Orson Welles' Macbeth
is an expressionist masterpiece about a doomed man of ordinary ambition who believes an evil prophecy that he will become King. The shortest of Shakespeare's tragedies, Welles long considered Macbeth
to be the most filmable of the Bard's work. Produced on a slim budget over a mere 32 days, the results are consistently impressive. As depicted by Welles, the title character is not a warrior king or conscience-stricken, poetic soul on a par with Hamlet; rather, he is revealed to be a facile, superstitious man consigned to fate even as the character does not trust to fate. For her part, Lady Macbeth (Jeanette Nolan) is merely obsessed with the unimpeded exercise of her will to power, viewing her husband's life as a tale told by an idiot (she is particularly effective during the "out, damned spot" scene from Act V). Welles has also created some new scenes here, conflating several characters into a "Holy Father" (Alan Napier) while eliciting strong supporting turns from actors such as Dan O'Herlihy (Macduff) and Roddy McDowall (Malcolm). All of this unfolds within a highly disordered state in which nature itself is on the rant ("Fair is foul and foul is fair"). Though the technically poor soundtrack and the occasional indecipherable Scottish brogue make the film seem a trifle compromised at times, each moment feels preternaturally alive. There is an almost Brechtian quality here, with Welles giving us splendid pieces then leaving it to us to fit them into a theatrically coherent puzzle. Refusing to believe that Birnham Wood could ever travel to Dunsinane, Macbeth is finally exposed as a man of insufficient character. As such, some might suggest that this Macbeth
is more accurately described as the story of how Malcolm became King. --Kevin Mulhall
This fully restored Macbeth is the original version produced and directed by Orson Wells. In a bid commercially, the studio later trimmed the film by twenty minutes and redubbed the Scottish accents employed by Welles and his cast. This tampering with his work would come as no surprise to a director growing disillusioned with a Hollywood that tampered with all his films after Citizen Kane. Wells shot the film in just 21 days in the summer of 1947, at the small 'B' movie studio Republic. Here he believed was the perfect environment in which to undertake his first Shakespearean project for the screen. The result was powerful, intense and distinctively Welles. From the ominous encounter with the witches to the fateful marching of Birnam wood to Dunsinane, Welles the director captured the very essence of this, Shakespeare's darkest play. With typically expressive use of camera, lighting and sets bordering on the surreal, he conjured up a claustrophobic world, where Welles the actor portrayed an increasingly deranged Macbeth. One of Well's filmmaking experiments in Macbeth was a ten minute take, subsequently edited when Republic shortened the film for general release. In 1980, a film archivist in America discovered half the reels of the original version on a high grade stock, among which was this 'one take' reel. After sourcing the missing footage from elsewhere, he was able to create a high quality, restored version of Macbeth, as Welles has intended it to be seen. In this complete form, it remains one of the most powerful and atmospheric of the many screen adaptations of Shakespeare.