In fog-dripping, barren and sometimes macabre settings, 11th-century Scottish nobleman Macbeth is led by an evil prophecy and his ruthless yet desirable wife to the treasonous act that makes him king. But he does not enjoy his newfound, dearly-won kingship... Restructured, but all the dialogue is Shakespeare's.
Orson Welles ... Macbeth
Jeanette Nolan ... Lady Macbeth
Dan O'Herlihy ... Macduff
Roddy McDowall ... Malcolm
Edgar Barrier ... Banquo
Alan Napier ... A Holy Father
Erskine Sanford ... Duncan
John Dierkes ... Ross
Keene Curtis ... Lennox
Peggy Webber ... Lady Macduff / The Three
Lionel Braham ... Siward
Archie Heugly ... Young Siward
Jerry Farber ... Fleance
Christopher Welles ... Macduff Child
Morgan Farley ... Doctor
Orson Welles's version of "Macbeth" makes a dark play even darker. Welles always has his own particular take on everything, and while this is an imperfect movie, it is certainly interesting.
The most noticeable feature of this adaptation is how dark everything is. Almost every scene and every set has barely enough light to let us see what is happening, accentuating the cheerless nature of the plot itself. Sometimes this is effective, but at other times it might have been better to give the viewer a break from the gloom, and to put the focus more on the characters and a little less on the atmosphere.
Macbeth the character is portrayed here in a rather different light than usual. He comes across as rather helpless and not in control of his fate, instead of as the usual stronger Shakespearean tragic hero whose strength is undone by his own tragic flaw. While the three witches seem more in control of the action than does Macbeth himself, most of the apparitions they create are not shown, with the focus being more on Macbeth's reaction. The text itself is also quite different in places, with some lines being switched to new or different characters, and many scenes re-arranged. In all of these respects, viewers will have varying opinions as to how well these decisions work.
While the result is certainly not a masterpiece like some of Welles' other films, his creative influence is clear throughout. Welles fans and Shakespeare fans should definitely see this adaptation and decide for themselves.
I'm still trying to figure out why what Laurence Olivier did with Hamlet that same year was worthy of an Oscar if what Orson Welles did with MacBeth was so bad.
Both operated under tremendous budget restrictions, Olivier from J. Arthur Rank and Welles from Herbert J. Yates. At the time Hamlet was out Olivier explained that his decision to use black and white was for the special shadows and darkness in Hamlet's soul, or something like that. Years later Olivier said that he was just spouting off so much artistic propaganda, he didn't use color like he did Henry V because J. Arthur Rank was too cheap to go for it.
Remember that Welles was doing this at Republic Pictures and their bread and butter were westerns with Roy Rogers with an occasional A feature with their number one star John Wayne. Welles, who was always criticized for extravagance, brought the film in with three weeks shooting and on budget. Pesonally I think he deserves a round of applause for that. Knowing Herbert J. Yates's foibles, Welles was lucky he wasn't asked to use Vera Hruba Ralston as Lady MacBeth.
Like Olivier with Hamlet, Welles to disguise the cheapness of the sets filmed in darkness with a lot of mist to typify the Scottish moors and created a kind of Shakespeare noir. He couldn't get Agnes Moorehead for Lady MacBeth, but did get a perfectly acceptable Jeanette Nolan for the role.
As for himself Welles was a perfect picture of ravenous ambition as MacBeth. Do one murder to advance yourself and the rest become easier as time goes on. Still they drag on his soul, more than even the evil end those three witches foresee for him.
He's aided and abetted in his foul deeds by his wife. Partners can have a leavening or a sharpening affect on their mates. I've often used the different examples of the two wives of Woodrow Wilson to illustrate the point. Wilson's first wife was a gentle southern belle who was able to curb some of his tendencies to self righteousness. When she died Wilson married his second wife who exacerbated those tendencies, as Lady MacBeth does with her husband.
Among the supporting cast look for good performances from Edgar Barrier as Banquo, Roddy MacDowell as Malcolm, and Dan O'Herlihy as MacDuff. One of Shakespeare's best lines in my humble opinion is that tease he has the witches say to MacBeth about no man of woman born being able to harm him. And then later in the climax when MacDuff reveals he was the product of a Caesarean, in Shakespeare's phrase 'untimely ripped.' The image of that is so vivid in my mind as MacDuff the untimely ripped is about to do some untimely ripping of his own.
Given the restrictions Welles was operating under, this is not a bad production of MacBeth at all. Just keep thinking of Vera Hruba as Lady MacBeth and you'll find virtues you never knew existed.
After making THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, Orson Welles basically had burned his bridges behind him regarding Hollywood. Harry Cohn was the last head of a major studio (Columbia) who was willing to consider any film that Welles would direct and produce. That was only because Welles was married to Cohn's leading sex goddess, Rita Hayworth. In fact, Welles got the project for THE LADY through because Rita was starring in it. But Cohn hated the final result, and cut the film (though I don't think it was as badly cut as say AMBERSOMS had been). The biggest cut was in the "fun house" sequence at the conclusion. Welles always bemoaned it, but I think sufficient moments of the sequence exist to remain quite powerful.
