8. Hamlet (1948)
The role of Hamlet, a prince of medieval Denmark conflicted about taking revenge on the uncle who killed his monarch-father and married his mother, the uncle’s accomplice, is the acid tests for actors. No classically trained actor seems to feel complete until they have tackled the role.
Olivier had played Hamlet on stage long before he decided to follow-up Henry V with this film. Where the earlier film was filmed in vivid, lovely, vibrant color, this film was a pageant in deep focus black and white (the film almost seem to be in 3-D, the depth of focus is so intense). Olivier later said that he should have used color but the black and white seems to fit this intense and moody story best.
As often is the case with Shakespearean films, the cast (Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Felix Alymer and a young Jean Simmons in her first major role) is superb. Many over the years have carped that the play is much abridged but the editing, common for Shakespearean projects, helps to make the story more cinematic. This may not be the definitive version in terms of presenting the complete play but it is a skillful film, not a filmed play.
9. The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
Shakespeare’s works are so universal that other cultures can easily reinterpret them. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa made his particularly Japanese versions of a number of the plays and created some of his greatest works from them.
One of the lesser know, but still quite excellent, Kurosawa Shakespeare films is The Bad Sleep Well, the director’s version of Hamlet. Where his other Shakespearean efforts were set in period, this is a modern dress version with the kingdom of Denmark replaced by a corrupt corporate empire and the main character’s father driven to suicide by the villain.
Kurosawa’s favored star, the great Toshiro Mifune, plays the Hamlet role superbly, heading a fine Japanese cast. This is a most freely interpreted and original version (the crucial play-within-a-play of the original is replaced by an elaborate cake!). One great artist interprets another and the results are predictably memorable.
10. Hamlet (1996)
Branagh did not find an immediate great follow-up to Henry V, though he did release a delightful version of a Shakespearean comedy (more on that later). Seven years after his initial triumph he came up with a daring idea: he would present the first film version of Hamlet which would be completely unabridged!
The resulting four hour plus film is wonderfully alive and cinematic since, though the text was not compromised, the interpretation was anything but usual. The setting has been updated to the nineteenth century with lushly baroque and lavish settings and the cast is filled with suspects both usual (Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Timothy Sprall, John Gielgud, Brian Blessed) and unexpected (Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon, and Robin Williams).
The film, sadly, was not a commercial hit but it is alive and cinematic and a true footnote to cinematic history. It may strike some as a stunt but it’s a good stunt.
11. Hamlet (2000)
And so Hamlet comes into modern times with this version which seems to have taken a page from the book of Romeo + Juliet. This time Hamlet and company call modern New York City home and the embattled kingdom is a business one (and, yes, this is reminiscent of The Bad Sleep Well).
This is definitely a new take on the classic and not a universally praised one. Many felt that the imagery and editing were good and the cast interesting, if not at all Shakespearean. The supporting cast was composed of Kyle McLaughlin, Diane Venora, Bill Murray and Julia Styles, among others.
The title role was portrayed by Ethan Hawke, an Oscar nominated actor, but not a classical one. Purist did not like the film or his performance but this was a new take for a new generation. Surely, the Bard’s works are mighty enough to accommodate changing times and tastes and this is a prime example.
12. MacBeth (1948)
The same year Olivier was spending a lot of producer J. Arthur Rank’s money filming Hamlet in an ancient castle in Demark, another great cinematic artist was filming another Shakespearean classic, albeit in somewhat more reduced circumstances.
Orson Welles had come to Hollywood in a burst of glory in 1941 to create the mighty Citizen Kane but things had not gone well since. By 1948 the only studio in Tinseltown that would hire him was Republic Pictures, the most substantial studio on Poverty Row, and one trying very hard to make it to the major ranks.
A major part of this effort was allowing Welles to create an impressionistic version of the great play concerning a lethally ambitious medieval Scottish lord and his equally evil wife scheming and murdering their way to the throne, lead on by supernatural forces.
Theater tradition holds that this play is jinxed and there might be something to that since this more or less ended Welles Hollywood career. Truthfully, it is a strange film: the sets are created from scenery created for B westerns and everything looks as if its coming out of the earth save for the barbaric looking furnishings and costumes.
Welles gives a typically no holds barred performance as MacBeth and he chooses a cast full of stage veterans (Dan O’Herlihy, Erskine Sanford, Edgar Barrier, Roddy McDowell) who acquit themselves well. Unfortunately, the all important role of Lady MacBeth is a major deficit.
