Joe Macbeth (1955)

*. I don’t think there could have been anything new about doing Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a gangster drama in 1955. Somebody must have done it on stage before, as they’ve done since. It’s tale of cut-throat ambition fits well with the genre, as you could see movies like Scarface and Little Caesar, which told similar stories about the “number one boy” taking over from a kingpin. And on screen we’d see it done again with Men of Respect (1990). Criminal organizations, like large business corporations, are thoroughly Macbethian.
*. This British production doesn’t have much interest except in so far as seeing how they’re going to bring all the old familiar elements up to the present day. So Joe Macbeth here, played by Paul Douglas, is the chief lieutenant of a boss named the Duke. Joe is married to a cold-blooded riser named Lily (Ruth Gordon), and his best buddy in the gang is Banky (the Carry On gang’s Sid James), who has a son named Lenny. Lenny is an adult, with a wife and child, so his part gets to double up as Macduff.
*. Perhaps the oddest thing in all of this is that the fortune-telling woman who takes over the role of the witches is a dramatist herself, and references the play Macbeth. So this is an updating of the Macbeth story where the characters are themselves aware of the Macbeth story. But no one seems to connect the dots to figure out that they’re in a remake. And don’t say it’s because they’re all a bunch of hoods, because one of them even quotes Keats. Back in the day, a basic knowledge of Shakespeare was pretty much general knowledge. I used to know people of that generation (most of them dead now) who never went to college but who could quote the reams of the Bard at you.
*. Some of it works well enough. The murder of the Duke is nice, with the tolling of a buoy bell playing in the background. The closest parallel to the play comes when Macbeth’s butler answers the knocking at the door. The appearance of Banky at dinner is less impressive, because inexplicable. We’re never made to feel as though this is a world where the supernatural has any purchase, or that Joe is the kind of guy high-strung enough to start seeing things.
*. Douglas might have pulled it off. He’s older than you’d expect, not really an ambitious up-and-comer. In fact, he doesn’t project ambition much at all. He’s more a solid, ox-like follower than the kind of guy you expect to see killing his way to the top, wading in blood, etc. This might have worked if they’d done more to develop his being the muscle and Lily the brains (as I’ve said before, it’s always a bad sign in such movies when women do the driving), but they don’t give us enough of this. And besides, she still has to fall apart at the end.
*. It’s not a well-made movie. Douglas is miscast but does his best, and his Macbeth is at least something a bit different. Gordon is a suitably chilly Lily. But aside from that you find you’re just watching out of curiosity to see what they’re going to do with it, not because you’re entertained.

9 thoughts on “Joe Macbeth (1955)

    1. Alex Good

      They did something similar with gangsters in Men of Respect (1990). And Macbeth generally lends itself to these kinds of updates. Scotland, Pa (2001) is another one I’ll be talking about.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Scotland, Pa is fun. Plus it has Christopher Walken in it. There’s also a crime version set in Mumbai called Maqbool but I haven’t seen it. There was a Canadian television version where Macbeth was a corporate lawyer or something climbing the ranks. I saw that years ago and I’ve never been able to track it down again. Oh well. I’ll be going over some of this in the weeks to come. Lots more Macbeth on the way.

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