Orson Welles’s brutally brisk Macbeth was not just the filmmaker’s first Shakespearean feature film, but also, some have argued, his attempt to make a Mercury Players adaptation sans Mercury Players. Most of the cast members he did use aren’t in the same league as Agnes Moorhead and Joseph Cotten, but that’s only one of the many reasons the movie weighs especially heavy. Welles plunged what was already one of the Bard’s darkest works into the primeval darkness of salt mines that, though filmed in high-contrast monocrhome, appear to be perpetually exuding blood. The writer-director assumes the title role of the thane who, in response to the pre- and post-determinate urgings of four women, hacks and slashes his way to assume the crown of Scotland and spends the entirety of his short reign fearing the similarly presaged events that threaten to violently depose him. In Grand Guignol (and proto-Breaking Bad) fashion, Macbeth’s fears and dirty deeds only result in him sanctioning further atrocities, all in the name of tying up loose entrails.
Talk about self-fulfilling prophecy. Like all but a handful of Welles’s films made for the studios, Macbeth ended up sustaining significant cuts from its original 107-minute running time, in response to critical ire that Welles had taken too many liberties with the original text. (Because cutting more made so much more sense.) Given Welles’s prior difficulties with The Magnificent Ambersons and the It’s All True project, it’s no surprise that his adaptation of the Shakespeare play would emphasize the thematic thread of thwarted ambition, just as it’s no wonder Roman Polanski’s 1971 version—filmed in the aftermath of the slaughter of his wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child at the hands of Charles Manson’s subordinates—focused on the inherent brutality of the source text.
The limited scope of Welles’s production design, turning Macbeth into the king of a kingdom that resembles nothing so much as a playground replica of Stonehenge, ends up making subconscious comment on his perceptibly fallen fortunes. That Macbeth’s crown rests so uneasily in such a stunted, easily manipulated environment makes one wonder if Welles, at this point, wasn’t even less confident in his artistic command than anyone realized. Welles infamously pulled the movie from competition at the Venice Film Festival in response, he said, to the belief that Italians could never “get” Shakespeare through translation, but many speculate he was green-eyed over the adulation Olivier’s Hamlet received at the same fest. Add to that his defensiveness in interviews, explaining that the reason the film was shot in three weeks was because, quite simply, Republic wouldn’t give him any more money. Though surprisingly few seams show in the full 107-minute cut (certainly not in the unbroken, reel-long shot that glides through the entire second act plus change), it still often feels as though the challenge Welles decided to tackle was speed, not clarity—a tactic that blessedly works for what’s among the shortest and brusquest of Shakespeare’s great works.
Verisimilitude saw Welles insisting on the “burr” of legitimate Scottish accents, a choice that was retracted at the studio’s request for the shortened cut, but accents or no, the absence of key Welles’s players seems the film’s biggest failing. Welles himself rises to the impossible task, inverting his usual charisma so that it here represents soul rot. But beyond him and Jeanette Nolan, who plays Lady Macbeth as though that damned spot she commands “out, out” has metastasized into her quickening diaphragm, the rest of the cast seems stuck in readers’ theater mode. Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that no actor has satisfactorily bridged the gap between the Macbeth easily exploited by women in the play’s first two acts and the merchant of menace of the play’s remainder. In this particular adaptation, Welles the actor arguably makes a better go at it than Welles the director, who may have been concentrating too much on the logistics of his production to put his cast through their paces.
Olive Films offers the long cut with the Scottish accents intact, and in 1080p, it looks...well, it looks really, really depressing. Some of the more heavily processed sequences bear the mark of age, but there are a few scenes in the darkest recesses of those dripping caves where the black levels are incredibly inky. Artifacts aren’t anywhere near as big a problem as I would’ve expected, and it’s generally quite sharp. The sound mix is tinny and cheap enough to make me regret that the disc didn’t also come with any subtitles or closed captioning.
Fans of the film hoping for a bonus-feature bonanza will have to wait until "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow."
Macbeth may be the least successful of Welles’s Shakespeare films, but Olive Films’s sporadically striking transfer will make that sort of hierarchal sound and fury signify nothing, indeed.