Hoping, vainly, to enlist stage great Tallulah Bankhead or his one-time acting partner Agnes Moorehead, Welles had to settle for radio (later TV) actress Jeanette Nolan, who was good at playing kooky older women but was clueless as Lady Macbeth. Restored in recent years to its full length (though still a much abridged version of the play)with the preferred soundtrack of Scottish accents, this is not a total triumph but it was an interesting try.
13. The Throne of Blood (1957)
Once again, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune take what is thought to be an English language classic and reinvigorate it was a Japanese twist. Somehow, this tale of ancient Scotland works well reset in ancient Japan and the director and his cast seem to have an uncanny feeling for and grasp of the dynamics of this violent and portentous tale.
In order to make the story more accessible to a Japanese audience, the director presents the story is a cinematically modified version in the tradition of Japanese noh theater (which would have been the style used in Japan at the time the play was originally presented). It all works brilliantly as both a reinterpretation of a famed work and as a film. The cast, headed by Mifune and Isuzu Yamada head the fine cast and Kurosawa’s imagery is brilliant.
14. MacBeth (1971)
Director Roman Polanski did not have an easy time of it in the U.S, to say the least. Despite some dazzling success, he had some monumentally tragic moments. The worst was surely the murder of his wife and several friends at the hands of a crazed hippie cult in 1969. MacBeth was his first film after that trauma and it truly bears the scars of that moment in time.
The play is a violent one by nature but it is quite plain that the violence in this film is more a catharsis for the director than about the violence Shakespeare built into the play. Oddly enough, this gives the film an urgent vitality married to fine images and the director’s usual impeccable technique.
Non-stars Jon Finch and Francesca Annis perform ably as the lead characters but Polanski is truly the star, filming one of the few nervous breakdowns captured in mainstream movie history.
15. Othello (1952)
After Welles fled Hollywood following MacBeth, he went to Europe and decided to finance and create his films without interference.
Outside of writing his own projects, Shakespeare was the best A material he could use for free (and he had performed Shakespeare memorably on stage for years, even then) and for his first independent project he chose the famous story of a Moorish army office, a man of color, who is manipulated into a tragic act concerning his lovely, blond new wife by a petty, jealous and cruelly racist subordinate.
Most likely since the title character was a man of color, classic Hollywood had given a pass to making a version of this play (the closet thing to it was 1948’s A Double Life, a stage melodrama which referenced the play). As it was, it wasn’t easy for Welles since the roughly three weeks of shooting was spread out over three years and two continents and three different casts of actors as money came and went.
The finished film runs about and hour and a half and much of the text is missing but the result is a resplendent film, not a play. Looking at the film’s finely judged camera set-ups and atmospheric cinematography it would be hard to intuit the film’s trouble shooting (covered in books and documentaries) or the fact that sometimes shots within the same scene were filmed many months and/or countries apart!
16. Othello (1965)
A universe away from Welles’ Othello is this full length British production from Olivier, the last Shakespearean film he directed.
Unlike his earlier Shakespeare efforts, this one had a more limited budget so the whole thing was shot on a soundstage and the film does have a definite stagy quality, yet Olivier was an expert enough director to use the camera and set-ups to break up any potentially stagnant moments, though it still wasn’t as cinematic as the Welles film.
In contrast to Welles surprisingly subdued racial make-up and performance, Oliver goes totally blackface and wildly African in portrayal. Amazingly, it works! There are also fine performances by Frank Finlay, Maggie Smith in her break-through role as Desdemona, and Joyce Redman, all of whom were Oscar nominated. It may be a product for a specialized audience but on that level it works well.
17. Otello (1986)
Speaking of pictures for specialized audiences…Zeffirelli found his nirvana is this production of Shakespeare by way of Verdi’s great opera with that supreme tenor Placido Domingo as the jealous hearted Moor of Venice. The director always wishes to express passion to the ultimate degree and the Bard and opera both provide great vehicles for that style.
This version is lush and intense and emotionally overpowering. No, it’s not for everyone but for those receptive to it this is yet another viable adaptation of the great playwright’s works.
18. Othello (1995)
Finally, after all these many years, director Oliver Parker dares to do what no other had done before: he cast Laurence Fishburne, a lauded actor of color, as Shakespeare’s man of color!
The trend for politically correct racial casting pays off with the actor’s knowing performance, ably supported by French actress Irene Jacob and Branagh as the villain, Iago, though the later two were not to all tastes. Though perhaps not the most distinguished or innovative of Shakespeare films, this is a worthy effort.