Orson Welles | 103 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG
Twelve years on from his innovative, acclaimed, career-bolstering ‘Voodoo Macbeth’, and with the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast and films like Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady from Shanghai now under his belt, Orson Welles tried to interest Hollywood in something they’d only attempted a handful of times since the advent of talkies: a Shakespeare adaptation.
“Tried to interest” and “attempted” are not inapt phrases here. After failing to elicit interest in an adaptation of Othello, Welles switched to pitching the ever-popular Macbeth as “a perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein,” interesting Republic Pictures because of their desire to move from producing low-budget Westerns to being a prestige studio. The end result was Welles had to shoot his film in just 23 days for only $700,000. The end result was a movie that struggled against Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, released the same year, and for which poor critical reception led to nearly 20 minutes of cuts and the remainder being dubbed to change the actors’ accents.
Restored in 1980, the original version is a compromised but interesting adaptation. Welles has chopped and changed the play, cutting scenes, transposing others, assigning speeches to different characters, even creating new ones. This array of modifications scandalised critics at the time, though nowadays it’s much more common for film (and stage) versions of Shakespeare to mess around with the text as needed, usually to make the works a manageable length. Macbeth is one of the more sensibly-sized plays, however, though I suppose this is the legacy of Welles’ 23-day schedule.
The low budget and quick schedule affect the film across the board, for good and ill. There’s much dramatic staging, with grand sets and doom-laden lighting. The shadow-drenched cinematography may well be a result of the cheap production, but the resulting effect is marvellous. Indeed, all the camerawork is great. There are some striking long takes, including the majority of the night of the murder occurring in one long unbroken shot. The costumes, on the other hand, look like a ragtag bunch of Past Clothing from the studio’s store… which is because they essentially were.
Welles chose to have the cast speak with Scottish accents, which unfortunately end up a bit squiffy. I suppose it’s an attempt at authenticity at least, and if you don’t allow them to bother you then they won’t bother you. I certainly wound up not noticing them after only a few minutes. In spite of that, many of the performances are quite strong. Of their era — they can be a little stagey and histrionic, lacking the subtlety we might expect today — but good. The dialogue was pre-recorded for the sake of the schedule, with the actors miming their lines on set. Seems like a ridiculous idea, and no doubt had an effect on performances, but I only noticed it once in the entire production.
Much of the score (by Jacques Ibert, after Welles failed to secure Bernard Herrmann for contractual reasons) is appropriately atmospheric, but at one point it goes all Comedy. Macbeth himself is hardly in possession of all his faculties at that point, acting like a drunkard; but rather than make the sequence appropriately sinister (it’s in this state that he orders the execution of Banquo and Fleance, for example), it plays up the silliness, which is a shame.
For a variety of reasons, stemming from both the production situation and Welles’ creative choices, this is a flawed film. That said, its successes outweigh its problems to create a memorable adaptation that is justly regarded as one of the more significant films in Welles’ oeuvre.