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Princes and Assassins

Olivier’s Shakespeare (Criterion Collection)

In Shakespeare, devious plots take planning, but to win over the one you love a single scene will do—even if you don’t speak a word of her language (Henry V), or you’ve just had her husband murdered (Richard III). Plays can be schematic like that. Movies usually can’t. So it’s hard to make movies out of plays, especially Shakespeare. Criterion Collection’s new box set Olivier’s Shakespeare brings together the three films with which Laurence Olivier proved it could be done.

The bright Technicolor Henry V (1943) was meant to bolster the Allies’ morale, and it has all the subtlety you’d expect from wartime propaganda. It’s missing half of Shakespeare’s lines, including anything that might complicate Henry as a patriotic hero. That doesn’t make it a gross distortion of the original: most of the excised lines depict kingly behavior that, though distasteful in 1943 (or 2006), wouldn’t have been in 1600. But Olivier also cut a lot of references to now-obscure Elizabethan debates about the nature of monarchy, making the story easier to follow but less interesting. The film feels campy now, but if you get a kick out of Renaissance Faires—men in tights, cardboard castles—you’ll like it. If you want a darker reading of Henry V, check out Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version.

Unlike Henry V, which looks like a filmed staging (in fairness, it’s meant to), Hamlet (1948) is cinematic from the start. The moody black-and-white cinematography, all vertiginous spiral staircases and rolling seas, echoes the Prince of Denmark’s internal turmoil. Although it won four Oscars, including the first Best Picture for a non-American production, this Hamlet has been criticized over the years for all it leaves out—namely, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras. But these omissions, and Olivier’s artful reordering of scenes, lend the story a spare linearity; it could be called a minimalist Hamlet, except that the acting is so expressive all around. Olivier astutely translates Shakespeare’s verbal imagery into the visual language of film, and the result is quite compelling.

Blandly handsome as the reformed Prince Hal, Olivier looks like a different man as Hamlet, shifty-eyed and insolent. Seeing his virtuoso range is the treat of having the three films together, and his cartoonish performance in Richard III (1955) is the icing: over-the-top and a lot of fun. Equipped with a foppish black wig and pointy prosthetic nose, Olivier’s Richard flits through the film on a remorseless spree of murder and seduction, a confection of pure evil. He discussed his approach to the character in a 1966 television interview with the critic Kenneth Tynan, which is included with the DVD (and which alone is worth the set for anyone in need of a 45-minute acting master class): “I thought about [Disney’s] Big Bad Wolf, and I thought about a director under whom I had suffered in extremis in New York called Jed Harris. The physiognomy of the Big Bad Wolf was said to have been founded upon Jed Harris, and so, hence, the nose. â?¦ I’m afraid I do work mostly from the outside in.”

Thus inspired, Olivier had already remade the role of Richard on the London stage, and here he expertly exploits the different possibilities of the camera, reducing the nose and focusing instead on his conniving eyes. Gripping the lens with his gaze, he makes the audience itself complicit in Richard’s plots. When he turns those evil eyes onto Queen Anne (Claire Bloom), it’s only a matter of time before she’s his—and that’s how Olivier ingeniously handles that preposterous one-scene seduction. He turns it into something almost magical, the casting of a spell, and it goes off so well that Richard himself can hardly believe it. —Sara Mayeux

Shogun Assassin (AnimEigo)

In 1980 a couple of enterprising American filmmakers purchased rights to the first two films of the excessively violent Lone Wolf and Cub samurai series—a chronicle of a shogun’s executioner who, framed by his megalomaniacal boss, is on the run with his infant son in a baby cart equipped with secret weapons. The filmmakers, David Weisman (director of the Edie Sedgwick vehicle Ciao Manhattan) and Robert Houston, edited together all the super-violent parts (dismemberments, decapitations, naked female ninja, etc.), rewrote the script around their new edit, and brought in a then unknown Sandra Bernhard to dub all the female parts (for a flat $200 fee), plus Mark Lindsay from Paul Revere and the Raiders to provide the soundtrack. The poster and logo designer’s son did a voiceover as the kid, adding narration to hold together the patchwork story. The result, Shogun Assassin, was a big cult hit for Roger Corman’s New World and is an ultimate example of violent, mind-bending movie-making, a postmodern artifact that foretold the future of exploitation and world cinema.

