“In this day of rising costs and skyrocketing budgets, it has become mandatory to all of us involved in the business of making motion pictures to do everything in our power to make it possible for us to stay in business. You have demonstrated beyond a doubt that superior product can still be made within reasonable cost and with the assurance of a justifiable return. Again, I salute you and congratulate you on the greatest individual jobs of acting, directing, adapting and producing to my knowledge Hollywood has ever seen.”
- Herbert Yates, Republic Pictures
So much for all those rampant rumors that continue to circulate about Orson Welles: the profligate enfant terrible, infamously over time and way over budget. While Welles’ reputation as a film maker extraordinaire continues to ripen with the passage of time (incontrovertibly he made some of the greatest movies of all time) – Welles, famously declaring shortly before his death, “Oh, how they’ll love me when I’m gone” – both his mythology and his legacy continue to suffer the slings and errors of some fairly misinformed critiques about his talent and his craft. Charlton Heston, who was instrumental in getting Universal to grant Welles permission not only to star, but direct Touch of Evil (1958, and his last great achievement state’s side), referred to this genius of the cinema as the most economical and inventive creative of his generation. Indeed, Welles possessed a keen and uniquely intellectual passion for making movies. Moreover, he implicitly inhabited the cinema space with his characterizations, as though he had somehow slipped through time, the atmosphere around him suddenly and quite magically morphed or blended into the present reality. And Welles, who had evolved his lifelong love affair with the stagecraft of William Shakespeare, begun in his early teens, was about to unleash upon the screen one of the most sublimely bleak and bewildering masterpieces of his entire career; a movie much misunderstood and maligned before the general public ever had a chance to see it; butchered (and redubbed) in a panicked/botched re-editing process, then unceremoniously dumped on the market in a grotesquely truncated 85 min. version that belied all of Welles’ carefully constructed craftsmanship.
Let us therefore reconsider Welles’ 1948’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as that quintessential example; a movie singularly exquisite in its apocalyptic gloom, steeped in the deep focus traditions Welles had inculcated in Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and, brought forth with inspired tinges of the noir style and German Expressionism; a sort of 16th century grand guignol, with variant visual touches cribbed from the Universal ‘horror’ handbook; though Welles would have vehemently denied this latter influence. Under Welles command, Macbeth emerges as the richest denigration of one man’s perverted soul; Macbeth, as reconstructed by Welles in a towering achievement and thoroughly haunted central performance, the apotheosis of the Aristotelian poster child: a singularly flawed ‘great’ man brought to ruin by a fundamental weakness. In this case, the usurper is his wife, Lady Macbeth (played with a weird clear-eyed wayward ambiguity by Jeanette Nolan); a blood-thirsty femme fatale who, having goaded her impressionable husband to commit murder, equally shares, not only in the crime, but the fate of her own mortally defective motivations.
Part of the problem with Macbeth as a movie is its denouement is a real downer; the sins committed by our tragic antihero brought to weigh heavily on the content of his character – or lack thereof. Nevertheless, Welles’ love affair with this doomed philosopher/warrior dated all the way back to his first stage adaptation of the play for the WPA in 1936; invited by the progressive theatrical impresario, John Houseman to present Macbeth as part of the Federal Theater Project with an all-black cast in Harlem. Transposing the location from Scotland to Haiti (or a fictional facsimile), Welles’ interpretation, rechristened ‘Voodoo Macbeth’, brought down the house, becoming a legendary cornerstone and real watershed achievement for this fledgling group of players. Nevertheless, it drew insincere and bitter criticism from a good many noted theater critics like Percy Hammond, whose Herald Tribune review castigated the production almost exclusively for being an ‘all black’ affair. Welles, who had hired real tribal witch doctors for the production, and granted their leader, Abdul the request to slaughter twelve goats, their skins used to create the necessary devil drums, was approached by Abdul, inquiring whether or not Hammond was a bad man. Concurring with this assessment and with Welles complicity, Abdul agreed to “make beri-beri on this bad man” (a spell to seal Hammond’s fate). Either uniquely amused or wholly unaware of the strength of black magic, Welles permission led to unexpected reprisals when the otherwise healthy Percy Hammond unexpectedly died of a sudden, virulent bout of pneumonia less than 48 hours after this incantation had been performed. True story - yes. Coincidence? Hmmm.
