Macbeth

1948, Movie, NR, 107 mins

Review

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Orson Welles's adaptation of MACBETH is a triumph of cinematic imagination over the limited resources of the parsimonious Republic Pictures Studio, which originally butchered the film and released it with a poor soundtrack. Initially maligned for being incoherent and unintelligible, the film was restored in the 1990s, adding back 17 minutes of footage and the original Scottish-accented soundtrack, resulting in a visually stunning film that has the brooding atmosphere of a medieval nightmare.

Eleventh-century Scottish lords Macbeth (Orson Welles) and Banquo (Edgar Barrier) are returning to Dunsinane castle when they encounter a trio of witches who prophesize that Macbeth will become the new king. When Macbeth arrives at the castle and tells his ruthlessly ambitious wife Lady Macbeth (Jeanette Nolan) of the prophecy, she urges him on and they stab King Duncan (Erskine Sanford) to death. When the murder is discovered, the king's son Malcolm (Roddy McDowall) flees to England with Lord Macduff (Dan O'Herlihy). Macbeth takes the throne but is riddled with guilt and orders the murder of the suspicious Banquo. During a banquet, Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost and becomes deranged. Hearing the voices of the witches telling him to "Beware Macduff," Macbeth has Macduff's wife (Peggy Webber) and children slaughtered. When Macduff learns of this, he assembles an army of British soldiers and attacks the castle. Lady Macbeth throws herself off the battlements to her death, and after Macduff kills Macbeth in a swordfight, Malcolm becomes the new king.

Welles had directed and appeared in numerous stage productions of Shakespeare, including directing an audacious all-black version of Macbeth in the '30s, but he had doubts about whether movies could do justice to the Bard's verse. Nevertheless, he envisioned filming Macbeth, with its gloomy moors and horrific murders, as "a perfect cross between WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)," and that is a pretty good description of what he achieved. The only studio in Hollywood that would gamble on Welles's dream of creating "Shakespeare for the masses" was Republic, the home of Roy Rogers and other B-western stars. To disprove his extravagant reputation, Welles took on the film as a challenge, promising to shoot it in just three weeks and on a budget of $700,000; and he did just that, using spare, movable sets depicting twisted trees, jagged rocks and fog-shrouded cliffs, with a cyclorama background painted with clouds and illuminated by sporadic flashes of lightning. Welles also post-synched all the dialogue, recording three separate soundtracks containing different accents: all British, half British/half American, and all Scottish, but unfortunately, after Welles finished the picture, Republic chose to meld all three together, creating a confusing mish-mash, and also cut nearly 20 minutes from the film, completely destroying the narrative and its rhythm.

The restored, full-length print utilizes the proper Scottish track and while the result still may not be the most coherent of Shakespeare adaptations, it's quite powerful, and the highly stylized and intentionally artificial production design (even a flying bird is mechanical) features some of the most dazzling imagery ever put on film. The noirish lightning by cinematographer John L. Russell Jr. (who later shot PSYCHO) creates one of the darkest films of all-time and an ominous and otherworldly mood is established immediately with the brilliant pre-credit sequence where the three witches (whose faces are never seen) plunge their hands into a boiling cauldron and pull out a clay figure they shape into a baby Macbeth and place a crown upon its head. The rest of the film is filled with similar examples of Welles's visual bravado and genius for long takes (including one uninterrupted 10-minute sequence), and deep-focus compositions: shots of hangings, decapitations, and heads on top of poles; Macbeth's face and a dagger going in and out of focus during the famous "Is this a dagger" speech; a distorted reflection of Macbeth placing the crown on his head; the shadow of Macbeth's finger growing longer and longer as it points out the apparition of the blood-covered Banquo; Lady Macbeth throwing herself off the battlements after her "Out damned spot" speech; the soldiers' torches and spears rising into the air as they lay siege to the castle; the clay figure's head being chopped off as Macduff kills Macbeth; and the final misty shot of the three witches holding their Y-forked sticks and watching the castle.

Given Welles's unconventional approach to the sound recording, the acting is inevitably variable, but there are several effective moments, particularly during the soliloquies which are strikingly presented as internal monologues over close-ups of faces, and Welles himself gives a superb performance. (Violence.) leave a comment --Michael Scheinfeld

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