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The good news? For his last Hollywood film of the 1940s, Orson Welles
delivered a low-budget, inventive, expressionist Shakespeare adaptation
that served as a template for his experimental European films. The bad
news? Welles perhaps captures the eerie mood of "The Scottish Play" all
too well; the film is an unrelentingly dark and often uncomfortable
experience. The lugubrious pacing and indifferent acting offer little
respite from the play's fatalism.
A little background helps one better appreciate this film. After a string of box office failures (including "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "The Lady from Shanghai"), Welles signed on with Republic Pictures to do a low-budget "Macbeth," hoping that he could popularize Shakespeare on film as he had done on radio and in the theatre. His actors rehearsed the play on tour, and painstakingly pre-recorded their dialogue in Scottish brogues. Welles then shot the film in 23 days, some kind of record for him. Well, you can guess what happened: The studio hated it. They forced Welles to cut 20 minutes from the film, and made the actors re-dub their dialogue with "normal" accents - wasting all that time they spent in pre-production. The film bombed on release and Welles spent the next 10 years working in Europe.
Years later, the original prints were found and released as another "Lost Welles Classic." Unfortunately, time has devalued that label; "Macbeth" doesn't quite meet the standard set by "Othello" or "Touch of Evil," two other films that were restored after Welles' death. While the Scottish accents are a nice touch, the extra running time actually robs the film of some momentum. Welles did wonders with the cheap Republic sets; the film is a masterpiece of expressionist set design. The same can't be said of the costumes, which make Welles look like the Statue of Liberty at one point. Constrained by having to sync their movements to pre-recorded dialogue, the actors deliver wooden performances (only the soliloquies, delivered in voice-over, resonate). Fortunately, the last twenty minutes are visually captivating and offer enough Wellesian moments to make the viewing worthwhile.
If Welles fails to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear - as he would later do with "Othello" and "Chimes of Midnight" - he succeeds in developing an expressionist style that he would later perfect with his bizarro masterpiece "The Trial." "Macbeth" isn't exactly an enjoyable movie experience; indeed, "returning were as tedious as go o'er." But for the Welles aficionado, "Macbeth" provides an essential link between Welles' Hollywood years and the independent style of his European work.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I'm still trying to figure out why what Laurence Olivier did with
Hamlet that same year was worthy of an Oscar if what Orson Welles did
with MacBeth was so bad.
Both operated under tremendous budget restrictions, Olivier from J. Arthur Rank and Welles from Herbert J. Yates. At the time Hamlet was out Olivier explained that his decision to use black and white was for the special shadows and darkness in Hamlet's soul, or something like that. Years later Olivier said that he was just spouting off so much artistic propaganda, he didn't use color like he did Henry V because J. Arthur Rank was too cheap to go for it.
Remember that Welles was doing this at Republic Pictures and their bread and butter were westerns with Roy Rogers with an occasional A feature with their number one star John Wayne. Welles, who was always criticized for extravagance, brought the film in with three weeks shooting and on budget. Pesonally I think he deserves a round of applause for that. Knowing Herbert J. Yates's foibles, Welles was lucky he wasn't asked to use Vera Hruba Ralston as Lady MacBeth.
Like Olivier with Hamlet, Welles to disguise the cheapness of the sets filmed in darkness with a lot of mist to typify the Scottish moors and created a kind of Shakespeare noir. He couldn't get Agnes Moorehead for Lady MacBeth, but did get a perfectly acceptable Jeanette Nolan for the role.
As for himself Welles was a perfect picture of ravenous ambition as MacBeth. Do one murder to advance yourself and the rest become easier as time goes on. Still they drag on his soul, more than even the evil end those three witches foresee for him.
He's aided and abetted in his foul deeds by his wife. Partners can have a leavening or a sharpening affect on their mates. I've often used the different examples of the two wives of Woodrow Wilson to illustrate the point. Wilson's first wife was a gentle southern belle who was able to curb some of his tendencies to self righteousness. When she died Wilson married his second wife who exacerbated those tendencies, as Lady MacBeth does with her husband.
Among the supporting cast look for good performances from Edgar Barrier as Banquo, Roddy MacDowell as Malcolm, and Dan O'Herlihy as MacDuff. One of Shakespeare's best lines in my humble opinion is that tease he has the witches say to MacBeth about no man of woman born being able to harm him. And then later in the climax when MacDuff reveals he was the product of a Caesarean, in Shakespeare's phrase 'untimely ripped.' The image of that is so vivid in my mind as MacDuff the untimely ripped is about to do some untimely ripping of his own.
Given the restrictions Welles was operating under, this is not a bad production of MacBeth at all. Just keep thinking of Vera Hruba as Lady MacBeth and you'll find virtues you never knew existed.
This 40s Macbeth is a Shakespeare adaptation with mixed results,
created by and starring Orson Welles and released through Poverty Row
studio Republic. The costumes are Scandinavian but the accents are
Welles is good as the Thane who becomes a king-killer and a tyrant, while Jeanette Nolan appears as the scheming Lady Macbeth. Roddy McDowell is a delicate Malcolm, while Erskine Sanford is Duncan.