As a play, Macbeth has always carried the stigma of an ill-omen production; Welles, not the first to quietly refer to it as ‘the Scottish play’ in reverence to the ‘curse’, and later, suggesting even his movie version possessed some “terrible magic”. Nevertheless, Welles’ attraction to the part is easily understood; the character of Macbeth, not unlike Welles, a poet marred by the warrior-like stain of his personality, perhaps marginally misled in his passions; acquiring a moniker otherwise not inculcated in his own belief system or professional acumens as the architect of his damaged, if otherwise great ambitions in Hollywood. However, ambition famously knows no master. So, Welles pitched Macbeth to Republic Pictures’ president, Herbert Yates for a paltry $900,000. Yates, somewhat disregarded within the industry as a cigar-chomping vulgarian of a C-grade picture-making apparatus, nevertheless understood the power of prestige. Relying much too heavily on serialized westerns, Republic could certainly use some prestige. And Yates was also a gambling man. Occasionally, the roll of this dice paid off. As example, Yates allowed director John Ford to make The Quiet Man (1952) when no other studio would even consider it: a movie Yates himself had very little faith in but implicitly backed because of Ford’s unimpeachable pedigree. For Welles, Yates also had a fond affection. Regrettably, this would not equate to either prestige or profit in the short term; Welles’ reputation outside of the industry already under scrutiny by the FBI, about to be blacklisted as a possible subversive or communist sympathizer. Even within the film maker’s capital, Welles’ bridges had been burned, though not entirely of Welles’ own doing.
Given the passage of time, both the implied absurdities about Welles’ political affiliations and the purity of his undiluted visions on the movie screen are more plainly reconciled within the pantheon of great cinema art and artistes; his extraordinarily clairvoyant emphasis in Macbeth on the hideous immorality of this dystopian Scottish kingdom in very steep decline, and, the awe-inspiring fury and grotesqueness of blind ambition, brought forth with roiling self-destructiveness. Welles very much believed in the concept of ‘pure evil’ over the more laissez faire moral relativism steadily permeating pop culture; evil, both embodied and as an entity unto itself to remain constantly vigilant and rail against. To this end, Welles very much saw the 16th century milieu of Macbeth as a profoundly religious struggle between the old-world Druid/Paganism and then newly ensconced Christian principles. Throughout, Macbeth is riddled with religious iconography; the Celtic cross looming large on a barren hillside; the Holy Father (Alan Napier), purely an invention of Welles (not in the play), reciting his prayer to Saint Michael before falling prey as the first casualty of the climactic battle between Macbeth and McDuff’s (Dan O'Herlihy) amassed forces. We really must tip our hats to Art Director Fred A. Ritter, making the absolute most of Republic’s old western mine sets and the limited amount of extras transformed by mood lighting into a Gothic lunarscape Armageddon of galloping horde invading the moors. Reportedly, to acquire the right tempo for their charge, Welles called ‘lunch’ instead of ‘action’; filming the fully dressed extras without their knowledge as they scurried off set for the break. With perhaps one or two exceptions of outdoor location work, Macbeth takes place entirely on highly stylized indoor sets; Welles bent on preserving the theatricality of the play while, in tandem, utilizing the camera to expand the architecture of its stagecraft in highly inventive ways.
