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Orson Welles’s Macbeth (1948)

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Orson Welles’s <em>Macbeth</em> (1948)

Me and Orson Welles, director Richard Linklater’s zippy new comedy about the 22-year-old Welles’s 1937 Broadway mounting of a Fascist-themed Julius Caesar (and featuring an uncanny performance by Christian McKay as the auteur terrible), throws the Citizen Kane filmmaker’s Shakespeare obsession into relief. Citizen Welles adapted Shakespeare for multiple mediums, often reinventing the same play several times for radio, stage, and film. Some highlights include his Broadway debut, a Haitian voodoo production of Macbeth and an audio production of The Merchant of Venice in which Welles plays the angriest Shylock you will likely ever hear. He also made several masterful Bard film adaptations, including an Expressionistic movie version of Macbeth. For many years the film was in less-than-patchwork condition. Then UCLA’s restoration team went to work.

The result screened at Walter Reade in December (even knowing the film well, I found the clarity and texture of the UCLA team’s efforts revelatory). After a series of commercial failures, culminating in the 1947 thriller The Lady from Shanghai, Welles took on 1948’s Macbeth essentially as a stylistic dare, shooting it in 23 days for cheap. He also made it with his American actors delivering their lines with Scottish accents, which Republic Pictures, horrified, overdubbed for the film’s U.S. release (Republic also murdered over 20 minutes of footage, including a 10-minute tracking shot on the night of Duncan’s murder that outshines Welles’s more celebrated three-minute track in Touch of Evil). While French writers and filmmakers as disparate as Jean Cocteau, André Bazin and Robert Bresson celebrated the film (“I love too much natural settings and natural light not to love also the fake light and the cardboard settings of Macbeth,” Bresson claimed), American critics panned it and U.S. audiences disdained it. Its release so close to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, which won that year’s Best Picture Oscar, didn’t help.??

A version of Welles’s Macbeth that restores the missing footage and accents has been available for some time now on an incredible three-disc French DVD (which includes both the 88- and 114-minute versions, four minutes of Welles’s “Voodoo Macbeth” and the entirety of an audio performance he arranged of the play). But UCLA’s work makes it all look and sound ravishing. Welles’s cinema, though brilliant, is an acquired taste for the same reason opera is: to love it one must have an appreciation for all-consuming grandeur, so sincere in its conviction that it either soars or falls flat—often moment-to-moment within the same work. The Scottish burrs are a good example: A viewer can dismiss them as poorly done, or can appreciate their rough, craggy, oft-broken sound as a facet of the jagged, primordial landscape, both visual and thematic, in which Welles places the tale. He situates the story at a moment of just-dawning Christianity, but even the religious characters here are ruled by fear and uncertainty (by contrast, Macbeth as played by Welles gains power from the witches and joyfully mispronounces his faithful servant Seyton’s name as “Satan”). A never-used voiceover recorded by Welles called “the savage Scotland” of his film “half lost in the mist that hangs between history and the time of legends.” At the same time, as Catherine L. Benamou noted in last spring’s Michigan Quarterly Review, Welles filmed his story of destructive totalitarianism shortly after World War II ended, and his sloping, pudgy walk in the movie at times resembles Mussolini’s. Since the rough world here crushes innocence and beauty, it makes sense for the characters to speak splendid poetry with hues and tones that hurt the ears.

It’s instructive to compare Welles’s Macbeth with other films of the Scottish play to see how they treat the verse—Walter Reade showed Polanski’s Macbeth, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and the Indian Maqbool last July alone. I haven’t seen the latter, but the first two explicitly devalue Shakespeare’s text for the sake of their images. By contrast, Welles paints pretty pictures that still serve the words. Not that he doesn’t rope around with the play, and indeed, some of his changes fail. The building of a relationship between Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff is a good choice, as its betrayal gives practical incentive for Lady Macbeth to go mad and furthers Shakespeare’s theme of femininity’s need to “unsex” itself to survive in a masculine world. Furthermore, Welles places Macbeth at the scene of Lady Macduff’s murder, so that unlike in Shakespeare, where the Scot goes from doing his own dirty work to bureaucratically assigning it to others, Welles’s Macbeth stays befouled. But the invention of a Holy Father character waving a staff to herald Christianity works less well, mainly because the character’s motives read inconsistently. Unlike Polanski and Kurosawa, though, both of whom chop up the poetry so that we can focus solely on images of a brutish, nasty physical world, Welles uses images to give us a sense both of Macbeth’s mud-begrimed Earth and of the heavens to which its poetry refers.??

François Truffaut wrote that Welles made two kinds of films, those with guns and those with snow. This is a silly and extreme claim to make—for one thing, it snows in Mr. Arkadin—but it does point to the mixture of melancholy and bravado that permeates Welles’s work. The push and pull of these moods reflects itself in Macbeth’s physical/metaphysical split. The film’s handling of time helps to plant or to lift us. The sequence of events from Duncan’s murder up through its discovery (Scenes 1.7-2.4 in Shakespeare) is shown entirely in one shot, the camera roving all the while, giving a sense of events tumbling forward faster than the Macbeths can process them.??

Later in the film, though, as Macbeth’s deeds catch up with him, Welles slows down the camera, breaks up the plane of vision, and looks up instead of down. The film’s early deaths are quick and bloody, but when Seyton hangs himself we see his body swinging in slow, haunting motion, which mirrors the slo-mo movements of Malcolm’s Birnam Wood army marching toward Dunsinane, death moving slowly but inexorably toward its victims. (Welles would also use slow-motion to great effect in the extraordinary battle sequence in his 1965 film Chimes at Midnight, where the fight’s all-seeing destruction supersedes individual victims.) Welles tilts his camera upward in these later scenes, sometimes dispensing with POV shots altogether: Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, for instance, which emphasizes life’s fragility, plays over shots of swirling clouds.??

In both Welles’s and Polanski’s films, Macbeth delivers his soliloquies in voiceover, as opposed to direct address, a choice that robs Macbeth of the capacity to aim his speech at anyone or anything in particular. Welles acts a sleepy goon gradually awakening to the universe around him. While Jon Finch’s hooded eyes and Polanski’s red-and-brown terrain stunt the Scot’s imagination, Welles’s wide, terrified moon of a face, floating upward, leaves Macbeth helplessly scrambling to rein in what Harold Bloom calls his “proleptic imagination.” Yet the character—unlike the filmmaker—has already lost control. While Macbeth’s body at film’s end holds no more life than the mud doll the witches make of him, his imagination has ascended to join the heavenly hags. Hence Welles’s choice to make his film’s last line the witches’ utterance, “The charm’s wound up.” As Roddy McDowell’s Malcolm moves forward to become the next tyrant, the witches refer not to an end, but, cryptically, to a beginning. ??

The film itself can be seen as both an end and a beginning. Aside from Touch of Evil, made nearly a decade later and similarly butchered by Universal upon its release (and also later restored, though per the deceased Welles’s written requests for changes, as opposed to a version he’d actually made), Macbeth was Welles’s last Hollywood film. He would spend much of his subsequent 30 years as a filmmaker scrounging for funds from various shady Europeans. It was also the first in his trilogy of Shakespeare films. His subsequent two, Othello and Chimes at Midnight (a Falstaffcentric retelling of the Henriad), are both masterpieces, with Chimes among the most heartfelt movies ever made. I hope to someday see them both in prints as good as this one.

Aaron Cutler has written about film for Slant Magazine and The Believer.