Directed by Orson Welles
Screenplay by (No Credited Screenwriter) based upon the play by William Shakespeare
Starring Orson Welles, Jeanette Nolan, and Dan O’Herlihy
I don’t know why I bother with Shakespeare anymore. Yes, I know he’s one of those great writers we have to learn about – or supposedly-great. So, there’s that. Then, for a moviegoer there’s all these adaptations of his works, which means you inevitably have to contend with him in some way as more than just a dusty book on a shelf. I don’t want to bother, yet there’s often no way around it.
The truth is, I mostly find Shakespeare impenetrable. People can rave over the poetry of the plays and all that junk, but for me, the poetry and other junk keep me out. This was a fact I noted in my The Also-Ran’s Project entry about Henry V, and rather than beat that horse to death here, I’ll quote myself:
If I’m honest – if we’re all honest – Shakespeare is mostly impenetrable. Unless you are one of the learned few who’ve spent months or years doing the homework of Shakespeare, parsing through the history of the plays and the language to understand the allusions and references made in the text, he is not going to be a casual pleasure. After all, if your enjoyment of a thing is dependent upon having previously studied it, or requires you to have some prior exposure to it to ‘get it’, it will never exist for casual enjoyment. And because Shakespeare’s writing demands study and rigor, the distance between his academic reputation and his practical reputation will continue to widen with each passing year.
The irony of that quote above is it makes the case that if you study the play you’ll enjoy the performances more. As if a prior reading of the play was enough to get your head around it. The things is: I have read Macbeth, and read it in an annotated form. The sort of annotation where the text is on the right hand page, while the left hand page has the translation and explanation. And even then, having studied it in plain English, I could not find a way in on this version of Macbeth. Which I think says everything that needs saying about our guy William Shakespeare.
What’s It About?
After hearing a prophecy from a trio of witches that he’ll be king, Macbeth (Orson Welles), and at the urging of his wife (Jeanette Nolan ), kills his king and takes the throne for himself. Only, his own paranoia and guilt over his treachery drives both Macbeth and his wife to madness and tyranny. So much so that he attempts to wipe out the entire family of a rival, Macduff (Dan O’Herlihy), who was prophesied to follow Macbeth onto the throne. In the end, tyranny and madness cannot save Macbeth from madness – he winds up dead, with Macduff taking the crown.
How Was It?
Because Shakespeare is a mystery to me, there is no way I can adequately judge the quality of the story, or the acting of it, here. As enjoying those elements very much depends upon being able to interpret the story in real time, which I could not do, I can truly have no opinion of either. The only thing I can say about the performances is that I’m not sure I buy Welles’ Scottish accent. Perhaps a legitimate Scot can give a good opinion on the accent, but to my ear it sounds off.
That said, the film does have its virtues. Like Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (also 1948), this film was shot almost entirely on sound stages. Also like that film, this one leans into the stage-bound setting, using the controlled environment of the studio as a tool in increasing the contrast and moodiness in the lighting. It allows for interesting composition of shots and staging. As such, Welles tends to flood every shot with fog and atmosphere, some of that in an effort to cover over the seams that often show in the background, but mostly to give mood. And while this approach can never truly blind us to the films physical shortcomings, on an emotional level it still manages to feel authentic. In a big way I think it’s possible to draw a line from these sorts of Shakespeare adaptations backwards to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligiari, and forward from them to the big budget movie musicals of the 1950s and 1960s, and all the way up to the oeuvre of Lars Von Trier, particularly Dogville. That is to say, this film fits well within the continuum of cinema that strips itself free of reality, and verisimilitude of setting, and focuses in on emotional truth.
As to Welles, there is a certain sweatiness to the whole of the production that feels appropriate. Since this story relies so much on madness and mania, it feels right to see the mental labor of the characters played out on their faces and brows as thick sweat.
One thing: it’s insane to think that Welles was just 33 when this movie was made, which was also the same year as The Third Man. Given they are two wildly different films, with two wildly different Welles performances, one of which is designed to undercut his vanity, it’s amazing to think he wasn’t more well-regarded as an actor. Even crazier is to realize than just a decade later – at 43, which is the age I am now – Welles would be playing the rotund, seedy, crooked Captain Hank Quinlan in A Touch of Evil. Moreover, it doesn’t seem he even had to wear much makeup to play that role. It’s sad to realize that maybe the reason he was able to so convincingly play older, and more broken down than he was, because his life was hard and showed on his face.
The version of the DVD I watched Macbeth on was from Olive Films, who clearly picked up the rights to the film late in the chain of title. I’ve seen other discs put out by Olive Films, and even have another in my collection – Elaine May’s A New Leaf. What’s strange about all these discs from Olive Films is they all share one common trait – a lack of subtitling. To be clear, I’m not deaf or hard of hearing, I just like watching movies with subtitles for clarity, and to overcome a certain mush-mouthedness in actors. This is a stance I know I’m not alone in taking. Which is why it baffles me when films like Macbeth, which require more intense understanding of what’s being said, are put out with no subtitles.
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 And probably, that’s something that would apply to all versions of Macbeth, not just Welles’.
 To be fair, while I generally don’t enjoy the more literal, or faithful, adaptations of Shakespeare, I did enjoy Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, and both the Zefferelli and the Luhrman versions of Romeo and Juliet.