In the pre-title prologue, the three fates (a.k.a. witches), their faces shrouded in long, unkempt tentacles of matted hair, create a voodoo doll of the ill-fated Macbeth from the bubbling mud piles of their boiling caldron; the crude statuary with an uncanny likeness later streaked in King Duncan’s (Erskine Sanford) blood from Macbeth’s monstrous act of murder. As a movie, Macbeth is extraordinary in other ways too; Welles, using the long take to superb effect in the prolonged soliloquy after Duncan’s untimely passing; Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s frantic exchange mingled with foreboding and vulgar elation, expertly managed by cinematographer, John L. Russell in a ‘two shot’ with its focal plains ever shifting as Welles, hands oozing, repeatedly approaches, then retreats from the camera; at one point, his tainted appendages dominating the frame to arouse the absolute horror of his unholy deed. “There’s no pleasure in life like working with a Hollywood crew,” Welles would later suggest in an interview. And indeed, in John Russell Macbeth is truly blessed. The level of sheer malevolence and audacity exhibited in Russell’s dramatic lighting has, arguably, never been rivaled. Certainly, it lives up to Francois Truffaut’s assessment of the picture as a wicked fairytale made by an avant-garde director, “Welles examin(ing) the angel in the beast, the heart in the monster, the secret of the tyrant, and, the weakness of the strong”; the cinematography working in tandem with Welles’ centrally bleak and eviscerating portrait of a man in full self-destruct mode.
The blacklist was very much on Welles’ mind when he made Macbeth; Welles’ hasty departure to Europe at the end of production likely an escape from the erroneous and thoroughly unfounded ‘communist sympathy’ charges mounted against him; the botched release of the picture (Welles famously pulled it from the selection process at the Venice Film Festival after an unapologetic early reviewer quoting Shakespeare, critically suggested “Confusion hath now made its masterpiece”) and the ultimate obscenity yet to endure: pressured into a truncated general release – all conspired to ruin whatever chances Welles’ vision of Macbeth had to become popularized with a mass audience. It has been said of Welles that his intellect helped to cleave his visions of what cinema could be from the more mainstream cultural mindset of what they ‘should be’; if pop culture be exclusively the domain of the middle classes, then Welles, undeniably flying over their heads as an ‘aristocratic’ movie-maker. Even so, no less an authority on Shakespeare – both in the theater and the movies – than Sir Laurence Olivier considered Welles to be the premiere adaptor of the bard’s plays on celluloid, offering noteworthy praise to anyone who would listen. I suppose Olivier could afford to be magnanimous; his Hamlet (1948) having just swept the Academy Awards while Welles’ Macbeth languished in purgatory, then all but disappeared from the public’s consciousness shortly after its general release – withheld nearly two years while Yates had Welles’s version tinkered with and pared down to a miserly 85 minutes.
In bringing Macbeth to the screen, Orson Welles made many changes - lines cut, speeches reassigned, and, scenes reordered - that went quietly unnoticed by the general public, but had Shakespearean scholars and purists alike in a tizzy, considered detrimental to the overall arc of the story. Welles expanded the scenes with the witches, drawing more parallels between their predictions and Macbeth’s fate; the creation of the clay effigy and its infrequent reappearances thereafter, first crudely hewn and glowering, then thickly oozing with Duncan’s blood, and finally, almost liquefying into a nondescript heap, symbolically meant to reference Macbeth’s beheading; the figure itself a holdover from Welles’ ‘Voodoo Macbeth’ and capped off by the witches muttering “Peace, the charm’s wound up” – a line excised from the play’s First Act, but herein applied to conclude the show instead. Due to the reigning code of censorship, the Porter’s ribald speech was expunged of all its double entendre. Welles also had his Macbeth present during Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene to further illustrate and foreshadow the parallels in their misguided determinations and fallout soon to afflict both for their ill-gotten gains. Welles also omitted virtually all of Duncan’s early scenes, jettisoning outright the character of Donalbain; the King’s second son. For dramatic purposes, Welles elected to stage two scenes merely implied in the play: the Thane of Cawdor’s public execution, and the penultimate battle in which Macduff’s forces overtake and Macduff beheads Macbeth. In the play, it is implied Macduff has stabbed Macbeth to death before cleaving his head from the body.
