The Dark Version
Orson Welles plunged into what was already one of Shakespeare’s darkest works into the primeval darkness and assumes the title role of the thane who, in response to the pre- and post-determinate urgings of four women, hacks and slashes his way to assume the crown of Scotland and spends the entirety of his short reign fearing the similarly presaged events that threaten to depose him wit great violence. In Grand Guignol fashion, Macbeth’s fears and dirty deeds result in his sanctioning further atrocities and self-fulfilling prophecy. The limited scope of Welles’s production design, turns Macbeth into the king of a kingdom that resembles nothing so much as a replica of Stonehenge and ends up making subconscious comments on his perceptibly fallen fortunes. That Macbeth’s crown rests so uneasily makes one wonder if Welles, at this point, wasn’t even less confident in his artistic command than anyone realized.
Welles, himself, inverts his usual charisma so that it here represents a rotting soul. But beyond him and Jeanette Nolan, who plays Lady Macbeth, the rest of the cast seems stuck in readers’ theater mode. The new Olive Films release offers the long cut with the Scottish accents intact. Some of the more heavily processed sequences bear the mark of age, but there are a few scenes in the darkest recesses of those dripping caves where the black levels are incredibly inky.
“Macbeth” is surreal and primitive and wonderfully imperfect. The production is a clear act of madness, on par with the insanity that takes place within the story. It is somewhat of a gothic murder mystery–but without the mystery. We know that Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth invent a scheme to commit regicide and take over the throne. They are spurred on by the murky prophecy of three witches, and to take care of business, Macbeth must betray his friends, murder children, and basically transform himself into a tyrant. Haunted by their crimes, both husband and wife go crazy. In addition to the magic of the three witches, Macbeth also sees ghosts. The spirits of the men he betrays return to torment him (or he’s just losing his mind).
Welles plays up on this, and his “Macbeth” is a spooky horror tale. The rocky walls of his cavernous sets box Macbeth in, trapping him at the crime scene. The sky is dark, and thunder claps echo in the distance (though regularly without the lightning that follows) and the wind whistles through the corridors of the royal caves. The fabric of the plot takes on elemental proportions. Everything in this version is exaggerated. Welles shoots from low angles with ominous shadows on the walls. He frames actors in extreme close-ups so that it feels like we are eavesdropping, particularly during the monologues, which also dissolve into hallucinations. Sound effects are unreal and unrecognizable. When King Macbeth finally does take the throne, it is oversized and perches him high above his people. We wonder if this is just a dream? And if so, is it a delusion brought on by the witches and their smoky brew, or is it a product of Macbeth’s own paranoia?
Welles has a tendency to be a bit of a ham, but he keeps his propensity of overdoing it well modulated here. The famous “is this a dagger I see before me?” soliloquy is delivered as a whisper with the director saving his blustery temperament for when the fever truly grows hot. Jeanette Nolan, who makes her film debut ere, is fantastic as Lady Macbeth. Her devious, thoughtful performance stays away from anything resembling comical evil, making her slide into dementia all the more disconcerting. She’s too together to fall apart. The scene of her suicide is shocking and Welles pulls off one of the best falling body special effects in classic cinema. Likewise, the eerie lead-in to the climactic battle, with Malcolm’s army advancing on the castle while camouflaged, is fantastic. In terms of cinematic Shakespearian adaptations, tis is easily one of the oddest. It’s an imperfect picture, but it’s a bold one, and is an essential part of the Orson Welles’ canon. Its breathless escalation to the frenzied finale is a desultory rush, and has finally found its way to DVD.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of “Macbeth” is a careful encoding of the full-length, restored original Orson Welles cut. The materials exhibit a number of flaws here and but the overall appearance of the show is very good, and certainly far better than older TV prints of the short version, which were both soft and dark. The HD image pulls out a great deal of previously unseen detail in makeup, costumes and the massive sets of rocky caves and battlements, complete with painted backdrops.
OLIVE SIGNATURE FEATURES include
New High-Definition digital restoration
Includes 1948 and 1950 versions
Audio Commentary with Welles biographer Joseph McBride
“Welles and Shakespeare” – an interview with Welles expert, Professor Michael Anderegg
“Adapting Shakespeare on Film” – a conversation with directors Carlo Carlei (Romeo & Juliet) and Billy Morrissette (Scotland, PA)
Excerpt from We Work Again, a 1937 WPA documentary containing scenes from Welles’ Federal Theatre Project production of “Macbeth”
“That Was Orson Welles” – an interview with Welles’ close friend and co-author, Peter Bogdanovich
“Restoring ‘Macbeth’” – an interview with former UCLA Film & Television Archive Preservation Officer Bob Gitt
“Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures”
“The Two ‘Macbeths’” – an essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum