This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind" intones Laurence Olivier at the beginning of his Production of Hamlet (In a case of over-reach, the man who would be Lord Olivier gets the opening card over Wm. Shakespeare).
Well, yes, that's an easy way to look at it. And while it's essentially true, it negates the fact that Hamlet is struggling with the moral implications of killing, especially since the object of all the daggers he's throwing out with his eyes is, himself, a murderer, traitor, and is sleeping with his mother.* Hamlet tries every trick in the book to expose the treachery, even takes a stab at killing him himself (with collateral damage**) Hamlet is wrestling with his conscience the whole way--while depressed, grieving--and with not good reason: his quest is based on the flimsiest of evidence--the word of a ghost. A ghost that even his Spock-like friend Horatio saw, to be sure (or not to be), but a ghost nonetheless. Such evidence would never stand up in the Court of Elsinore. The Dark Prince must also wrestle with the consequences of his actions--from his father he knows of the existence of Hell and the damnation murderous actions would lead to.
"Couldn't make up his mind." He wanted to slit the King's throat, not his own.
Every production of "Hamlet" must wrestle with the text *** that ballooned with many versions, asides, and blind alleys. Olivier stripped it bare: No Rosencrantz, no Guildenstern, no Fortinbras, no battle on the plain in Denmark and so, no "Let my thoughts be bloody" speech. Hamlet does not compare his plight with the futility of war, and in 1948, considering his "rally-the-troops" version of Henry V, an anti-war statement must have seemed in bad taste, after surviving the blitzkrieg.
And just as every Hamlet must pick and choose what sections to explore, every actor playing Hamlet must contend with ghosts;**** not the play's, but the players of the past. Like baseball veterans chasing old records, each Hamlet is a reflection of the past, and a portent to other Princes. The current crop of actors taking on the role must have considered Olivier's take, or Richard Burton's, or Nicol Williamson's, just as Olivier must have thought about John's Gielgud and Barrymore. Olivier does take chances given the film medium. His "Frailty, the name is woman" speech is done in voice-over with some choice epithets that burst out of him on-set. That's a good choice for the scene, where Hamlet is in a public space following a celebration and could conceivably be overheard by some hanger's-on. He is much more verbal in his further monologues when he is thought to be crazy, or alone. The "To Be or Not To Be" speech is performed on a parapet overlooking the sea, with dagger in hand. It's a good concept to have the prince "on-edge" at that juncture.
The unique staging of that speech is one of those elements that absolutely separate the filmed Hamlets from each other.***** To me, there are three others: the presentation of the Ghost of the murdered Old Hamlet, the use of Polonius, and the approach to Ophelia. Here's how Olivier treats them.
The Ghost: Olivier wraps him in vapors of the real and optical variety, dressed in his battle armor, looking sepulchral, and emaciated, like a classic death figure, with a low-whispered voice--supplied by Olivier and played back slowly.
Polonius: As played by Felix Aylmer, and directed by Olivier, Polonius is a comic figure, whose verbosity is played for laughs, and most treat him with a feigned patience, and wish he'd get to the point.
Ophelia: As played by the 18-year old Jean Simmons, Ophelia is very much the traditional Ophelia as delicate flower. She goes crazy with the loss of Hamlet, the death of her father, and no Laertes to bolster her. She is an Ophelia too frail to stand on her own and crushed by the whirl of events, and her cracked sanity is portrayed by a far-away gaze and "fairy-princess" demeanor. How influenced she is by Hamlet's shifting moods is hard to say. But she is "ingenue-as-victim" in the Hollywood tradition.
The other thing I hear about Olivier's Hamlet is that it is somehow a "film noir" interpretation of the play. Except for some fine deep-focus black and white photography, I don't see it. No play of shadows--in fact, everyone is extremely well-lit. And the movie's very set-bound; nobody's walking down the "mean streets" of Elsinore.
Laurence Olivier's Hamlet won the Best Picture Oscar in 1948, with Olivier winning Best Performance by an Actor. He was the first person to ever direct himself to an Oscar-winning performance. Only one other actor has done it: Roberto Benigni.
** I've always called "Polonius," the verbose father of Laertes and Ophelia, "Collateralous."
***Unless you're Kenneth Branagh, whose 1996 all-star "Hamlet" used the second Quatro version (1604) (with additions from the First Folio version), clocked in at 4 hrs., 2 mins., was filmed in 70mm, with 6 track Dolby sound, but at least had Rosencrantz, Guildensterm, Fortinbras, the "Let my thoughts be bloody" speech, and had a Gertrude who could have conceivably (heh) been Hamlet's mother!
**** There are other ghosts at Elsinore if one is to believe Olivier's camera-work. Elsinore is an enclosed castle with labyrinthine corridors and vast open emoting spaces. Between acts, we flit down corridors and up spiraling staircases as if the audition is, itself, an apparition, seeing everything in turn with an omniscient view-point. And in a reversal of stage tradition, we go to the actors, rather than them coming to us.
***** Most actors address the audience on-stage. Mel Gibson's Hamlet performs it in a burial catacombs, Kenneth Branagh, while looking in a mirror, and Ethan Hawke...at the video store.