With these noted exceptions Welles remained extremely reverent to Shakespeare’s dark and brooding masterwork; the film, as the play, beginning with the introduction of the ‘Fates’ or witches and their prophecies; first, Macbeth will soon be made the Thane of Cawdor; then, the future King of Scotland. Indeed, King Duncan’s generals, Macbeth and Banquo (Edgar Barrier) have defeated two separate invading armies from Ireland and Norway. But the Fates also suggest Banquo’s family lineage will yield many future Kings of Scotland, though he himself is never to reign on the throne. The Fates vanish into the dense fog and Macbeth makes light of their predictions until a small contingent of Duncan’s noblemen arrive with news Macbeth is slated to become the next Thane of Cawdor; the previous Thane beheaded for high treason to the crown. Macbeth is nervously intrigued by the possibility of becoming King. However, Lady Macbeth suffers none of his uncertainties. The play is perhaps a tad more sympathetic to Lady Macbeth’s desire for her husband’s kingship; director, Welles omitting a line in the play where she confides an inability to commit Duncan’s murder herself because he is very like her own late father. Yet, herein Welles and actress, Jeanette Nolan (who had co-starred with Welles in a stage adaptation of Macbeth - a last minute substitute for Vivien Leigh, whom Welles desperately wanted for the film as a sort of slinky/kinky vixen; but denied by Olivier, then Leigh’s husband) have conspired to will a rather monstrous creature out of the lady herself; Nolan’s sadism toward the honorable Duncan, pragmatically and with complete absence of contradiction, goading Macbeth into committing murder.
Given the implied bloodiness of the play, Macbeth on film under Welles’ command is a remarkably subdued portrait of violence. In 1971, director, Roman Polanski, with the memory of his own murdered wife, actress Sharon Tate and their unborn child still freshly in mind, infamously adapted Macbeth into his own cinematic concoction as a far gorier and marginally more pornographic affair. Yet, herein, Welles achieves almost the same level of uncanny grotesqueness utilizing restraint, parading toward and away from the camera with wild-eyed gesticulations of a terrorized demigod, only just coming to terms with his own hellish deed against the crown. In the play, Duncan’s murder is treated as a pivotal bit of stagecraft. Yet, Welles all but avoids even a glimpse of the brutal slaying, the camera at a fixed low vantage as Macbeth ascends the winding staircase to Duncan’s bedchamber, emerging moments later with blood-spattered hands caressed and cleansed by the wickedly devote Lady Macbeth, who takes momentary possession of the sword her husband has used.
Vowing justice for the murder, Macbeth is easily crowned Scotland’s liege. Yet, he now presides over a severely polarized kingdom; its alliances fragmented, his coronation conducted more as the dirge for the nation rapidly entering crisis mode. Fearing the Fates’ prophecy about Banquo’s heirs seizing the throne, Macbeth hires a band of ruthless cutthroats to murder the competition. While this villainous act is, in fact, carried out on Banquo as he prepares to attend a royal feast, his son, Fleance (Jerry Farber) manages a daring escape across the moors. Learning of the bungled operation, Macbeth is outraged, but forced to attend his own ‘celebration’ in the great dining hall. Alas, all does not go well as Macbeth is consumed by visions of a panged Duncan and accusatory Banquo appearing to him as real as any of the guests seated at his table. Driven into an inconsolable rant by these apparitions, Macbeth’s outbursts startle the Scottish nobility gathered at his side. Lady Macbeth attempts to quell her husband’s anxieties. But the nobility are incensed by his outburst.
Macbeth consults the Fates in their cavernous lair. They forewarn of Macduff, an altruistic nobleman vehemently opposed to Macbeth’s accession. But the Fates also suggest Macbeth cannot be harmed by any man born of woman. The Fates prophesize Macbeth will be safe as long as Birnam Wood does not come to Dunsinane Castle. Taking these predictions too literally, Macbeth firmly believes he is invincible, either to detection or destruction from outside forces. Alas, he fails to note Macduff was not ‘technically’ born of woman but rather “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb (a Cesarean birth). Having unearthed a plot, whereupon Macduff hopes to unite with the late King’s eldest son, Malcolm (Roddy McDowell), their forces to invade Scotland in bloody civil war, Macbeth orders Macduff’s castle seized and his wife, Lady Macduff (Peggy Webber) and their young son (Christopher Welles) immediately put to death. When news of their execution reaches his ear, Macduff vows to topple Macbeth’s monarchy, together with the English forces Malcolm has managed to amass in the meantime.
