Macbeth (1948), directed by and starring Orson Welles

macbeth1© 2004 John Murphy

Harold Bloom called Macbeth Shakespeare’s most “Expressionistic” play. It is only appropriate, then, that America’s most Expressionistic filmmaker, Orson Welles, settled on “The Scottish Play” as his first foray into Bard adaptation (later followed by Othello and Chimes at Midnight). Macbeth was an appropriate choice for the auteur, considering some kind of curse had apparently befallen the once wined-and-dined star of theatre, radio, and film. After the tour-de-force debut of Citizen Kane in 1941, Welles’ star dimmed quickly. A series of debacles followed his precocious masterpiece, and by 1948 Hollywood suits had labeled the one-time prodigy “box-office poison.”

Yet bloated budgets and smooth edges are not prerequisites to good filmmaking. No one knew this better than the perpetually money-strapped Welles. Once he’d been ostracized from the studio system, the faded Wunderkind spent the majority of his career making pseudo-masterpieces from funds scraped together by the odd acting job.  Despite the monetary constraints, Welles proves that, for a director, a little imagination and visual verve can make up for a tight purse.

Macbeth was produced on the relative cheap (about $500,000), filmed at a breakneck pace (about twenty days), and the result is a haggard, stylized tone poem. This is Shakespeare as lurid film noir. The messy quality somehow makes it more compelling, mostly because Welles’ unsurpassed visual imagination compensates for the low-end production values. He embraces the supernatural aspects of the play: stylized sets serving for blasted heath and dank castles blanketed in fog and lit in high contrast B & W. Askew angles and Welles’ signature deep-focus photography make for bold, innovative compositions. Gothic flourishes like the silhouetted Weird Sisters seem fever-dream induced. Plenty of sound and fury to be found here. Even a master stylist like Kurosawa borrowed liberally from Welles for his own Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood. Check out both films’ “Not ’Til Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane!” sequences and see how Kurosawa compared notes with Welles.

The performances follow Welles’ film noir aesthetic. Jeannette Nolan understands that Lady Macbeth is among drama’s ultimate femme fatales and plays her like a vampish shrew with a boot of a face but a killer body. She moves with a robot’s efficiency, and always seems to tower over her whipped husband in the early portion of the film. Welles proceeds to diminish her place in the frame as her power wanes and she descends into despair and madness. Nolan’s strong performance and Welles’ equally solid turn in the title role are the foundation of this movie. Their theatrical Scottish brogues are occasionally cringe-inducing, but the intense love their characters have for each other is palpable. As Bloom also pointed out, M. and Lady M. are the happiest married couple in the Bard’s canon. Welles highlights Macbeth’s egomaniacal tendencies in the latter portion of the play, an interpretation the actor/director seems well-suited for.

The supporting cast is largely negligible, but the interest here lies in the hallucinatory intensity of the images. The nightmarish world Welles creates, a world of overt nihilism oddly coupled with doomed fate, makes the skin crawl. Though the text is gutted and some of the acting too shoddy to make this anywhere near a definitive version of Macbeth, Welles’ endless sense of invention carries him through. This is a must-see for anyone with more than a passing interest in Orson Welles or Shakespeare’s most feverishly intense play.

Here’s a vidclip of the film’s opening:

Categories: Macbeth and Orson Welles.

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