After Welles divorced Hayworth, any possible chance that Cohn would hire him was gone (if it still existed after Cohn saw the film). So Welles made his next film at the leading second tier studio: Herbert Yates' Republic Pictures. Yates was best known for his westerns, but he occasionally got a better than average film (directed by John Ford, and starring John Wayne). Yates wanted to make Republic one of the leading studios. So, he was willing to allow Welles to film there - but Welles had to do it on a short budget and within one month.
He did do so - he produced a film of MACBETH with a cast including Dan O'Herlihy, Roddy MacDowell, Jeanette Nolan, Edgar Barrier, and Alan Napier.
For years this film has gotten an unfair reputation. Welles had the actors speak with Scottish Accents. This was actually understandable. But the critics attacked the experiment. So the film was repackaged with an "English" soundtrack. Also it was re-cut, by the studio, and for years was about twenty minutes shorter than Welles' final cut. It was this mangled version that was known to the public - and complained about (adding to the myth that Welles was really a second-rate director). It still had some good film moments, such as the march of Brendon Wood to Dunstinane (where the forest is holding early medieval crosses), or the shots of the stormy sea hitting the rocky breakers, while Welles recites the "Tommorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech. But the know it all critics kept saying comments like "Shakespeare through the Welles' meat grinder." That review is from the anonymous reviewer of the New York Times.
Welles did rewrite the play in that he gave some of the speeches to other characters, and created a whole character (the Holy Father played by Napier) who got dialog from some minor characters that were deleted in the screenplay. But the basic story was kept and enhanced by Welles' sets and directing.
Fortunately for us all, MACBETH is available now with the twenty minutes Yates cut out restored. Ironically, unlike the large studios RKO and Columbia that lost the cut film from AMBERSOMS and THE LADY (one can also add the scenes of Konstantine Shayne's escape from prison to South America from THE STRANGER) Republic preserved the cut film and the Scottish accented sound track. MACBETH is the first film of Welles that was restored to what he had in mind.
Of course now that we see the full film we realize how the critics in 1948 were unduly hostile to Welles. They had not minded jumping on him, a failed "wunderkind" from Broadway. But now that we see that MACBETH was a worthy film, we can ask how many films those same critics who attacked Welles were properly reviewed and how many bombs among movies they liked.
To begin with the film is permeated with a spirit of barbarism - frequently we see signs of violent death and corpses left dangling. But they are taken with ease by the people of the period (one corpse is dangling in the background of Macbeth's "Glammis" castle, while he and Lady Macbeth (Nolan) are embracing and kissing). The still darkness of the night is used as an instrument of dread - look at the longest section of the film - the section where Macbeth is considering the Witches prediction, and slowly talking himself into killing his guest, King Duncan (Erskind Sandford). It has been said that Welles was trying to show the struggle between barbarism and Christianity in the film, and he certainly is able to make the confrontation insidious. He never has the witches confront the Holy Father, but the latter is killed (by Macbeth) and the witches have a final comment to make upon the death of Macbeth at the tale end of the film: "Peace, the Charm has ended."
Welles actually knew more about what he was doing when he shot MACBETH than his contemporaries credited him with. In the 1930s he had done a celebrated "VOODOO MACBETH" set in Haiti, with an all African-American cast. It was very well regarded. Unfortunately he could not do that here - it was 1948 and Hollywood would not tolerate a classic play done by people usually playing stereotyped servants (although this was slowly changing in the late 1940s). It would have been interesting to have seen that production, but for a close second, this one does very well indeed.
One of the witches is played by Brainerd Duffield, a man.
The original 107-minute version with Scottish accents was completely withdrawn after the disastrous world premiere and did not resurface again until the 1980s.
Although the film was a critical and commercial disaster in both the USA and England, it was a huge success in many non-English speaking countries, especially France, where critics could not understand how the American and British press failed to appreciate the highly stylized and surrealistic approach Orson Welles took to the play. Today it is very highly regarded in English-speaking countries.
Orson Welles had planned to take his company and put on the play at the Utah Centennial Festival in Salt Lake city. With costumes and props at his disposal, Welles rehearsed his company and shot this film in 21 days.
Shot in 21 days on a budget of $700,000.
The dialog was pre-recorded, leaving the actors to mime their lines.
Judith Anderson, who had achieved great personal success as Lady Macbeth onstage opposite Maurice Evans, was one of the few actresses that Orson Welles did not test for the role. He wanted a seductive Lady Macbeth, and tried to get Vivien Leigh for the role, but Laurence Olivier, Leigh's then-husband, refused permission.
Orson Welles assigned some of the lines spoken by characters in the play to different characters in the film. He invented the character "A Holy Father" for the film to emphasize what he believed was the struggle between religion and witchcraft in the play, and many of Ross' lines in the play are spoken by the Holy Father. The very minor character of the Old Man was omitted from the film, and his lines were also given to the Holy Father. Welles also gave Lady Macduff an extra speech which William Shakespeare had assigned to another character.
Jeanette Nolan's film debut.
Some sources mistakenly credit Charles Lederer with playing one of the Three Witches.
Laurence Olivier wanted to follow up The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France (1944) with a film version of "Macbeth", but decided against it because Orson Welles version would reach theaters first. Olivier opted to make his film of Hamlet (1948) instead, which went on to win him Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor.