Welles, In Order #5 – Macbeth
Given that he covered nearly every genre and worked almost exclusively among adaptations, it’s a surprise that Welles’ contemporary, John Huston, never tackled Shakespeare. When you think of a director like Tarantino, it’s no stretch to believe that at the same time Mr. Pink and White and Orange and Blonde and their gang are robbing a jewelry store, Vincent Vega is taking Mia Wallace out for a five-dollar milkshake. And Bill’s putting a bullet into poor Beatrix Kiddo’s head. And a hundred years before that, Django is roughing up Calvin Candy. Those films seem to exist in a single universe. And the same could be said of The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai and is literally, albeit jokingly, said of Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. The same can’t be said of The Maltese Falcon and The Dead, Huston’s first and last films, respectively. Or Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Moulin Rouge! Or The Maltese Falcon and Prizzi’s Honor, despite their superficial similarities. Or anything and Annie, The List of Adrian Messenger, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, and Reflections in a Golden Eye. Similarly, the world of Macbeth is not the world of Lear, nor the world of Richard III nor Henrys V and IV and both their parts — even though, historically, they are the same world, geographically separated by only a few hundred miles, if that.
The point is that Shakespeare tends to defy directorial styles, and someone like Huston, who never thought of himself as having a distinct style and would adapt the look and feel and technique of his films around the source material, would seem a better fit for Shakespeare than a director whose films have a consistent style or, much more often, who attempt to twist the text into their own personal statement. Someone like Welles. Richard Loncraine’s Richard III, for example, features Ian McKellan’s brilliant performance in the title role, but the choice to set it in 1930s England and portray Richard as a Hitler-esque (or , perhaps more accurately Oswald Mosley-esque) dictator falls flat. I’ve seen similar stage productions, in particular one of Richard II that clumsily do likewise, and I’m not a fan of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet for much the same reason. I understand that Derek Jarman’s The Tempest was criticized along the same lines, but I haven’t seen it.
Certainly that was the initial reaction to Macbeth. The most notable criticism being Welles’ use of thick, Scottish brogues, which were, evidently, toned down from the original recording. Scenes and speeches were cropped and relocated; the expressionistic sets were derided (many of them being recycled from Republic’s Westerns). Deaths that occur offstage, such as the Thane of Cawdor’s, Lady Macbeth’s, and Macbeth’s own, are shown. And Welles introduces a theme of paganism versus Christianity that’s symbolized in many of the props, St. Michael’s prayer, and the entirely new character of the Holy Man. These changes may seem commonplace nowadays, but they were borderline scandalous in 1948, when the film was released. Marjory Adams of the Boston Globe called it “a rather shabby Class B adventure story in costume” and Newsweek said it “has failed utterly to live up to the standard set by Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet,” though it did praise Welles’ attempt to tackle Shakespeare, and, somewhat dubiously, noted, “…at least [Welles] has failed honestly.”
Still, a few reviewers, such as Jacques Bourgeois (I’m assuming that’s a pseudonym) in La Revue du Cinema, celebrated Welles’ vision: “While Olivier only tried to adapt a theatre production for the cinema, Welles tried to use every possible dramatic means to express himself in a wholly new manner.”
The genesis of the production isn’t much of a story in itself; merely that Welles’s friend Charlie Feldman had a deal with Herbert Yates of Republic Pictures to make several pictures, and Macbeth ended up being one them. However, it has to be mentioned, certainly under threat of death, that Welles had previously directed the so-named “Voodoo Macbeth” in 1936, using a mostly all-black cast. According to Welles, the only similarity between the two being that when Macbeth heads to Duncan’s chamber, he moves stage right to stage left.
Closer to the film was Welles’ staging of the play in Salt Lake City in 1947, which was more or less a dress rehearsal. Dialogue was prerecorded, and the actors acted to the audio playback (and perhaps accounts for the liberal use of voice over). And despite a tight schedule, filming took only 23 days.
Despite the low budget, hand-me-down sets, shoddy costuming, production time, andmy own feeble grousings, however, Bourgeois is quite correct, because Welles’ Macbeth, if nothing else, is spectacularly cinematic.
