices are not designed as substitutes for the language but as a means to let the language exercise its full power by clearing away possible sources of confusion. Olivier wants every line to be understood in full, and if he thinks it cannot be so understood he changes it or leaves it out.


It might seem self-evident that an English-language Shakespeare film should foreground language—otherwise why bother?—and should not seem embarrassed or act as if it wanted to hide the language or make it pass for something more ordinary; but this is not always the case, as witness the recent Ralph Fiennes adaptation of Coriolanus in which the words often seemed a halfhearted interpolation in the midst of sustained automatic weapons fire. A film ought at the least to acknowledge that Elizabethan playgoers went to the theater as much for the language as the story—for language exalted, salty, extreme, passionate, and commandingly cadenced—and that however much they went for the story that language told, they were equally aware that the story was there in large part to provide openings and occasions for language to cut loose at full power.

This acknowledgment Olivier certainly accomplished in Richard III. However freely he manipulated Shakespeare’s text, he made a film in which language is central and in which all other elements—including the countless bits of nonverbal business, like Richard sliding down a bell rope with diabolical panache before forcing Buckingham to his knees, or instilling terror into the young Duke of York with a malicious glare—are designed to sustain, illuminate, and comment on that language. Of all those elements the most pervasively powerful, as the restored soundtrack made very evident, is William Walton’s score, so thoroughly interwoven with the words as to bind the film together in operatic fashion. (If there is a falling-off in the film it is the anticlimactic Battle of Bosworth Field, chiefly because here the Shakespearean text fails to provide much in the way of language, and so we really are at last in the final reel of a 1950s film, on location in Spain as extras contend a little disconnectedly in medieval get-up. It goes on long enough that one suspects Olivier wanted to be sure that those who were waiting for a battle scene felt they had gotten their money’s worth.)

Richard III was an irresistibly popular role from the start. In rougher eras it was a necessary test for actors who wanted to show what they were made of, and even in the Disneyfied 1950s Richard could be sold as a heightened form of Captain Hook, a puppet-show emblem of unalloyed villainy, the ultimate wicked stepfather, all without causing much undue alarm—even if a line like “I wish the bastards dead” was medicine somewhat harsher than Radio City Music Hall or other entertainment palaces of the day generally provided. But for at least some of the children who watched it back in 1955, Olivier’s movie was as naked an exposition of political calculation and deception, and of the manifold resources available to an accomplished hypocrite, as we had ever been allowed. (Richard assuming the mask of piety by obtrusively parading with prayer book in hand made a swift, sharp, instantly graspable cartoon.) Its atmosphere of universal mistrust and danger would blend in with the fragments of twentieth-century history as they broke into consciousness, and the Duke of Gloucester’s method of achieving power would be conflated by and by with Hitler’s.

The knowing humor of Olivier’s Richard III—above all in his exchanges with Ralph Richardson’s incomparable Buckingham, the very picture of a sly complicity never quite as sly as it imagines—distills the experience of having watched European history unfold from the 1920s through the 1950s, and of contemplating perhaps the attitudes and alliances that shifted under the pressures of the times. Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film of Richard III, with Ian McKellan, would dot the i’s by explicitly conjuring an alternate- history fantasia of Richard as Mosleyite usurper ruling over a 1930s-style fascist Britain. But Olivier’s film, for all its stately air of being the ultimate high-quality cultural commodity of its day, guaranteed by NBC and General Motors, has nevertheless a stinging sense of realpolitik at its core.

The lacerating sarcasm of Olivier’s Richard takes many forms—it is a performance remarkably nuanced in its variations, for all the fright-mask moments that have lent themselves so well to parody—and manages remarkably to bring out rather than eclipse the extraordinary contributions of the other actors, Richardson, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Alec Clunes, and the rest. The film’s disappointing financial performance cost us the Macbeth that Olivier really wanted to make, a grievous loss no doubt, yet it is hard to imagine him making a more enduringly fine Shakespeare film than Richard III has turned out to be.


Richard III was not the only Shakespearean high point on view at the film festival. The festival’s main slate included Caesar Must Die, a film by the brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani that somewhat unexpectedly took the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year—unexpectedly if only because the Tavianis, once very visible as filmmakers due to the international success of films like Padre Padrone (1977) and The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982), have worked with diminished success and limited distribution in recent years. Now in their eighties, they have made a film in a mode rather different from the work for which they are best known, which includes full-bodied, visually gorgeous literary adaptations such as Kaos (1984; after Pirandello) and Night Sun (1990; after Tolstoy).

Caesar Must Die—a seventy-five-minute film shot mostly in black and white—involves a production of Julius Caesar mounted within the maximum-security section of Rebibbia prison, a facility located in a Roman suburb, as part of an ongoing theater program under the direction of Fabio Cavalli. I use the deliberately vague word “involves” because it is easier to say what the film is not than what precisely it is. It is not except briefly a record of a production; it is not a documentary on the preparation of that production, or on the inmates who make up the cast; nor can it quite be called a fiction film, although many exchanges appear to be scripted. We see (in color) the final moments of the performance, and then the cast members being brought back to their cells. We see (having now switched to black and white) moments sampled from the auditions, conducted by Cavalli; and then for the remainder of the film we see chiefly a series of scenes from the play, a version pared down to the bone (and notably lacking female characters), scenes that are at times interrupted, briefly, by the emotional outbursts, sudden quarrels, or random commentary of the actors. At the end we are back where we began, witnessing again the death of Brutus and the return of the prisoners to their cells.


