Atop a crag rising out of the mist-shrounded heath, the three witches gather round a cauldron, working their sorcery, bringing forth a fetish, a clay-sculpted likeness of Macbeth. As the narrative progesses we’ll watch the fetish undergo changes, mirroring those of Macbeth in his career, until finally as Macbeth is brought down, we see the fetish melted and ruined and beheaded.
Hoofbeats approach the crag, and into the scene rides Genghis Khan ... wait, what? I open the drawer of the dvd player to make sure I have the correct disc playing and yes, it is indeed Orson Welles’ 1948 film of Macbeth with Welles himself in the lead role unhappily garbed as a mongol warrior. Budget constraints meant that costumes had to be rented. Commenting on the wardrobe of Macbeth later as king, Welles said,”it should have been sent back. It made me look like the statue of liberty.”
What we notice first about this film are the many defects. Shot on the cheap, on a sound stage that had been used mainly for Roy Rogers westerns, this film adaption of Macbeth was Republic Pictures bid for respectability after Laurence Olivier garnered critical acclaim for his film of Shakespeare’s Henry V. As a cost cutting measure, the director had his actors pre-record their dialogue so that what we see onscreen is lipsynching, and in another unfortunate choice, he had the actors use, or I should say attempt, a Scottich brogue, rendering some of the dialogue unintelligible. The stylized sets now come across to modern viewers as cheesey in the extreme, the castle appearing to be more of a cave or grotto than a warlord’s stronghold.
Yet, we recognize this film as a stage play and we are quite acclimated to the artifice of the stage, our willing suspension of disbelief easily swayed by the power of the acting, the poetry of the bard. Most of us have already read the play, and if not, we are certainly familiar with the plot, and even more certainly, no other Shakespeare play is so widely quoted. The garbling of some dialogue is hardly an impediment.
No one ever exerted a greater brooding presence on screen than Orson Welles in his prime. Despite the wardrobe, he presents a convincing warlord, brawny and cunning, a leader of men. As director, he made effecive use of his confined space with his signature noir style and the startling stark images in black and white that crawled straight out of the id of German Expressionism of silent-era Berlin. It is a powerful and affecting film, definitely worth seeing if one is a fan of either Welles or the Bard.
A noose, a dagger, a severed hand.
On a desolate stretch of beach, not far from the din of battle, three witches bury fetish items, invoking the black goddess Hecate and summoning the battle’s victor, Macbeth, to hear their prophecy.
In contrast to Welle’s black and white stage-bound version, Roman Polanski’s 1971 film of Macbeth makes full use of the capacities of cinema. In a subtle use of the color palette, the film begins with the weak sun hazed in by mist and the film grows progessively darker, as Macbeth makes his bloody ascent to power and we do not see the sun again until he is beheaded. Marvelous attention has been paid to period detail. The costuming rings no false note. Always something going on in the backgrounds during long shots, bits of business that support the conceit that we are looking at 11th century Scotland.
The film was shot at several locations in the British Isles, notably in Wales and the coast of Northumberland. Real medieval castles, not stage sets. Real vistas, not painted backdrops.
Actor Jon Finch lacks the brute presence of Orson Welles. Slight of build, I cannot see him as a medieval warlord, the foremost general in King Duncan’s realm. But as an actor he conveys more than adequately the ambition and guilt and paranoia inherent in the role. His final scene is a fine example of stagecraft, the choreographed sword fight with Macduff is the most realistic scene of armored men battling mano a mano that I can recall.
When it was released, Polanski’s film scandalized the blue noses with its mild scene of Lady Macbeth sleepwalking in the nude. The level of violence distressed some viewers, especially the scene of Macduff’s family raped and slaughtered, and the final scene of Macbeth beheaded. Yet these historically authentic scenes pale in comparison to todays fare on television, the most obvious example being Game of Thrones.
Polanski, we assume was drawn to this material because it played to his strengths as an auteur. His previous films, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, dealt with paranoia and witchcraft. Though the director has never admitted it, many considered his attempt to film version of Macbeth to be bereaved man's working through a catharsis, following the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the followers of Charles Manson.
It is a thrilling film, its pacing is taut, its characters real, the words of the Bard ever-fresh and to the point.