The opening of Macbeth is perhaps the best sequence in the film — an extreme closeup of smoke and ooze that alternate in seamlessly transitioned shots. If you think of the opening of Kane, which uses the single light as a visual compass while we take in various shots of Xanadu, this is the complete opposite — immediately disorienting the viewer. Welles had used fades and dissolves before, but mostly they were limited to indicate scene changes and the passage of time, such as in The Magnificent Ambersons. Here they not only immerse the viewer in the film’s otherwordly feel, but also they introduce several visual symbols — the clouds, which will later overlay the “Life is but a walking shadow” speech; the thick, grey glop that suggests Macbeth’s castle; and the sculpture of Macbeth from mud — which suggests the creation of Adam from clay.
Another departure from Welles’ usual style is the frenetic editing. The cuts, which have been relatively fluid in his previous films, are much more jarring here, at least in the opening. For example, Macbeth will deliver a line, and say Banquo will respond and Macbeth respond in turn. Instead of a single shot recording the conversation, it will be divided into three, with the focus on Macbeth, cut to Banquo, cut back to Macbeth, and so on. The shots never quite match up, either. Part of it may be to focus on each speaker, as each cut begins and ends with the dialogue, but Welles was certainly not afraid of moving his camera and could easily have done so here. Budget and time constraints may have prohibited camera movement, but then there’s several sequences later on that would suggest not, and time, at least during the shoot, was not a problem. Added to that the use of voiceover as well as the opening sequence, I think the editing is intentional. And I have no evidence, but I suspect that Welles was heavily influenced by Eisenstein here, as the scene recalls Potemkin‘s “Odessa Steps” sequence in its disorientation.
The other major visual motif is duality. Once Macbeth returns to his castle, there’s a barrage of odd juxtapositions — the axe of an executioner contrasted with the holy cross (which later serves as a mount for the Thane of Cawdor’s head); the shadows of the actors off-screen projected onto the background walls while live bodies fill the foreground; and, Macbeth embracing his wife while a skeleton hangs behind them. The meaning of these symbols is probably self-evident, and if not, I’m sure I’ll go on about them later, but for now, they’re significant to illustrate M. Bourgeois’s point: Unlike the traditional theatre, where the eye of the audience is free to wander, cinema directs the viewer’s attention, and gives Welles, in this case, the liberty to make such comparisons in the framing of his shots. Even if one finds the symbolism heavy, Welles is taking full advantage of his medium.
And all this is in a short span of time. By the 18-minute mark, Macbeth has already decided to do in Duncan, and the royal guards are well on their way to being drugged. Welles trims the dialogue to keep the pace almost recklessly swift, slowing down only for a few of the more famous speeches. The standout, is, of course, “Is this a dagger…” Welles recalls the opening sequence, focusing in and out of images, from Macbeth reaching toward the screen to the crowned, mud sculpture of himself, as if in hallucination, as if reaching for his destiny.
Lady Macbeth arrives, and the camera stabilizes. Welles employs his old tricks of blocking and lighting to comment on the action: Macbeth, filled with doubt and fear, is glazed in shadow while the camera looks up to Lady Macbeth, towering over her husband, cursing his cowardice. As in Kane and Ambersons, the character in power is shot with the camera’s point of view looking upward from the ground. And once Macbeth resists and assents, he switches places with his wife — recalling the stairway scene from Magnificent Ambersons where George and Aunt Fanny do much the same. Similarly, as Macbeth returns from the deed, Lady Macbeth is in the extreme foreground while Macbeth is dwarfed in the background.
The focus leaves Macbeth for Lady Macbeth, who, once her husband is gone off to do in Duncan, develops a conscience. This entire scene, the murder of Duncan, is filmed in a single take as Lady Macbeth delivers her soliloquy during the killing, and its use contrasts the constant cutting earlier, which, to me at least, suggests that Macbeth and his wife are a single person. Certainly it’s a theme within the play — as Lady Macbeth all but commands her husband to fulfill his purported destiny. She may as well be the devil on his shoulder, whispering foul spurs into his ear. And speaking of whispers, it’s another nice touch that these dialogues are meant to be whispered, as immediately after the murder, the voices in the castle echo.
