Christopher Plummer has been everywhere in the past couple of years: on stage in The Tempest and Barrymore, filming the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and, on television, welcoming the late Mordecai Richler to Canada’s Walk of Fame.
He was similarly prolific in 1964: co-starring onscreen in The Fall of the Roman Empire, preparing to play Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music (the role he loves to hate) and, on television, appearing as Hamlet, for which he received an Emmy nomination as best actor.
The happy evidence of his Hamlet is on DVD this week as Hamlet at Elsinore, a black-and-white 170-minute production of Shakespeare’s classic shot in and around Denmark’s Kronborg Castle (called Elsinore in the play). Produced by the BBC and Radio Denmark, it marked what would have been William Shakespeare’s 400th birthday. No candles, though. The wind off the sea would have snuffed them in a heartbeat.
As Plummer tells it in his memoir, In Spite of Myself, it was a rough shoot. Director Philip Saville decided the ghost of Hamlet’s father would be heard but not seen, so the camera stays on Plummer’s face for one long reaction shot to the ghost’s off-screen lines, pre-recorded in an older voice by Plummer himself. Trouble was, the scene was shot on a cliff by the sea during a thunderstorm, Plummer could barely hear the lines as they were fed to him from the speakers.
Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal confidant, was played by Michael Caine, fresh off his role in Zulu and a year away from The Ipcress File. Caine is quietly effective, masking his usual Cockney accent. At play’s end, he weeps while holding the dying Hamlet in his arms. Again, a wrinkle. His tears fell so heavily on Hamlet’s face that Plummer’s involuntary twitching forced additional takes.
Robert Shaw plays Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, in a way that makes it clear why Queen Gertrude fell for him and why the court follows him. And, as the bodies fall, Fortinbras sweeps in at the end – played by Donald Sutherland with what is said to be a Norwegian accent.
The two-disc BBC Video set contains a 90-minute conversation filmed earlier this year between Plummer and film critic David Edelstein. Edelstein mentions that the part of Von Trapp will follow Plummer forever. “Not if I can help it,” Plummer replies, adding: “It was the presence of so many nuns that depressed me terribly.”
ALSO RELEASED THIS WEEK
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Joe Johnston’s above-average action-adventure film follows a 90-pound weakling (Chris Evans) as he turns, with the help of drugs, into the Nazi-bashing Captain America. Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones play bad Germans; Stanley Tucci plays a good German-American with a more convincing accent. Bonus features explain how computer wizardry made Evans tinier for the first third of the movie.
Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Before the Production Code clamped down on the moral liberties being taken in Hollywood, Erle C. Kenton directed this unsettling, satisfying 70-minute version of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, now on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray. Charles Laughton is all surface gentility and creepy menace as the sadistic doctor who works to turn wild animals into humans. Bela Lugosi, playing one of the wretched experiments, speaks the line that decades later inspired the pop group Devo: “Are we not men?”
Jurassic Park: Ultimate Trilogy (1993, 1997, 2001)
Steven Spielberg directed the first two of these epic dinosaur films, now on Blu-ray. Captain America’s Joe Johnston directed the third. Science dares to use DNA to reconstitute dinosaurs as theme-park attractions. What could possibly go wrong? In a new retrospective, actor Sam Neill recalls that Spielberg growled into a bullhorn while “we had to pretend to be scared. ... The acting part was not laughing.”
Barney Miller: The Complete Series (1974-82)
A blend of sentimentality and broad humour with an emphasis on caricatures, this sitcom benefited from a talented ensemble cast led by Hal Linden as Barney Miller, captain of a police squad in New York’s Greenwich Village. Best element: the running barbed banter in later seasons between detectives Harris and Dietrich (Ron Glass and Steve Landesberg). The 25-disc set (shoutfactory.com) contains all eight seasons, the original pilot and an unsuccessful one-season spinoff in which Fish (Abe Vigoda), having retired from the force, runs a group home.
The Crow (1994)
Alex Proyas’s violent fantasy-drama, now on Blu-ray, is a triumph of noir atmosphere and claustrophobic set design. A year ago, sadistic thugs murdered Eric Draven (Brandon Lee, who died in an on-set accident near the end of filming) and his fiancée. Now Draven returns from the grave as an inexorable avenger with a crow as his spirit guide (“They’re all dead. They just don’t know it yet”). Ernie Hudson, the least famous Ghostbuster, has a good role as a sympathetic beat cop.