Shakespeare on Film: Macbeth


Macbeth (1948)
directed by Orson Welles

Made in just 23 days, Orson Welles‘ black-and-white experiment combines cinematic visuals with theatrical acting and design and a radio director’s emphasis on the verse. His production of Macbeth at the Utah Centennial Festival in May 1947 was effectively a dress rehearsal for the movie, which began shooting a month later on a tight $700,000 budget from Hollywood B-movie studio, Republic.

Welles could only afford abstract sets: The jagged walls of Macbeth’s castle resemble quick-dried volcanic lava; its courtyard has the unmistakable smoothness of a studio floor.

Copious thunder, lightning and wind effects enhance the artifice, and yet there is great visual poetry when the camera closes in on Macbeth’s feverish face as he sees a crowded banquet table suddenly empty, save for Banquo’s ghost, or when a ten-minute take follows the build-up to and aftermath of Duncan’s murder (Welles could shoot such long takes without worrying about off-camera interruptions because the cast had pre-recorded their dialogue in Scottish accents and acted to playback).

Welles’ Macbeth towers above his co-stars in low-angle close-ups (as he would in Othello), murders Duncan in a virtual trance and as King, deadens reality by remaining perpetually drunk; sobriety returns only when he faces death. The impression that Macbeth is enduring a nightmarish, out-of-body experience is strongest when Welles, in a fine burr, delivers the most important soliloquies in voiceover and, as in Welles’ radio Shakespeare, his thoughts belong as much to the audience as to the speaker.

Jeanette Nolan’s Lady Macbeth, with a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo and shrill voice, lusts after husband and power with equal fervour, though her inexperience in front of the camera explains her stiff performance.

Republic executives so hated Welles’ original cut that they obliged his assistant, Richard Wilson, to hack it to 86 minutes, with redubbed American accents. Released in the US in September 1950, this version made Republic a small profit. In Britain The Observer branded it “uncouth, unscholarly, unmusical.” Only in 1980, when Wilson restored the excised footage and Scottish dialogue for a re-release, was Macbeth judged as Welles had intended it, as “a violently sketched charcoal drawing of a great play.”

100 Shakespeare Films

Extracted from 100 Shakespeare Films by Daniel Rosenthal, BFI Publishing, 2007. Reprinted by kind permission of BFI Publishing/Palgrave Macmillan. To order a copy of100 Shakespeare Films and other books from the BFI Screen Guides series, visit their website at www.palgrave-usa.com.

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