AnimEigo, which put out the original Lone Wolf and Cub series here on DVD, has now responded to popular demand by re-releasing this American pastiche with heretofore unseen pristine quality (with the VHS long out of print, it’s only been available in poor quality bootleg for years).

Shogun Assassin is not far removed from the original Lone Wolf and Cub films. We are dealing with the other side of postwar samurai films, not classically dramatic works imbued with emotional depth (such as those of Kurosawa or the transcendent masterpiece that is Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion), but pure genre exercises, akin to spaghetti westerns for the weight put on their exploitative elements—bloodshed and attitude. The source material is a manga from Kazuo Koike, author of other infamously ultraviolent tales translated to film: Lady Snowblood, Hanzo the Razor, Crying Freeman.

The original Lone Wolf and Cub films are more historically rooted and plot-based, attempting a slightly austere tone, while the American version, with its ludicrous voiceover, English dubbing, and accelerated pacing, hopscotches from one bloody scene to the next, enhancing the psychedelic quality of the film’s over-the-top brutality. Weisman and Houston managed to emphasize the absurdity that the original tried to deny without allowing the film to degenerate into pure camp (although the camp elements, Bernhard’s voices for one, are quite strong). One scene has female ninjas taking turns dismembering a samurai assassin until he is barely a torso, reminiscent of Monty Python & the Holy Grail. However, because this sort of action is de rigueur in the Shogun Assassin universe, any inclination toward parody is squelched by the unapologetic attitude inherent in the jaw-dropping set pieces.

One of the greatest conceits of the film was to have a man of large girth, Tomisaburo Wakayama (brother of the original Zatoichi, the equally rotund Katsu Shintaro) play the formidable, lightning-fast sword-slinger Ogami. Yet Wakayama is so stoical you can cut the bad-assitude with a knife. The rewarding device at work is to have Ogami so calm, cool, and restrained that when he does move it is startling and explosive, and (partly thanks to deft editing) he really does seem to be fast and ferocious.

We can rejoice that in this day and age bygone exploitation excess is brought back to our doorstep. There is a certain transcendence to be found in films of transgressive violence. Although a film such as Shogun Assassin favors style over substance, with creative editing and mise-en-scene taking the place of meaning in the work as a whole, there is a message to be gleaned from the place they hold in contemporary culture. It is telling, for example, how drastically the dynamic of viewing films such as Shogun Assassin has changed. The venues are no longer dank Times Square grind houses. Granted, your DVD home theater is a much safer place. Yet with safety comes a sterilization of flavor. Gone is that certain thrill that comes with watching ultra-violence on the big screen in the company of a rowdy audience, the sort of experience that these films were intended for.

Now the most visible big-budget exploitation trend is the foreign film remake. Imagine if instead of a Hollywood version of Battle Royale, as is planned, they simply reedited and re-dubbed parts one and two into a single, homogenized composite. Naturally it would have a different impact than Shogun Assassin because Royale, while meeting all the requirements of exploitation cinema, carries a surfeit of meaning and social commentary. The original Lone Wolf and Cub films only achieve this in the way they reflect their own era’s attitudes toward violence. Unfortunately, today’s tendency toward remakes and pastiche often leaves us with bland appropriations of all the latest cinematic creativity, or simply reflects nostalgia for the unwitting innovations that came from breaking the taboos put in place by the very studios that want to exploit them now. At least Paramount has attached a somewhat visionary director, Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream), to their upcoming version of Lone Wolf and Cub, slated for 2008. —David Wilentz


David Wilentz

David Wilentz dreams in color.

Sara Mayeux

SARA MAYEUX is a student of 20th-century history and sometime writer who lives in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2006

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