Macbeth

Films based on the play by William Shakespeare:

Macbeth (1948)
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Director Orson Welles; writer Welles; featuring Welles, Jeanette Nolan, Dan O'Herlihy, Roddy MacDowall

Joe MacBeth (1955)
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Director Ken Hughes; writer Hughes, Philip Yordan; featuring Paul Douglas, Ruth Roman, Bonar Colleano, Sid James

Throne of Blood (1961)
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Originally Kumonosu jô
Also called MacbethDirector Akira Kurosawa; writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzô Kikushima, Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni; Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Takashi Shimura

The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971)
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Also called Macbeth
Director Roman Polanski; writers Polanski, Kenneth Tynan; featuring Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw

Macbeth

COMMENTARY | MOVIES

Macbeth 1948 scene

Orson Welles' flashy direction and flashing eyes cannot save his attempted adaptation of Macbeth in 1948.

Toil and trouble for ill-fated play

Fewer mainstream cinematic productions have been made of Macbeth than some of Shakespeare's other great plays, perhaps because it's been felt the unrelenting darkness of Macbeth would discourage movie audiences.

When Orson Welles proposed directing such a film in the 1940s, he faced this skepticism from producers, as well as a reluctance to engage him due to his reputation for being difficult and for running over budget. He was turned down repeatedly by studios, who called the shots in those days, until finally Republic took a chance, on the condition that he would complete the film in three weeks for under $700,000—a very small budget even in those days.

Citizen Macbeth

Orson Welles' Macbeth (1948) turned out even darker than the original play. It was shot entirely in black and white, and used many of the same dramatic camera angles, characters moving in and out of shadows, and extreme close-ups that Welles had employed to such great effect in his previous black-and-white film, Citizen Kane.

The interpretation of Macbeth is blacker yet. Every sentence of dialogue is plumbed for its horrific possibilities, and delivered intensely as the camera moves in on terrified eyes and sweating brow. Welles is himself a constantly brooding Macbeth. Whether spoken aloud or voiced over, his words are always despairing products of a mortified soul. This is a man who never feels a moment of peace or triumph, even when he is raised to the monarchy and appears to have conquered all his enemies.

The evil ambition of Lady Macbeth is chillingly played in the early scenes by Jeanette Nolan (later the uncredited voice of Norman Bates's mother in Hitchcock's Psycho) and she is pathetically guilt-ridden in the second half of the film. But what's missing from this archetypal femme fatale is the seductiveness—whatever it is that twists her husband around her finger to get him to do the awful the deeds she wills.

Another weak spot is the performance of the beloved Roddy MacDowall (Lassie Come Home, How Green Was My Valley, Planet of the Apes). The child star just barely out of his teens obviously has no idea how to play Shakespeare and his Malcolm is a syrupy-voiced youth who seems most unlikely to avenge the murder of his father and depose Macbeth.

Dan O'Herlihy (Robinson Crusoe, Kidnapped, The Dead) makes his American screen debut as Macduff, but despite being both a dashing leading man and a talented actor, he fails to portray the depth of the character whose family is slaughtered and leads a rebel army. Only when he gets to wreak his vengeance in the final sword duel with Macbeth does he come alive.

These are failings that may be attributed to the lack of preparation time for the actors in this rushed film. On the plus side, the decision to play the characters with Scottish accents, which is less common that you might think and has been derided by some, does work to add a gritty verisimilitude. "Gritty" also describes the sets, as does "sparse". Dunsinane Castle seems nothing more than a collection of caves and landings hewn out of a mountain top. When armies venture outside the castle, the rough landscape is shrouded in mist. The three witches appear as hazy visions upon rocky crags.

Welles is quite faithful to Shakespeare's dialogue, refusing to dumb down, but he does rearrange scenes drastically for dramatic effect. It's hopeless though. Whether the hurried production, the low budget, or the darkness of the vision are to blame, the best combined efforts of Welles the director, Welles the screenwriter and Welles the actor cannot save this from being one dreary movie.

Several cuts of this film are available on video, ranging from an hour and a half long to nearly two hours. Even the shortest is difficult to sit through.

Joe Macbeth scene

Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman bring Shakespeare's power couple to life and death in 1955 update Joe MacBeth.

Other Macbeths

Much better, somewhat surprisingly, is Hollywood's next take on the Scottish play, Joe MacBeth, which puts the characters in modern dress and sets them in the criminal underworld complete with backstabbing and machine guns. Burly American film actor Paul Douglas, better known for his comedy roles, is the Joe of the title who murders his way to the top. He's egged on by his ambitious moll of a wife, Lily MacBeth (Ruth Roman, best known for Strangers on a Train). The dialogue is mid-twentieth century gangster but it follows Shakespeare's plot quite closely.

It sounds like a hopeless premise but it's amazing how well it works. The leads and all the supporting actors brilliantly bring it to life. Especially effective is British stalwart Sid James, more sedate and serious than usual as MacBeth's ally, victim and haunter Banky (think Banquo).

The movie is mainly forgotten today though it deserves to be remembered as one of the better updates on Shakespearean classics that became all the rage later. For a taste of it, at this time of writing you can find most of Joe MacBeth available on video sites like YouTube.

Joe Macbeth scene

Jon Finch and Francesca Annis are Roman Polanski's beautiful and deadly couple in 1971's The Tragedy of Macbeth.

In a more conventional vein, Roman Polanski remade the play as The Tragedy of Macbeth in 1971 to even greater length than Welles' version. However, he updated the dialogue and revised the action somewhat, to make it less brooding and more violent. His biggest innovation was casting attractive young actors in the lead roles, and emphasizing eroticism in the play. Using a cast of relative unknowns, he produced a film that's been hailed by some as a masterpiece and dismissed by others as sensationalistically bloody.

You may also be interested in seeing Akira Kurosawa's Kumonosu jô (Throne of Blood, 1961), also called Macbeth in North America, in which Shakespeare's story is transposed to feudal Japan. That too has been called a masterwork.

— Eric

COMMENTARY | MOVIES

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Macbeth
(1948, VHS)
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Related:

Author
William Shakespeare

Play
Macbeth

Play
Hamlet

Play
Julius Caesar

See also:

Movies
Hamlet

Movies
Julius Caesar

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The Tragedy of Macbeth
(1971, DVD)
Get at Amazon
USCanUK

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Throne of Blood
(1961, DVD)
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USCanUK

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Macbeth
Get at Amazon: USCanUK

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The Oxford Shakespeare
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