The mood of the film is dark, drenched in fog, but the way it is filmed is pure cinema, giving the text new life. There would be better Macbeths but this one is certainly memorable and effective. Welles would go on to tackle Othello and Henry IV (as Chimes at Midnight).
While Olivier was making his mark as a Shakespearian actor/director in British film, Welles was certainly doing the same in the USA. This film stands for all the work which he started and never finished, and is a good example of what he could achieve when at his best.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
After making THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, Orson Welles basically had burned
his bridges behind him regarding Hollywood. Harry Cohn was the last
head of a major studio (Columbia) who was willing to consider any film
that Welles would direct and produce. That was only because Welles was
married to Cohn's leading sex goddess, Rita Hayworth. In fact, Welles
got the project for THE LADY through because Rita was starring in it.
But Cohn hated the final result, and cut the film (though I don't think
it was as badly cut as say AMBERSOMS had been). The biggest cut was in
the "fun house" sequence at the conclusion. Welles always bemoaned it,
but I think sufficient moments of the sequence exist to remain quite
After Welles divorced Hayworth, any possible chance that Cohn would hire him was gone (if it still existed after Cohn saw the film). So Welles made his next film at the leading second tier studio: Herbert Yates' Republic Pictures. Yates was best known for his westerns, but he occasionally got a better than average film (directed by John Ford, and starring John Wayne). Yates wanted to make Republic one of the leading studios. So, he was willing to allow Welles to film there - but Welles had to do it on a short budget and within one month.
He did do so - he produced a film of MACBETH with a cast including Dan O'Herlihy, Roddy MacDowell, Jeanette Nolan, Edgar Barrier, and Alan Napier.
For years this film has gotten an unfair reputation. Welles had the actors speak with Scottish Accents. This was actually understandable. But the critics attacked the experiment. So the film was repackaged with an "English" soundtrack. Also it was re-cut, by the studio, and for years was about twenty minutes shorter than Welles' final cut. It was this mangled version that was known to the public - and complained about (adding to the myth that Welles was really a second-rate director). It still had some good film moments, such as the march of Brendon Wood to Dunstinane (where the forest is holding early medieval crosses), or the shots of the stormy sea hitting the rocky breakers, while Welles recites the "Tommorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech. But the know it all critics kept saying comments like "Shakespeare through the Welles' meat grinder." That review is from the anonymous reviewer of the New York Times.
Welles did rewrite the play in that he gave some of the speeches to other characters, and created a whole character (the Holy Father played by Napier) who got dialog from some minor characters that were deleted in the screenplay. But the basic story was kept and enhanced by Welles' sets and directing.
Fortunately for us all, MACBETH is available now with the twenty minutes Yates cut out restored. Ironically, unlike the large studios RKO and Columbia that lost the cut film from AMBERSOMS and THE LADY (one can also add the scenes of Konstantine Shayne's escape from prison to South America from THE STRANGER) Republic preserved the cut film and the Scottish accented sound track. MACBETH is the first film of Welles that was restored to what he had in mind.
Of course now that we see the full film we realize how the critics in 1948 were unduly hostile to Welles. They had not minded jumping on him, a failed "wunderkind" from Broadway. But now that we see that MACBETH was a worthy film, we can ask how many films those same critics who attacked Welles were properly reviewed and how many bombs among movies they liked.
To begin with the film is permeated with a spirit of barbarism - frequently we see signs of violent death and corpses left dangling. But they are taken with ease by the people of the period (one corpse is dangling in the background of Macbeth's "Glammis" castle, while he and Lady Macbeth (Nolan) are embracing and kissing). The still darkness of the night is used as an instrument of dread - look at the longest section of the film - the section where Macbeth is considering the Witches prediction, and slowly talking himself into killing his guest, King Duncan (Erskind Sandford). It has been said that Welles was trying to show the struggle between barbarism and Christianity in the film, and he certainly is able to make the confrontation insidious. He never has the witches confront the Holy Father, but the latter is killed (by Macbeth) and the witches have a final comment to make upon the death of Macbeth at the tale end of the film: "Peace, the Charm has ended."
Welles actually knew more about what he was doing when he shot MACBETH than his contemporaries credited him with. In the 1930s he had done a celebrated "VOODOO MACBETH" set in Haiti, with an all African-American cast. It was very well regarded. Unfortunately he could not do that here - it was 1948 and Hollywood would not tolerate a classic play done by people usually playing stereotyped servants (although this was slowly changing in the late 1940s). It would have been interesting to have seen that production, but for a close second, this one does very well indeed.
Lord Macbeth encounters witches that foresee his ascension to power and
finally to the throne. Driven on by this prophecy and his ambitious and
manipulative wife, Macbeth plots, betrays and murders to become King.
This is Shakespeare at his most bleak, pessimistic and chilling.
Orson Welles, a lover of Shakespeare from an early age, would make three attempts to bring the Bard to the screen. Each attempt has the same strengths (ambition, performance, Welles himself and visual genius) and weaknesses (a beggar's budget). Of these three attempts (the other two being Othello and Chimes at Midnight), Macbeth is the least handicapped by technical difficulties, even if is the weakest overall.
