Neither the disaster it was initially received as nor a lost masterpiece, Orson Welles’ Macbeth is a fascinating experiment in adaptation, blurring the lines between film and stage, dream and reality, Bardic high art and grungy horror. While Macbeth never reaches the heights of Welles’ most iconic works, fans of him and Shakespeare will find much to love and discuss once they get their hands on the new Olive Films Blu-ray of the film.
I’ve written before about Orson Welles’ forays into adapting Shakespeare (as well as a very different Macbeth), and it’s interesting to note the ways in which Macbeth feels like a dry-run for the eventual triumph of Chimes at Midnight. Both films play fast and loose with the previously-sacrosanct verse (with Welles even going so far as to INVENT an entirely new character to better embody the themes he decoded from the work, with the new Holy Father speaking other people’s lines to render an entirely new person).
For those of you who don’t know, Macbeth is the story of Macbeth, a noble Scottish lord who one day is waylaid by a trio of witches, The Weird Sisters, who prophesize that he will one day be king. The promise festers in Macbeth’s mind and inspires his wife, the cunning Lady Macbeth, to quickly plot a murder of King Duncan while he sleeps at their home. The plot is successful, but the ill-gotten crown soon drives the nation to civil war and the couple to madness and death.
Welles himself plays Macbeth, with Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth, Dan O’Herlihy as Macduff, Edgar Barrier as the doomed Banquo, and a very young Roddy McDowall (a full twenty years before he helped Chuck Heston bust loose from the planet of the apes!) as exiled prince Malcolm.
It’s Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy (and even in its current form there are passages that some scholars believe were added in much later, including the infamous second visit by the witches) and at times veers straight into horror and dark fantasy.
Orson Welles turns HARD into this particular skid, using most every frame in his film to weave an atmosphere of discord and despair. There’s a…wrongness to much of the film that gets under your skin and rubs you wrong. We can’t be sure how much of that is intentional, how much is accidental, and how much is a byproduct of mistaken creative whims, but Welles successfully transmutes the oppressive pallor and fever-dream flow of the best renditions of The Scottish Play into a cinematic form.
That wrongness is felt keenly in the filmmaking as well, as Welles amps up the ersatz nature of cinema, highlighting instead of obfuscating the falseness of the in-movie world. The costume and set designs are ludicrously exaggerated and false, and Welles confines giant chunks of his film into small locations, purposefully refusing to expand the scope of the play.
The result is a work that feels caught halfway between film and stage, between reality and heightened dream, between serious work of professional artists and first-year film-student loopy.
If Welles’ Macbeth ultimately feels like a half-formed experiment, that’s because…well, that’s what it was. Welles (who had already developed a reputation for massively repurposing Shakespeare to his own ends via his bold stage plays [which included a “voodoo” rendition of Macbeth, elements of which wound up in the film]) shot the entire film in 23 days, apparently in the hopes of sending up a flare for other young filmmakers that they didn’t need to break banks or devote months or years of the lives for the completion of a project. You could take one of the great works from one of the great writers and play fast and loose and tell it in your own voice.
As with so many of his efforts, Macbeth was damned to be misunderstood and mistreated. After the initial miserable failure, the studio pulled the film and had it re-dubbed without the distracting Scottish accents much of the cast sported in the first go round, and with two reels hacked out of the film (Olive’s Blu offers both versions of the film, as well as a host of special features detailing the film’s creation) released it again as a second miserable failure.
Many times, we look back on Orson Welles’ films (such as they remain) and today can recognize the genius that contemporary moneymen and critics simply could not keep up with (and it needs to be repeated that Chimes at Midnight, also derided and neglected on release, is an out-and-out masterpiece). But with Macbeth, I don’t know that yesterday’s critics were wrong to take a bite and send the dish back to the chef for being undercooked. Macbeth feels less like a complete thought and more like an experiment in style and production means, a test drive for an approach that Welles would later expand on to terrific effect.
Macbeth, then, feels more like a curiosity than anything else, a necessary pitstop on the road to grander things. Fans of Welles and/or Shakespeare will find much to examine and discuss, especially with a restoration as gorgeous as the one Olive Films has released. Seriously, the picture is so perfect you can all but smell the drying paints of the set. I’m glad to have such an idiosyncratic piece of film history preserved and readily available.