Richard the Third has always been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and Laurence Olivier's magnificent film has always been one of my favourite interpretations.
The film is a thrilling look at the Machiavellian machinations of England's most reviled King. Olivier, in the central role, presents us with an entertaining villain, almost in the pantomime tradition, chewing up any scenery that comes to hand. He remains quite charming however, and you soon get swept along with his evil schemes and at times are almost rooting for him. It's a masterly performance, never descending into absurdity, as so many actors make the mistake of doing.
There are great performances form a host of famous actors, including Gielgud as the tragic Clarence and Ralph Richardson as Richard's co-conspirator Buckingham. Special plaudits go to Clare Bloom as the doomed Anne, who manages to portray both revulsion and pity for Richard as he woos her, in a subtle performance that is not overwhelmed by Olivier's frenzied acting in those scenes.
Olivier also adapted the text and directed the film, both of which he has managed exceptionally well. The text has been very much slimmed down, a few scenes added from Henry VI pt 3, and the order of several scenes rearranged. Purists may be shocked at this treatment of the Bard's sacred texts, but personally I think it makes the narrative flow much better, and allows the play to be seen in isolation from Henry VI, which sets much of the scene for Richard III. The direction is very nicely done, with imaginative use of shadows. Most of the underhanded dealing is shown as shadows on walls, and not explicitly presented on screen. And there is the classic shot where Richard kicks open the door to Anne's chamber and his shadow falls across her, from which time on she is doomed. It's reminiscent of F.W. Murneau's direction on Nosferatu at times. The film is rather stage bound at first, but culminates in a beautifully shot battle of Bosworth, filmed on location. Olivier really excels here, both acting and directing. His final scene is one of the best cinema deaths filmed!
So why only 2 stars for a film I love so much? Well, this particular presentation is pretty third rate. The colour on the print is washed out, there are lots of scratches and jumps on the film, the sound is appalling, the film is presented in 4:3 aspect ratio with much of the picture cut at the edges, and there are several short scenes missing. It's almost painful to see such a great film treated in such a fashion.
Seriously, don't buy this version. For the same price you can get the Network special edition which addresses all the issues outlined above. Richard III (Special Edition) [DVD]