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Giovanni Arcuri as Julius Caesar in Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die

Aside from the footage of the performance, all we can be sure of here is that the prison is really a prison and the prisoners are really prisoners (with the exception of Salvatore Striano as Brutus, who was paroled from the facility in 2006 and, having begun a career as a professional thereafter, returned to the prison for this production). We are told their names and in some cases what crimes they have been convicted of, crimes including murder, drug trafficking, and unspecified Mafia- or Camorra-related offenses. We are not told if the auditions and rehearsals are reenactments, or if the dialogue is truly spontaneous. The scenes are staged against the backdrops of cell and corridor and chain-linked recreation area that the prison provides; groups of prisoners stand in as the Roman mob responding to the orations of Brutus and Antony. The black-and-white cinematography is classic in style, evoking not raw documentary but the stark elegance of an Italian studio production of the 1950s or 1960s; that is to say, the main body of the film is presented in a manner almost indistinguishable from fiction, as if it were possible that these prisoners might be actors playing prisoners playing actors.

If it is a film about prisoners it is just as much a film about acting. A number of the prisoners turn out to be remarkably persuasive actors, but this raises the question of whether their persuasiveness is purely a matter of talent or if it is not given a particular edge by the experiences they bring to bear. Striano withdraws from the rehearsal at one point because personal associations evoked by the scene have overwhelmed him. Juan Dario Bonetti as Decius Brutus, in the scene where he goes to overcome Caesar’s objections and lure him to the Senate, is masterful in his portrayal of smiling deceitfulness, up to the moment when Giovanni Arcuri as Caesar (whom I found the most impressive of the cast) interrupts the scene to rebuke Bonetti for his actual deceitfulness, as if the dramatic situation had provoked a reminder of other resentments. The stabbing of Caesar is executed with unnerving assurance.

Our perception of these performances is unavoidably colored by what we imagine the prisoners are bringing to their roles, although we are told nothing about the details of their lives; as if the intensity that informs the scenes of loyalty, betrayal, conspiracy, guarded negotiation, and stoic acceptance of death were an oblique description of their lives in prison and, earlier, outside the walls. It stands to reason that the criminal life, the maneuverings within a criminal organization, the practicing of deceptions and confidence games, the seduction of victims, the giving of false testimony, might all add up to a thorough training in the art of acting. There are performances whose success is measured not in applause but in life or death, freedom or incarceration.

The film raises constantly the question of whether we are watching an upsurge of emotional communication or a practiced art. Does the play give these men a chance to show what is in them, or does it provide them with another set of masks? We want to believe that the best actors are those who reveal themselves most truly, but the contrary might well be true. These are after all “actions that a man might play,” actions that these men may already have played, and perhaps we should be wariest of the one who seems to reveal an essential openness of spirit. We look at them long and hard because we can; if we passed them on the street we might be afraid to. But these prisoners are not simply offered up for our inspection—they are performing at every instant, with a desperate energy and emotional expressiveness for which the play is the only outlet. The play is a prison of another sort: an enclosure containing a freedom utterly circumscribed. This is a freedom of a different kind from that enjoyed by the spectator who can sit and pass judgment on the performances, and who also enjoys the privilege of treating “prisoner” and “cell” as metaphors in an artistic scheme.

Julius Caesar—which was selected by the Tavianis for the theater program—is no mere pretext. Most of what we see is the play, translated into a variety of Italian dialects (each actor speaks in the dialect of his own region), and abridged almost to comic-book proportions. Long speeches are compressed to terse summaries of their purport. Yet it is Julius Caesar even if reduced to its highpoints, and it comes through with a force of actual feeling and actual potential for violence that I have not seen in other stage productions or film adaptations, but that carries with it some suggestion of the violent world from which the play itself emanated—or for that matter the violent world that is its subject. We cannot forget that we are after all in Rome, and that the authorities overseeing the prison are in some remote sense the heirs of the Caesars.

The language being Italian, many lines take on a different resonance. When Antony calls for “vendetta” and speaks of Brutus and Cassius as “uomini di onore,” the distance is not far from the world of the play to that in which it is being performed. It is a keen reminder of how familiarity and cultural esteem dull the edges of Shakespeare’s plays, domesticate them and remove the sense of danger. If here we see Shakespeare played by killers and illicit traffickers we may be sure it is not for the first time. We draw lines around Shakespeare and call what is inside civilization, but the gesture says little about the actual history within which the plays arose, and the scenes of blood and terror through which they have made their way across the centuries. Civilization, in this film, is represented precisely by the seemingly well-ordered prison in which the performance takes place. The players—the prisoners—enact their performance only by permission and within strict limits. The determination—at times it seems close to anguish—with which they seize that opportunity reenacts what must have been the astonishing force and challenge launched by the actors who first played Julius Caesar.