Welles used borrowed costumes and unusual locations (such as an abandoned mine) and shot them in a staggeringly surreal way that greatly enhances the overall quality. As an adaptation, his Macbeth is very faithful in spirit, and trimmings in the text serve only to make it more cinematic and compliant with limited resources. Never, to the star/director's credit, does this feel like a "small" film. Rather, it is inspirational, and traces of it's genius can be found in Kurosawa's version, "Throne of Blood", shot ten years later.
Essential viewing. Especially for those in Europe who have access to Wild Side's beautiful new transfer of the full 115 minute version.
No one will claim that Welles' adaptation is the most accurate or best (see Roman Polansky's for a truer Macbeth) and at some points the bombast of Welles and his supporting cast, especially Lady Macbeth, can be a little overwhelming. However, for sheer mood and feel, I prefer this Macbeth over all the others out there. The darkness and dampness that close in on Welles as the movie progresses is claustrophobic and really gives a gritty appeal to this film. A great example of b&w film used to its fullest potential.
Orson Welles's version of "Macbeth" makes a dark play even darker. Welles
always has his own particular take on everything, and while this is an
imperfect movie, it is certainly interesting.
The most noticeable feature of this adaptation is how dark everything is. Almost every scene and every set has barely enough light to let us see what is happening, accentuating the cheerless nature of the plot itself. Sometimes this is effective, but at other times it might have been better to give the viewer a break from the gloom, and to put the focus more on the characters and a little less on the atmosphere.
Macbeth the character is portrayed here in a rather different light than usual. He comes across as rather helpless and not in control of his fate, instead of as the usual stronger Shakespearean tragic hero whose strength is undone by his own tragic flaw. While the three witches seem more in control of the action than does Macbeth himself, most of the apparitions they create are not shown, with the focus being more on Macbeth's reaction. The text itself is also quite different in places, with some lines being switched to new or different characters, and many scenes re-arranged. In all of these respects, viewers will have varying opinions as to how well these decisions work.
While the result is certainly not a masterpiece like some of Welles' other films, his creative influence is clear throughout. Welles fans and Shakespeare fans should definitely see this adaptation and decide for themselves.
Orson Welles Macbeth is to me, perhaps even better made than "Citizen
The fact that much of the Shakespearean dialogue was over my head should
sway my reviewing of the film, and that is why I rated the film as a "9"
Orson Welles once again brings the story to life with his cinematography which brings out the dark nature and inner obsessions and strong emotions of his characters.
I had bought two versions of Macbeth (Roman Polanski's and Orson's )after
successfully toiling with the Arden texts for a couple of weeks, I had
pictured in my mind's eye what what might be an adequate visual
interpretation of the ambitious king and nagging wife etc... However
'interpretation' is the key to viewing any filmed Shakespeare, For a start
on the Imbd there are easily over 20 versions, and with 'Orson Welles
MacBeth' an 'interpretation' is certainly what you get.
The radical physical setting of this screen version (amongst random ragged rocks in the 'Highlands') indeed evokes a sense of a rustic kingdom in early Y1K, lit by burning broom and men toiling and dying at every available nook and cranny in the rock. Typically, the actors (particularly Welles) address the rhetoric with the Scotch accent which has never been indigenously heard in Scotland (think of Disney's 'Scrooge McDuck' or The Terrier 'Mac' in 'Lady and the Tramp'). Oral issues aside, MacBeth, after slaying Duncan, patrols his new house with a sort of upside down stool on his head with the legs sharpened to a point, and issues decrees from a throne in a type of indoor tent. One point about the play in general is the fact that he murders at least 4 people and only one of their spirits can be bothered to haunt the obsessed tyrant (Banquo visits mid Banquet)?
When you see this version of MacBeth, bear in mind Welles' brave and original touch to the highly worked text. The atmosphere is unique, rich with darkness and a kind of fear. Settings are perfectly lit for their purpose, and reliably Welles is always the man capable for for the titular role.
I had intended to return at least one of the videos, I think I will keep both, just to remind me how good each of them are.
(Incidently, I am writing from the town in the north of Scotland where Duncans Castle is located in the text : How far is it called to FORRES?, On old maps of the town there was a site 'ruin of Duncan's castle' now known as 'Castle Hill' was this the place where Macbeth strutted with the stool on his head?)
In Scotland, Macbeth is a honored nobleman, who listens to the prophecies of
three witches: he would become a duke, and later the king of Scotland.
Immediately after the information, he is declared to duke by the king. His
wife Lady Macbeth and him plot against the king and decide to stab him in
the night, blaming his servants. After the death of the king, Macbeth is
proclaimed king and can not sleep anymore. Then, guided by his greed and
madness, starts killing everybody he thinks may be a menace to him,
believing in his interpretation of the prophecies. I am not a great fan of
Shakespeare's vocabulary, too much refined and difficult to be understood by
a person that is not native in English, but this theatrical version of
Macbeth is a great movie. The gothic scenario and the black and white
photography are very impressive, as well as the performance of Orson Welles.
My vote is eight.
Title (Brazil): `Macbeth Reinado de Sangue' (`Macbeth Kingdom of Blood')
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