Orson Welles first rose to fame with revisionist takes on William Shakespeare’s work, among them a 1937 theatrical production of Julius Caesar set in a fascist state and, a year earlier, Voodoo Macbeth, which relocated the plot of Macbeth to Haiti and featured an entirely black cast. His 1948 film adaptation of the play is similarly faithful in its use of the original text, with the actors going as far as to adopt thick highland brogues. The film likewise transposes Welles’s theatrical experimentations into cinematic terms, existing largely as a showcase for the auteur’s arcane, fussy expressionism, as well as the many cultural quirks borne of a peripatetic life. For example, in the opening scene in which Macbeth (Welles) meets the three witches, they make a facsimile of the lord out of clay, a voodoo-like touch that could be a subtle nod to Welles’s vaunted all-black stage production.
Fred Ritter’s art direction is at once expressionistic and minimal. Forced to reuse old western sets on Republic’s lot to save money, Ritter converts rocky desert landscapes into nightmarish, dank swamps. Castles, which don’t appear to have been built by human hands, seem to rise naturally from the moors. Stone walls are slick with slime and moss, and towers are indistinguishable from craggy rock formations. This is a hard realm for hard men, one where the clay idol of Macbeth is less a symbol than a metaphor for the disgusting earth that birthed him. Nearly everyone is shrouded in mist and sweat. This is a fetid vision of the play’s setting, albeit of a sort that only pulls focus onto the inherent brutality of the text. Indeed, some of the biggest changes to the play lie in the material excised for being too violent or risqué for the Hays Office.
As with the wartime Shakespeare adaptations of Laurence Olivier, Welles’s film is rooted in the arch theatricality of the stage but livened by a shrewd calculation of the ways that cinema can enrich and imagine the Bard’s text. Lady Macbeth (Jeanette Nolan), for example, is regularly filmed from low angles, emphasizing the authority she wields over all those around her, especially her husband, who usually appears below her in the frame. Dressed in sexless black, she looks like a specter of evil, focusing her entire being on the thirst for power at the expense of any other pleasure. Scenes of violence typically play out in shadows and with clever edits, as in the Thane of Cawdor’s execution, which is timed so that the swing of the executioner’s axe cuts to a military drummer’s mallet striking his instrument.
Identifying and magnifying the skeletal nastiness of the text, Wells effectively lays out the blueprint for future revisionist takes on Shakespeare’s works. Both Roman Polanski’s nihilistic rendition and Justin Kurzel’s arty 2015 update pull much from what Welles does here. Olivier may have brought out the fulsome color and hard-won optimism of his adaptations during wartime, but Welles plunges into darkness to reckon with an uncertain postwar world. Shot in less than four weeks, the film has a rugged, spartan nature to it, and though it may be one of the director’s minor achievements, that its enduring unpleasantness lends it a modernity that has yet to fade.
Olive's Signature Edition update of their prior Macbeth release comes with digital restorations of both the film and its 1950 re-edit, and the upgrades look noticeably better in motion. It's still evident how quickly, and cheaply, the film was shot, but the only consistent image issue is the flickering of the most darkly lit scenes. For the most part, however, the film's endless shadows are rendered without heavy crush, and the gleam of flop sweat on characters' faces now shines with clammy sickness. Barring the discovery of a better source print, this may be as good as the film will ever look. Both versions of the film come with lossless mono tracks that capably render the film's canned special effects and sharp dialogue, with any deficiencies in mixing a product of the limitations of the original audio.
Olive's package is most notable for containing both versions of the film, though there's not much point in watching the 1950 re-edit and re-recording other than historical curiosity. The release is otherwise loaded with an informative and wide-ranging commentary from film historian Joseph McBride, as well as brief overview of Welles's long-running adaptations of Shakespeare. Another brief featurette includes interviews with directors Billy Morrissette (whose Scotland, PA. is a 1970-set riff on Macbeth) and Carlo Carlei (Romeo and Juliet) discussing the general challenges of bringing Shakespeare to the screen. An interview with Peter Bogdanovich draws on the director's personal memories of Welles, while another featurette delves into the restoration of Welles's intended version of the film after years of being thought lost. There's also a brief overview of Republic Pictures, the B-movie studio that produced the film. Of the featurettes, the most interesting is a WPA propaganda documentary that contains filmed excerpts of the famed "Voodoo Macbeth" production. Finally, a booklet contains an essay Jonathan Rosenbaum that situates the film comfortably within the B-movie milieu that produced it and reconciles that with the high culture embodied by Welles and Shakespeare.
Olive Films continues their upgraded Signature series with yet another impressive repackaging of a prior release. Orson Welles fans should not hesitate to add it to their collections.