There is no more tempting a role for an actor than that of a great villain hero, and in Richard lll, Shakespeare has created arguably the crème de la crème of villain heroes. And though there is much to question about the historical accuracy of that creation (Shakespeare was wise enough to know which side of his Tudor bread the butter was on), it is a role that would have any actor worth his salt salivating over. It is no wonder then that a salt-worthy actor like Laurence Olivier welcomed the chance to play the part on the big screen, especially since his 1944 appearance as the deformed hunchback on stage at the Old Vic had been one of the milestones of an illustrious career.
Olivier, of course, was no novice when it came to filming Shakespeare. In 1944 he had directed and starred in Henry V, and then in 1948 there was his much-ballyhooed Hamlet. That it was another ten years before he once more returned to the bard may have been because of his unwillingness to take on the dual actor/director role, but ultimately perhaps some opportunities are too tempting to pass up. Richard lll is that kind of opportunity.
The result was the actor/director’s acclaimed 1955 production of the play, now available in a digitally restored two-DVD set from the Criterion Collection. Filmed originally in VistaVision and Technicolor, the movie has undergone a restoration that recaptures much of the vibrant color palette of the original, no mean recommendation given the intensely expressive use of color in the film.
In productions of Shakespearian plays both on stage and on screen, directors are often quite willing to take all sorts of liberties with the text. Instead of beginning with the famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy, Olivier opens with a scene depicting the coronation of Edward lV taken from the end of Henry VI, Part 3. In a sense, the additional scene with its pomp and circumstance could provide the motivation for all of Richard’s machinations, although modern audiences may find the courtly pageantry less than impressive. Crowd scenes never seem very crowded.
Other characters—Clarence, for example—are less well developed. The emphasis is all on Richard. In some respects this is unfortunate. Olivier has gathered some of the finest classical actors of the day for the film, and they sometimes have a tendency to try to make the most of their limited opportunities. John Gielgud’s Clarence is nicely subdued until he begins emoting in the prison scene. Claire Bloom has her share of over-the-top moments as the put-upon Lady Anne. Ralph Richardson’s Buckingham and Cedric Hardwick’s Edward are more controlled.
Olivier himself gives a master class in scenery chewing. He prances around the set in almost gleeful abandon, at times limping, at times seeming to forget his limp. He treats the asides and soliloquies as personal communication directly with the audience. He exudes evil as he seduces Lady Anne, turns on Buckingham, and sends the young princes off to the tower. It is his performance that makes the film.
As is normal for the Criterion Collection, the DVD set is flooded with bonus material. There is a booklet on the film with an essay by critic Amy Taubin. Audio commentary is provided by director/playwright Russell Lees and John Wilders, former governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The companion disc contains a 1966 interview with Olivier from the BBC’s Great Acting series. A 12-minute television trailer featuring Olivier and producer Alexander Korda, the original theatrical trailer, and a restoration demonstration with Martin Scorsese round out the extras, along with a collection of photos combined with selections from Olivier’s autobiography.