Director Welles exploits the play’s famous ‘sleepwalking’ scene as a sinister portending of the epic battle to follow; Lady Macbeth, plagued by the madness of her wicked heart, crying into the night for her hands to be rid of the blood stains no one except she can see. Macbeth witnesses his wife’s insanity from a distance but is powerless to prevent his wife’s leap from a narrow precipice into the steep and deadening abyss. Informed of Lady Macbeth’s untimely demise, Macbeth succumbs to a momentary fit of pessimistic despair. Fortifying Dunsinane with his troops, Macbeth is startled as he bears witness to the freshly cut pine trees of Birnam steadily advancing from the heavy mists that surround his castle. It seems Macduff and Malcolm’s armies are using the pines as camouflage. Only Macbeth knows the truth; that Birnam has indeed come to Dunsinane; thus, his time as Scotland’s ruler is fast at an end. Surrounded by Macduff and Malcolm’s forces, Macbeth goes into battle a beleaguered and soulless shell, pitted against Macduff who exposes the true nature of his ‘unnatural’ birth. Macbeth valiantly charges toward his adversary, who cleaves his head from his body with a mighty slash of his sword; the gruesomeness of this moment cleverly inferred as the waxy effigy of Macbeth concocted by the Fates suddenly implodes. As the future – and rightful heir to the throne, Malcolm declares his benevolent intentions for the nation, inviting all to witness him crowned at Scone.
Seen in the full flourish of Welles’ 108 min. cut, and unencumbered by the redubbing process (that ineffectively shorn the Celtic burr from its dialogue), Macbeth remains a masterpiece on par with some of Welles’ more ambitiously mounted movies. Working under weighty budgetary restrictions and confined to all but two or three backlot sets and sound stages, Welles has achieved a minor miracle, drawing on a multitude of sources for inspiration, including Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944, and a movie Welles did not particularly favor, although it nevertheless subliminally informs some of his visualized statements made throughout Macbeth). The parallels between Ivan and Macbeth cut deeper still, if one considers each to be a tale about a self-destructive megalomaniac brought to ruin by his own ego. The picture teems with a crude irreverence in ascribing destiny, the counterintuitive arbitrator and existential troublemaker arising from the evil and stupidity that men do, ostensibly to obfuscate or be rid of some secret from their past, surely to fester again and eventually manifest itself as a vindication of the truth. At 85 minutes, recut and dubbed, Macbeth is but a preview of a coming attraction never to come. It retains the bleak theme of ‘emptiness in achievement’ but somehow manages to sacrifices all its other virtues for the sake of becoming a B-grade programmer, sloppily designed to fit into Republic Pictures’ pantheon of quick n’ dirty mainstream releases.
By the mid-1950’s Republic had run its course; the first of the Hollywood studios to license its vast back catalog to television in 1951, the lucrative leasing of its back lot and facilities to other production entities, still could not prevent the company from sinking deeper and deeper into the red and in 1958 a tearful Herbert Yates effectively retired from feature film production; Republic’s distribution apparatus shuttered the following year. The fate of Republic’s vast film holdings reverted to National Telephone Association (NTA), a video distribution company. Seeing virtually no resale value in any of this archive, NTA made a deposit of all Republic’s assets to UCLA in the mid-1970’s (well before the era of home video); preservationist, Robert Gitt, ecstatic to discover original camera negatives, nitrate stock, master positives and master soundtracks all coming under UCLA’s custodianship (an archivist’s dream). While Republic’s assets only appeared to contain the 85 min. reassembly of Macbeth, Gitt was over the moon upon discovering several canisters of ‘outtakes’ featuring never-before-seen footage, presumably gleaned from the longer cut, without the overdubs applied. Fast forward several decades, and, a complete print of Welles’ original cut discovered in the hands of a private collector, who graciously allowed Gitt and his team to remaster Macbeth in its entirety.
