Welles first Shakespeare film is a bizarre mix of inspiration and amateurishness
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles (Macbeth), Jeanette Nolan (Lady Macbeth), Dan O’Herlihy (Macduff), Roddy McDowell (Malcolm), Edgar Barrier (Banquo), Alan Napier (Holy Father), Erskine Sanford (Duncan), John Dierkes (Ross), Keene Curtis (Lennox), Peggy Weber (Lady Macduff), Lionel Braham (Siward)
Macbeth was Welles’ last hurrah in Hollywood before decades of self-imposed banishment and exile. He arrived at Republic Pictures – proud creator of B-movie Westerns, although also the home of a few John Ford classics most notably The Quiet Man – who were delighted to sign up a deal for a literary classic directed by America’s leading man of the theatre. What they ended up with was a film that’s such a bizarre mish-mash of brilliance, originality and amateurishness nonsense, that they were basically befuddled.
Welles shot the film, as contracted, within 23 days on old Westerns sets, with a budget od spit and boot polish. Welles was focused, more than any other film he’d worked on to that point, on visual imagery and total control of sound and audio. So much so he wasn’t fussed about recording any sound on set. All the actors pre-recorded their dialogue, under Welles’ strict instructions, and then silently lip synched while shooting the scenes. This gave Welles the freedom for a host of expressionistic, shadow-filled shots where the actors faces and mouths were frequently unseen – or longer shots where it was impossible to clearly see lips moving. It also made some truly rigid, uncomfortable performances (Jeannette Nolan was granted permission to record her sleepwalking scene ‘live’ so she could perform it with some semblance of conviction).
Macbeth was set in a Scotland somewhere between a fiercely traditional high-school production and a hodge-podge of influences from Celtic wizardry to Mongolian hordes. It’s shot on a dust-lined, cavern-filled panorama that frequently looks like a giant theatrical set or an empty multi-purpose wall-lined amphitheatre, with only a few scenes exchanging this for mist-filled heaths or low-ceilinged caves. The costuming and design is an eclectic mix: the murderers look like cavemen, some thanes wear kilts, Malcolm and his soldiers dress in medieval armour, Macbeth and Banquo look like fur-coated renegades from Genghis Khan. Welles himself would regret a bizarre crown which made him look like the Statue of Liberty.
There is a feeling that every idea was grabbed and thrown at the wall, in the expectation (hope?) that some of them would stick and lead to cinematic magic. There is a vague attempt to suggest Scotland is at war between Christianity and Paganism. A composite character, the ‘Holy Father’ parades around – chasing away witches, leading prayers for Duncan, taking dictation for Macbeth, warning Lady Macduff, rousing Malcolm – but with very little real sense that this ever adds up to anything logical or thematically clear. Welles merrily re-writes and transposes dialogue. Some works well – Banquo here seems far more of a potential partner than usual – others less so (Lady Macbeth turns up at the murder of the Macduffs for no clear reason).
But the stuff that works really works – and most of it is visual. The witches are shadowy figures, whose voices alter in cadence and pattern from scene to scenes (Welles had mixed male and female voices together to create an unsettling rhythm), their faces never seen. Inspired by his famous “Voodoo Macbeth” stage production, they craft muddy statues of Macbeth which they crown with a crude coronet. In one of the encounters with Macbeth, the camera pulls away to isolate Macbeth, lit in misty isolation. More Voodoo touches are seen in the hammering drum beats that greet Duncan to Macbeth’s castle.
Mist and expressionistic images dominate. Malcolm’s army urges from among the fog, carrying their branches from Birnam wood. The final battle is a series of isolated shots of characters, often the camera craning up to them or seeing them march towards it. Macbeth is frequently shot from below, to heighten his sense of being almost an ogre. When first seen as king, he sits, isolated and drunk at the top of a flight of stairs, making him seem less imposing and more weak from the start of his reign. He is haunted not only by Banquo’s ghost, but Duncan’s as well, Welles camera cutting to reveal his cavern dining room empty of everyone but the Macbeth and the ghosts of murdered friends, the camera tracking the shadow of his fingers along the wall to reveal the bleeding Banquo.
The entire production becomes like a drug-induced fantasy, something a near-catatonic Macbeth might just be imagining as his dreams are crushed by the cruel fate he feels destined to follow. Welles establishes a now popular idea of the play being a huge cycle: at this death, the witches announce “Peace, the charm’s wound up” the camera catching a sight of Fleance who seems destined to repeat the chaos. (“The charm’s wound up” not indicating an end, as often mis-interpretated, but a readiness to be enacted.)
The camera, freed of the need to capture dialogue on set, flies around roams around or moves with swiftness. Characters walk into shadows. Sequences – such as the murder of the Macduffs – are met with a parade of fast cuts and actors charging towards the camera. Music cues are carefully repeated, and lines carry across transitions. There are plenty of striking images, from a mass crowd praying for Duncan to a low-angle camera tracking a worried Macbeth in the aftermath of the murder.
But yet… this is also a curious dog’s dinner of a film. For every great idea, others (like the Holy Father) either don’t land or make no sense. Macbeth’s seduction of the murderers, interestingly shot over his shoulder at an imposing distance from his servants, is followed by a laughably badly acted and staged murder of Banquo. The actors all perform in, pretty much across the board, dreadful cliched Scottish accents. This accentuates the problem of lip synching on set, which renders nearly everyone in the film flat and strangely lifeless, stuck to replicating a performance from days ago.
This includes Welles himself. Macbeth is, by some distance, his least interesting film Shakespeare performance. His Thane is all surface and no depth and Welles’ decision to play him as a slave to destiny, frequently renders him catatonic, reading the lines with a Scottish lilt that travels by way of Dublin, with plenty of pace but no depth. Jeannette Nolan struggles slightly with Lady Macbeth, a decent match with Welles but lacking presence. There is barely a performance of merit among the rest of the cast: McDowell is dreadful, O’Herlihy all at sea, Barrier out of his depth. The bulk of the cast look and sound – in their traditional costumes and awkward, unconvincing accents – like high school students staging “the Scottish play” in the most “Scottish” way possible.
Welles, naturally, having shot the film promptly disappeared to Europe leaving notes and memos from a distance about how it should be assembled, some of which were promptly ignored by a supportive studio turn exasperated. Those in Europe were more respecting of the results, praising Welles for re-imagining the text and its expressionistic, fluid shooting style. In America, these elements were condemned a mess. Macbeth is a bit of both: good ideas sitting alongside amateurishness and nonsense. It’s most interesting by far as a silent film: there are images here that linger, from the witches mud statue to Lady Macbeth’s plumet to death. But as an overall package Welles would dwarf it with Othello and Chimes at Midnight, which combined good Shakespeare and good film-making. Macbeth is a struggle to marry expressionist film-making and literary grace that doesn’t always succeed.
- A fascinating essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum here on Welles’ Macbeth vision.
- An interesting article on Slant Magazine by Aaron Cutler.
- An intriguing review on Only the Cinema blog.
- A very interesting comparison between Welles and Kurosawa’s approach to the same source from Alex Leggatt here.