In 1947 Orson Welles began plans to bring a Shakespeare drama to the screen. He initially wanted to adapt Othello but he couldn’t get investors to support the project. Welles would eventually make an adaptation of Othello in 1952 but for the time being he decided to film Macbeth, Shakespeare’s tale of the supernatural and its affect on the human heart. Welles- whose background was in theatre- had staged a production of Macbeth back in 1936. It was nicknamed the “Voodoo Macbeth” due to Welles setting the story in the Caribbean instead of Scotland and substituting the play’s use witchcraft with voodoo.
Welles was able to gain the support of Herbert Yates, the founder and president of Republic Pictures, to back the film. Yates came on board, hoping that producing a Welles’ directed film would increase Republic Pictures’ prestige as a studio; but Yates wasn’t able to provide Welles with a big budget. Welles agreed to shoot the film in three weeks on a budget of 700,000 and would also pay out of his own pocket if it went over budget.
Welles’ Macbeth (1948) has been eclipsed over the decades by Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) but it’s nevertheless a striking and atmospheric piece of filmmaking. While it’s low on budget it’s an expressionistic vision that’s alive with cinematic gusto. With his first film, Citizen Kane (1941), Welles revolutionized the way we think about filmmaking and how a movie could look and sound. And despite his struggles with studios and funding in the following years, he never stopped creating unique cinema.
Polanski’s Macbeth was filmed on real locations and but had an otherworldly atmosphere. Welles’ version was filmed on leftover sets from Republic Pictures’ westerns. Cinematographer John L. Russell- who shot Psycho for Alfred Hitchcock- creates the feeling of a nightmare. Like Welles’ other films there’s a surreal quality to almost everything we see and we’re never truly comfortable in this world. This is a world is entirely shrouded in fog, creating a sense of isolation. We are trapped in with Macbeth (played by Welles) and Lady Macbeth’s (Jeanette Nolan) descent in to evil and madness. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s leanest plays and this film- just less than two hours- is a streamed lined adaptation.
Welles makes changes in terms of the text. One alteration/interpretation of the text I find the most fascinating is having Banquo (Edgar Barrier) recite his speech from the beginning of act III, scene III- wherein he communicates his suspicions that Macbeth killed the King Duncan- directly to Macbeth. This adds even more tension to the relationship between the two men. Welles also combines certain passages and puts others in different places in the narrative. It’s a risky thing to play around with the text but I think Welles’ makes these changes work. As an adaptation and as a film Macbeth work as a cohesive piece rather than come across like a jumbled mess.
Despite the low budget Welles is able to create a visually striking and imaginative film. The clay version of Macbeth that the witches mold and is beheaded at the end is a sly call back to “Voodoo Macbeth.” I love how he films the banquet scene. When we see Macbeth’s point of view, all the chairs are empty except for the one in which Banquo’s ghost sits. Macbeth points to the ghost and as he does so we see huge ominous shadow of Macbeth’s finger. There’s also a simple but cool scene transition that appears very theatre inspired. It’s after the banquet scene and as Macbeth crosses the stage we’ve shifted locations from the banquet to a barren landscape. Macbeth goes to the top of a hill and speaks to the witches as thunder and lightning comes down around him. Another shot which sticks out in my mind involves Macbeth in a long shot. He comes toward the camera as he speaks. The camera follows him as he moves to the left of frame, revealing the soldiers in the background. It’s brief but it’s a shot I really admire.
Welles uses voiceover for several of the soliloquies- a technique Polanski would use in his version and Laurence Olivier would also utilize in his version of Hamlet, released the same year as this film. I used to not like it in Polanski’s version but I’ve grown accustomed to it as a cinematic technique. However, I think Welles should’ve had Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy spoken over an image of fog.
Welles isn’t the obvious choice to play Macbeth but he equips himself well in the part. He has the proper girth and ruggedness for the part. While there were stronger and more subtle Shakespearean performers at this time Welles was clearly committed to the part. Welles originally wanted Agnes Moorehead or Vivien Leigh for Lady Macbeth but circumstances led to him casting an actress named Jeanette Nolan. Nolan only worked in radio and had no film or stage experience, which makes her turn as Lady Macbeth all the more impressive. Nolan is a commanding presence in the role and this film would lead to a long career in film and television for Nolan.
I felt there was a considerable lack of emotion from Macduff (Dan O’Herlihy) when he learns his family has been slaughtered by Macbeth’s men (another change Welles makes is he has Macbeth present when Macduff’s family is murdered). I understand that Macduff is a restrained man, being a soldier- and certain actors take a more subdued approach towards Shakespeare’s language but I felt that there should’ve been more of an outpouring of grief and anger from Macduff’s, considering it’s his family’s murder that sets in motion the play’s climatic events.
Welles actually had the actors pre-record their dialogue and notably the actors use Scottish accents. When the film received poor reviews, with specific complaints labelled at the supposed incomprehensibility of the dialogue, the actors were called in to re-record their lines, sans accents. The film was also cut down to 89 minutes, from the original 107. It was only years later when the full version was restored, along with the Scottish accents.
Welles’ Macbeth suffered a similar fate as many of his other post-Kane films in that it was tampered with by the studio and didn’t receive strong reviews. But as with other Welles’ films Macbeth now receives considerable acclaim. I think it’s one of the most unique cinematic interpretations of the Bard’s work we have. It’s a small triumph of ambition and talent over the limitations of budget. And it’s another film that shows how ahead of his time Welles was as an artist.