Olive Media has made Macbeth available before, but never as part of their Signature Edition Blu-ray series...until now. Herein, we have a very handsomely assembled 2-disc affair; lavishly tricked out with some meaningful extras and a booklet essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum. We get both the 1948, 108 min. director’s cut and the truncated, 1950, 85 min. version of the movie; each afforded a separate disc so as not to compromise the bit rate. So far, so good. The press junkets indicate each version has been sourced from brand new digital restorations. Having no reason to doubt it, we must pause a moment herein to point out that the results are far from pristine and, in some instances, expose the woeful fragility of the original source material. For starters, there is some very distracting density fluctuations scattered throughout. Macbeth is a very dark movie – literally and figuratively – certain scenes plagued by built-in flicker to the point of distraction; as in Welles’ monumental 10 minute take immediately following Macbeth’s murder of Duncan. There is also some moderate water and mold damage afflicting the right side of the film frame for very long stretches, some built-in modeling and streaking spanning the full expanse of this properly framed 1.33:1 image, and some widely fluctuating grain; ranging from distractingly thick to creamily smooth and practically nonexistent. Clearly, the archival elements are not in optimal condition and without a fully expanded restoration budget it seems highly unlikely anything further could have been done to improve upon what we have here. For the most part, Olive’s Blu-ray is competently rendered. Still, one cannot help but to suggest with a little more care, time and moneys spent, Macbeth could have, and should have, looked better than this. Both versions have been remastered in DTS 2.0 mono; sounding fresh and consistent throughout with no drop outs or distortions to impugn.
Olive has padded out the extras with an audio commentary by Welles’ biographer, Joseph McBride (for the 1948 longer cut only). On disc 2, the shorter version, we also get a host of featurettes to round out our entertainment value. Welles and Shakespeare is an interview with Welles’ authority, Michael Anderegg, who details Orson’s early years of inspiration as well as his lifelong affinity for Shakespearean theater. Adapting Shakespeare on Film features a ‘conversation’ with directors, Carlo Carlei and Bill Morrissette, each affectionately waxing about the trials and tribulations in bringing live theater to the medium of the movies. Director Peter Bogdanovich weighs in with That Was Orson Welles; an unprepossessing repurposing of an interview he gave nearly a decade and a half ago, and featured on Sony Video’s DVD release of The Lady from Shanghai. Despite the passage of time, Bogdanovich’s recall is almost verbatim what he offered up during the aforementioned interview. Couldn’t he think of something more to say?!?
Retired archivist, Robert Gitt offers some insight into the ‘restoration’ of Macbeth. It’s unclear, listening to Gitt here whether he is referring to the previous efforts made to preserve Macbeth on celluloid, or in fact, talking about Olive’s new digital restoration. There is also an excerpt from ‘We Work Again’; a WPA documentary produced in 1937 that contains scenes from Welles’ production of ‘Voodoo Macbeth’. Finally, we get a reissue of Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures. Olive has seen fit to indiscriminately tack on this much too brief featurette about a man and a studio who deserve far more, and indeed, far better consideration. Like all of the featurettes Olive has produced in the past, the ones presented herein seem rather truncated, or perhaps, merely given short shrift. Personally, I would really like Olive to produce a definitive documentary to accompany some of their classics instead of these snippet and sound bite-orientated glimpses into the past. As it seems highly unlikely Macbeth will ever receive a meticulous full-blown restoration to stabilize and fully cleanse its image of age-related debris, this ‘restoration’ from Olive is an enviable intermediate; bridging the chasm between their earlier lackluster and bare bones hi-def effort and that perfect world where such masterworks of the American cinema are equally given the utmost consideration to resurrect them from their current state of disrepair. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
1948 version – 4.5
1950 version – 3