Macbeth (1948)

*. William Shakespeare and Orson Welles. Two towering geniuses, with the greatness of Welles’s Othello and Chimes at Midnight being stunning testimony to what their union could bring forth.
*. But . . . Homer does nod. Witness this adaptation of Macbeth, which, though not a terrible movie, I think has to be considered an artistic failure on almost every level.
*. Welles certainly had excuses. A limited budget (around $800,000) and a ridiculously tight shooting schedule (23 days), for starters. Still, he knew how to stretch a buck and was a fast worker (at least when it came to shooting, editing was another matter).
*. No, if you want to know why this movie doesn’t work you can’t use that excuse. Instead you have to look at what were, however constrained, creative decisions that just didn’t work.
*. Contemporary reviewers were particularly harsh on the use of dialect. A review in Life Magazine famously opined that, with his burr, “Orson Welles doth foully slaughter Shakespeare.” It’s hard to disagree. Frankly, I don’t see any point in doing the Scottish play in a Scottish accent. When Macbeth (Welles) complains here of having been left with “a barrrren sceptre in my grrrrrripe,” I just had to roll my eyes. He’s not fooling anyone.
*. Then there are all the bizarre design elements. This looks like a movie put together from a rummage sale of old Hollywood costumes and props. We see people armed with what appear to be tiny tridents and others with crosses. At the end, Welles throws a spear that looks borrowed from an old Flash Gordon serial. There are Viking helmets and others with Celtic crosses sprouting out of them. Macbeth’s crown looks like an upside-down footstool.
*. The weird costumes (far weirder than the witches’ appearance) fit with the otherworldly sets. Does Macbeth even have a castle or does he just live in a cave, with some steps leading up to it carved out of a cliff? The interiors have the cheap SF look of shiny rock walls and bare floors. Jonathan Rosenbaum: “the unabashed B-movie artificiality of the sets confirms that Welles wanted to draft something closer to a charcoal sketch than a finished canvas.” Well, that’s a nice way of putting it, making what was probably more of a grim necessity into an aesthetic choice.
*. For what it’s worth, Welles thought the setting was a cross between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein. He got a lot more than that in here.
*. There are two things I’d flag about this crazy, stylized-Stone Age look of the film. In the first place, it’s very theatrical. Most of the movie was obviously shot on a studio set, and when you add on Welles’s penchant for long takes (which, in this film, are overdone to no real purpose), you really have the sense of a filmed play. That’s not a look any movie wants to end up with, even they are filmed plays.
*. The second thing about the design is that it’s silly. Some of it probably wasn’t meant to be, but still is. When Malcolm’s forces are marching through Birnam Wood and are told to chop branches from the trees I felt like I was watching the Python troupe meeting up with the Knights who say Ni and being asked to fetch a shrubbery. The helmets with the crosses didn’t help.
*. At other points, however, I think Welles must have been aware of the joke. Once we see Macbeth in power he promenades to what sounds like the comical notes of a tuba. With his royal bulkiness wrapped in furs to go with the musical cue you might think you’re looking at the march of “Rooty,” A&W’s Great Root Bear.
*. The play’s big moments are disappointing. The murder of Banquo is a joke and his ghost is just ho-hum. The “tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech is given over a shot of swirling mist. Birnam Wood just appears as some men holding branches coming out of that mist. The imaginary dagger is scarcely more than a cue. The witches are barely seen.
*. For some reason the character of a Holy Man is added. I can’t figure him out at all. The Christian imagery just feels tacked on anyway.
*. Even when he was young Welles liked playing old men: titans whose life has fallen into the sere. I don’t think this helps him with Macbeth because the play has a natural pull in this direction already. Macbeth goes from being an ambitious up-and-comer to a burnt-out case pretty quickly. In the final acts he’s a man who’s weary of it all and though he shows some of the old spark on occasion (we’d call him bipolar today), mostly he just wants an end. The thing is, Welles is so comfortable with this kind of character that he makes him seem even more enervated than usual, and I found the latter half started to drag.
*. Jeanette Nolan has a promising introduction, with a very sexy “unsex me here” soliloquy, lying on her back in furs with a bust that looks pretty ambitious all on its own. But after this Welles doesn’t give her that much to chew on, and keeps most of the close-ups for himself. To be honest, I found many of the other characters indistinguishable.
*. The direction is less inventive than it may appear at first glance. Aside from the long takes there are a lot of high- and low-angle shots that work to exaggerate the odd shapes of the sets even more. In all of this I didn’t feel like there was anything that enriched the play very much or that took it in any new directions.
*. But while it may be a mess, and a poor movie overall, it is Welles, and Welles is always at least something. There are ideas here that might have worked.
*. As already noted, upon its release it was savaged. It has since rebounded in the eyes of critics, to the point where I’m sure a Criterion release must be in the works. I think everyone needs to pump the brakes on revision. This is not a good movie, though it’s definitely worth checking out for what does, and more often doesn’t, work.

14 thoughts on “Macbeth (1948)

      1. Bookstooge

        I thought about it all the time until I realized that he obviously loved everything about me and pretty much worshipped the ground I walked on.
        Poor guy

    1. Alex Good

      He’s not a guy I’m sure I’d be able to get along with if I’d met him. But when it came to filmmaking I don’t think there was a greater genius.
      He’s also not a guy who would sell a wine before it’s time. Damn this still cracks me up.

  1. Over-The-Shoulder

    Interesting. Of course, Welles is a genius, but this one looks creaky. “Orson Welles doth foully slaughter Shakespeare” is great. Still may search it out, purely to see what works and what doesn’t.

    1. Alex Good

      Most of it doesn’t. Orson was really working without any budget here, shooting on the studio’s Western sets for example. Worth checking out though, even if it’s actually kind of hard to find a good print of it. I hope Criterion puts one out and gives it the deluxe treatment sometime.


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