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Criterion Collection: Richard III | Blu-ray Review

Richard III Criterion CollectionMore than 500 years later, historians and archaeologists have unearthed, and then validated the skeleton remains of the two-year term King of England, and in the same token, the Criterion folks issue the crisp, restored Blu-ray edition of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, his third feature as a director following 1944’s Henry V and 1948’s Hamlet. In 1957, the film earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. During the same year, the film won Golden Globe Award for Best English-Language Foreign Film.

The great Olivier is Richard the Duke of Gloucester, a man with an insatiable appetite for power. He often smiles but his heart is full of poison. Assisted by the corrupt Duke of Buckingham (Ralph Richardson, Doctor Zhivago), he plans to kill his brother George (John Gielgud, The Elephant Man) and two nephews, while winning the heart of the vulnerable The Lady Anne (Claire Bloom, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). After he marries her, Richard quickly unleashes a sea of intrigues which ultimately allow him to become the prime candidate for the crown. Eventually, his dream becomes a reality but his dishonesty brings him on the verge of self-destruction.

The subtleties of the finer details compliment the films brilliance. A gesture, a smile, a simple look, reveals so much. Many of the characters can only be fully understood if paid attention to the tone of their voices.

The film chronicles factual events but also takes various liberties with history. In fact in its opening titles the viewer is warned that truth and fiction are indeed closely intertwined. Naturally, what follows is sort of a test, a fascinating and beautiful one, full of elegant Shakespearean words and often misleading phrases.

As Richard begins his pursuit of the crown, the viewer is frequently treated as his confidant. He looks straight into the camera and shares details which no one else around him is aware of. He is kind but determined, careful and dangerous, a suave manipulator with a plan. As the film progresses the viewer realizes that it isn’t easy to like him, but also that it is absolutely impossible not to admire him. Richard’s confidence is infectious. At times he utters his lines so quickly that it is difficult to comprehend his statements, but his attitude is all that matters – or at least as far as the viewer is concerned. The facial expressions and the body movement are what the viewer remembers because this is what evil looks like, because this is how evil feels and sounds.

Olivier is extraordinary but his brilliant performance is also arguably the film’s biggest weakness. There are very large sections of the film where he is absolutely overpowering. Many of the actors around him frequently look unconvincing, at times even borderline intimidated. This unevenness is particularly obvious during the first half of the film, where Richard often shares his plans with the viewer.

Recently restored by The Film Foundation, Richard III now looks stunning. The new digital restoration of the film, which used as a foundation the original VistaVision camera negative, has brought back to life the lush and rich colors many viewers saw when the film was first released theatrically in 1955. The new restoration, which presents the film in its European theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1, runs at approximately 158-minutes. This cut, which is slightly shorter than the one that was screened during the film’s premiere in London, also restores footage that was consequently trimmed from the original negative.

Disc Review

Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.67:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted a 1080p transfer, Laurence Olivier’s Richard III arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion.

The following text appears inside the booklet provided with this Blu-ray release:

When it premiered at London’s Leicester Square Theatre in December 1955, Richard III ran 161 minutes. Subjected to cuts by both theatrical and television distributors, the film has been shown at various lengths over the years in the United Kingdom and the United States, including versions as much as twenty minutes shorter. In 2012, The Film Foundation completed an extensive digital restoration of a 158-minute cut of the film. This restoration utilized, for the first time, the original VistaVision camera negative, the original YCM separation pro-masters, and footage trimmed from the original negative, to create the longest existing version of the film. All the elements were scanned at 4K resolution at Cineric Inc., in New York, on an Oxberry wet gate scanner. The color correction was done by Sheri Eisenberg at Colorworks, in Culver City, California, using a Baselight 8 color-grading system. The soundtrack was restored from an original 35mm monaural optical track print.

Restoration funding provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation. Restored by The Film Foundation and Janus Films, in association with the BFI National Archive, ITV Studios Global Entertainment Ltd., the Museum of Modern Art, and Romulus Films.

Restoration supervisors: Grover Crisp, Tom Heitman.
4K mastering: Colorworks, Culver City, CA.
Digital picture restoration: MTI Film, Hollywood.
Soundtrack restoration: Chance Audio by Deluxe, Burbank, CA.

The new restoration of Richard III is as impressive as the recent restorations of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Red Shoes. Indeed, detail and especially image depth are dramatically improved. Close-ups, in particular, look absolutely spectacular. The biggest improvements, however, are with color reproduction. There is a wide range of lush and very stable reds, blues, browns, and grays that are simply not present on previous DVD releases of the film. It is very easy to see that different stabilization corrections have been applied as well (many problematic jump cuts, in particular, have been addressed). Furthermore, there are absolutely no traces of problematic degraining corrections. Sharpening corrections have not been applied either. Needless to say, the film looks wonderfully lush and stable, without a shadow of a doubt the very best it ever has. Indeed, this is a mighty impressive restoration. There is only one standard audio track on this Blu-ray release: English LPCM 1.0. For the record, Criterion have provided optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature.

It is incredibly easy to tell that various stabilization improvements have been performed. The audio is stable, crisp, and clean. There are no annoying distortions, pops, cracks, or audio dropouts. The overall range of dynamics is excellent, allowing William Walton’s score to shine in all the right places.

Original theatrical trailer for Richard III. In English, not subtitled. (4 min, 1080i).

TV Trailer
This rather long trailer for Richard III was produced by Laurence Olivier and includes on-set footage with the famous actor, producer Alexander Korda, and other members of the cast and crew. In English, not subtitled. (13 min, 1080i).

Production Gallery
A gallery of behind the scenes and production stills from Richard III. The images are accompanied by quotes from Laurence Olivier’s 1986 autobiography, On Acting, in which he reflects on the making of the film. (1080p).

Restoration Demonstration
Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese introduces the new restoration of Richard III. Footage from the film from before and after the restoration highlighting key improvements is also included. In English, not subtitled. (9 min, 1080p).

Great Acting: “Laurence Olivier”
A 1966 episode of the BBC series Great Acting in which Laurence Olivier and theater critic Kenneth Tynan discuss the legendary actor’s career and contribution to Richard III. In English, not subtitled. (48 min, 1080i).

Audio commentary with playwright and stage director Russell Lees and John Wilders, former governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The commentary was recorded for Criterion in 1994, and also appears on their 2DVD set.

18-page illustrated booklet featuring Amy Taubin’s essay “Red-blooded Richard” and notes on the new restoration of Richard III.

Final Thoughts

I have to speculate yet again that had it not been for the invaluable efforts of director Martin Scorsese, this new restoration of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III would not have existed. Or at least not at this time. Obviously, a lot of other people contributed to make it possible, but no other director has been as vocal about the restoration and preservation of classic films as Mr. Scorsese. I think it is fair to say that because of him a lot of important films have been saved. The new restoration of Richard III is simply outstanding. I think that together with the recent restoration of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp it is one of the very best to be released on Blu-ray.

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