That’s not to say that the two characters are not whole enough on their own, however. Though death pervades both Macbeth and Macbeth, he doesn’t come off as a monster akin to Edmund the Bastard in Lear or Iago in Othello, nor even Richard III, who, like Macbeth, is the central character. Yet Macbeth’s doubt humanizes him. Although he’s capable of evil (who isn’t?) and commits it, he recognizes it as a perversity and resists. This, too, Welles acknowledges — as before Macbeth is king, and faced with the choice to murder Duncan, he has his doubts, both in words and in the ever-present sweat that soaks him. Lady Macbeth is something similar — though she pushes her husband to murder, she, somewhat, refrains from committing the deed. It’s easier to advocate for murder, when you’re not the one killing. And they play off each other magnificently (at least for the audience, not entirely for themselves).
What strikes me about Welles’ adaptation, and is something I never thought of before, is that the traditional gender roles are reversed: The male, whom we’d expect to be the destructive force, is, initially, not inclined to violence (at least treasonous violence); the female, whom we’d expect to nurture life, is the one who spurns it. Jeanette Nolan, who was not neither the first nor the second choice (the first being Vivian Leigh, but Olivier wouldn’t have it), was essentially chosen because Welles wanted, in his own words, “a sexpot,” and, “she could speak the lines.” And say what you will about Nolan’s acting skills, she certainly fills out a dress. Welles plays up Nolan’s sexuality, and by extension her fertility, to contrast her bloodthirstiness.
On the other hand, I do think it’s important to remember that Macbeth is a soldier, and accustomed to taking orders. Having him decide in the moment to kill Duncan and swipe his throne would seem hackneyed, which is why I think Shakespeare made Lady Macbeth his “commanding officer.” Though, of course, she herself is driven by the witches’ prediction, which in turn brings up another point. Welles’ reading (one I think is correct) is that the witches aren’t actually making a prophecy; instead, they plant the idea of usurpation within Macbeth, and the events, in fact not predetermined, are driven by his reaction to that idea. However, it’s curious then that the film opens with Macbeth and Banquo coming upon the witches instead of the dialogue between Duncan and Ross wherein Duncan proclaims that the title of Thane of Cawdor will be granted to Macbeth. This exchange in Shakespeare’s text comes before the witches’ prediction, and calls their powers of foresight into question. They could have overheard the conversation and passed off Duncan’s pronouncement as their own prophecy. As Welles himself said, “The witches cue the whole thing. They aren’t foretelling the future, they’re making it happen.”
Duncan is dead, and Macbeth becomes king of Scotland, going from conflicted soldier to dottering monarch. The first image we see is of Macbeth the king spying a twisted image in the mirror. His transformation is aided by many further symbols — the crown, resembling horns (an image Welles will recycle in Touch of Evil), the drinking horn he’s constantly chugging from, and even the shields of his guards, whose emblems resemble the witches’ crosses and their pitchforks. (And it may be a stretch, but the y-shaped sticks borne by the witches suggest an upside-down cross: Since the traditional crucifix was fashioned to string up the arms and head of its victim and thus resembles them, the witches’ Y would be the legs, though, again, upside down.)
Immediately we notice the change between Macbeth as soldier and Macbeth as monarch. Most obvious is that he’s a drunk, slurring his speech and spouting dictation (for a letter he himself writes in the play), and sloping over his throne (another y-shape) as though he’s become part of his soggy castle. Welles frames him differently, as well. Where the camera would previously place him in the extreme foreground, he is now kept at medium length, like a spectacle to behold, which recalls an exchange between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich where Bogdanovich quotes to Welles a line from Chaplain: “Comedy was life in long shot and tragedy is life in closeup.” Welles asks what that means, and Bogdanovich explains that, “when you show a man walking down the street in long shot and he slips on a banana peel, it’s funny. But when you get in close, it stops being funny because the pain becomes apparent.” Regardless of whether Welles understood the quote, he certainly understood the principle, because this Macbeth is almost a comic character, and with the change in framing, we no longer see the conflict in his face that we did in the preceding scene. Even the music plays the scene like a farce.
