1948: Orson Welles
Orson Welles was still trying to reclaim his legacy as the Hollywood enfant terrible of Citizen Kane fame when this was made, and it was not an unqualified success. He both directs and stars in the film, and appears to have resorted to some of its peculiar maneuvers more for the sake of novelty than for any good dramaturgical reasons.
The film is poised halfway between a cinematic and a stage treatment. It makes use of varied camera angles, and much larger sets than the average stage, but most of them feel much like the standard sound-stage of the 1940s.
The black and white photography is inventive and challenging for its day, of the sort Welles was noted for: in some ways it’s the production’s strongest feature. While it can’t really compete with Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood for tonal mastery, it manages to achieve some striking visual effects. Beyond that, however, the details of the production vacillate between a rather arbitrary realism and the weirdly stylized. Everyone speaks in a Hollywood-bred Scottish accent that’s not very convincing. The sets and props are mannered and stylized, and the costumes are eminently forgettable, with the single exception of Macbeth’s two crowns, one of which looks like a square box or horned altar on his head, and the other of which makes him look like Lady Liberty with a mustache. The musical score by Jacques Ibert is really not terribly interesting, and sometimes it’s positively obtrusive. It advises us with strident and dissonant strings when Something Bad is happening, lest we be in doubt about it.
Taken purely as a treatment of the play, the film broadly and fairly brutally cuts the script, and shuffles the pieces that remain about with uncommon freedom; many of the pivotal points of the play are simply discarded in the general rush to truncate and simplify. Some of the things Shakespeare leaves ambiguous are made explicit or simply invented: we see, for example, Lady Macbeth fling herself from a cliff; Macbeth himself is among the attackers in Macduff’s castle. Much of the thematic content of the play (for example, the whole unfolding discussion of equivocation) is stripped to a bare minimum (with the porter having only a handful of lines remaining from his keynote soliloquy), with the result that the latter stages are wholly unprepared. In other scenes, lines are assigned to different speakers altogether — sometimes to people who shouldn’t have been on hand at all (as with Lady Macbeth’s inexplicable appearance at Macduff’s castle just before the slaughter). The feast at which Banquo’s ghost appears — arguably the pivotal point in the play — is reduced to a short scene emphasizing spectacle more than discourse.
The acting (from Macbeth on down) is very broad as well; combined with the accents, the net effect is very much reminiscent of a reasonably good amateur theatrical. The film is worth seeing for a number of lesser reasons. The current DVD release of the film does restore at least the footage (almost twenty minutes) that the studio (Republic) stripped from it in a bid for even more popular banality than it had already achieved. It’s worth seeing as a bit of film history, and as a way of seeing the extraordinary lengths some people have taken with Shakespeare, but as a representation of the play itself, it’s not showing either Shakespeare or Welles in anything like their best light.
Banquo: Edgar Barrier
Doctor: Morgan Farley
Duncan: Erskine Sanford
First Murderer; The Three: Brainerd Duffield
Fleance: Jerry Farber
Gentlewoman; The Three: Lurene Tuttle
Lady Macbeth: Jeanette Nolan
Lady Macduff; The Three: Peggy Webber
Lennox: Keene Curtis
Macbeth: Orson Welles
Macduff Child: Christopher Welles
Macduff: Dan O’Herlihy
Malcolm: Roddy McDowall
Porter: Gus Schilling
Priest: Alan Napier
Ross: John Dierkes
Second Murderer: William Alland
Seyton: George Chirello
Siward: Lionel Braham
Young Siward: Archie Heugly