Wednesday, June 27, 2012

HAMLET (1948)

(May 1948, U.S.)

Okay, people, put on your Shakespeare caps, because I'm about to test your tolerance by putting you through not one, not two, but THREE theatrical film versions of HAMLET, the only required Shakespeare reading I ever actually ENJOYED!

Anyone who ever attended that deep pit of Hell known as high school more than likely had to read this play whether they wanted to or not. Like many others, I approached it with as much joy as I would root canal! Luckily, though, I had the right senior English teacher who broke down HAMLET into very understandable terms and into charactericts that high school students of the 1980s could appreciate and that was simply a young man who was committed to avenging his father's murder. Once you've wrapped your brain around that concept, the diabolical plotting and madness that trancend the story manage to fall into place.

Laurence Olivier's 1948 version stands on its own in that it not only provides the traditional black and white cinematic effects, but also manages to create a sense of surrealism in its rather grainy and moody camera shots. Indeed, I'd even dare to say that there are some specific shots that I would swear Olivier borrowed heavily from the camera work of Orson Welles. Regardless, though, the mood of Denmark is eerily dark throughout the film, particularly in its exterior scenes, which in some cases, give off some of that German expressionism that had its own fame in another time and another place. The scene where Hamlet's father reveals himself and his murder to his son is particularly creepy in that the father's spirit is filmed in a rather obscure direction giving it the appearance of a demon or some other evil form. You have to see it to really appreciate what I'm talking about.

During his time, like Orson Welles, Olivier WAS the master of Shakespeare in his own right. As Hamlet, he's hardly the tough guy that Mel Gibson may have been decades later in his own version. He is, however, a focussed man who will not only avenge the life of his father, but will also truly enjoy wreaking havoc and madness on those around him in the process. Those that know the story know that Hamlet is the king of procrastinators in that he never fully seizes the opportunities given to him to murder the new king whenever they present themselves, or as Olivier narrates himself, "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind." Hamlet would prefer the process of "mind fucking" the king, his mother, his girlfriend and anyone else he can think of, into sheer madness. In the end, of course, as many Shakespeare plays reveal, the hero dies, the villain dies...shit, it seems everyone dies. Justice is served, murder is avenged and everyone is dead.

With so many versions of HAMLET to be accounted for, it's almost impossible to keep track of which ones are the more faithful to the original play. For the record, this version cuts nearly half the dialogue, leaves out two major characters, and includes an opening voice-over that represents Hamlet's fundamental problem as indecision. I suppose changes are necessary to make each version a little more interesting than its predecessor.

HAMLET won the Oscar for best picture of 1948.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Father's Ghost: "I am thy father's spirit, doom'd for a certain term to walk the night, and for the day confined to fast in fires, 'till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid too tell the secrets of my prison-house, I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine: but this eternal blazon must not be to ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list! If thou didst ever thy dear father love..."
Hamlet: "Oh, God!"
Father's Ghost: "Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Hamlet: Murder."
Father's Ghost: "Murder most foul, as in the best it is; but this most foul, strange and unnatural."

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