However, this Macbeth is sloppy, careless, and decadent; all the hesitance he felt toward killing Duncan is missing from his casual orders of execution for Banquo, his friend, and Macduff’s family, a woman and a child. As for the deaths Welles adds to each a cinematic flair that also could not have been performed effectively on stage. Macduff’s son meets a very gruesome end, chased and eventually tackled by Macbeth’s goons who race toward the camera, which closes on the murderer’s face as he plunges his knife into the boy. In both instances, we don’t see the actual death — in the first we see the blase reaction to it; in the second, it’s the haunting glee of the killer — Banquo’s death is similar. Even Cawdor, early on, is brought to the chopping block, and the moment the axe falls, Welles cuts to the drummer, mirroring the executioner’s blade with the beater’s drumstick. Only Lady Macbeth do we see die, as her body drifts toward the waves. Macbeth’s death cuts to the beheading of the mud sculpture.
Cawdor, Duncan, Banquo, young Macduff, and Macbeth are spared a gory closeup, but not Lady Macbeth. Why? One, there’s the matter of ratings — chopping off Macbeth’s head, regardless of where you are, is simply not going to make it past the censors (the porter scene, for example, was cut for its entendres). Two, I think Welles wanted to do give each death is due significance, and for the innocents, seeing their punctured corpses would seem exploitative. And three, Lady Macbeth’s death is a suicide, instead of a killing. That may go back to what the censors allowed, but thematically, I think it’s important to see Lady Macbeth punish herself for her sins. As Macbeth sinks farther into decadence, Lady Macbeth begins to feel guilt, a reversal of her character from the previous acts. Her famous “spot” soliloquy, I think suggests, superficially, a supernatural reminder of the guilt she should be feeling, but more accurately I think is a dissociative guilt that she cannot bear to accept; one she does, she kills herself. Welles seems to feel that way, too, hence his portrait of her death — though her body banking off a rock is a little exploitative.
Still, compare that to the phantasmagoric scene of Banquo’s ghost. For one, the lighting glimmers on the wall like a pool, or, perhaps more accurately, like a fire, as if the castle were hell, consumed in flame.Welles switches the perspectives multiple times throughout this sequence, giving us Macbeth’s point of view, looking down the table while his men stare at him in confusion. It’s one of the very few times Welles shoots from his protagonist’s perspective, first seeing only Banquo at the table, and none of the other guests, leading to a closeup of the slain Banquo, and then to Lady Macbeth’s perspective, seeing only an empty chair at the table’s end. The points of view go back and forth depending on the speaker as Macbeth rants while he wife attempts to excuse her husband. Then ghost of Duncan appears, and Welles adds yet another point of view — that of Duncan’s, who watches silently as Macbeth claws his way down the table before toppling it, and the camera cuts (or retreats) to the floor, almost cowering at the action. This isn’t exactly Macbeth’s guilt so much as his paranoia, and the perspectives illustrate that, going from the real to the imagined to the hyper-imagined. The fear on Lady Macbeth’s face also highlights her husband’s madness — he’s now beyond even her control. And yet, it also emphasizes how the two are inextricably linked — true, Lady Macbeth’s life is just as threatened by her husband’s behavior as his, but the theme of the two representing dual aspects of a single consciousness now adds the dimension of foreshadowing — Macbeth’s madness predicts his wife’s. Welles explores that dimension later on when Lady Macbeth takes ill, in shot that frames them divided by a cage that confines them both — and, of course, her illness precedes his.
Macbeth conjures the witches in storm, and is unwisely strengthened by their words. Welles shoots himself from above and surrounded by black — left alone and without guidance, the witches are all he has left. The camera slowly zooms in as the witches utter their final words and the boldness of Macbeth arises. These predictions could be interpreted as real prophecies, but, again, is it too fantastic to imagine that the witches know Macduff was delivered by Caesarian? Or to guess that an invading army would disguise themselves as a forest? I don’t think that the events of the play need to be rationalized, nor do I want to take Welles to task for making them more ambiguous than they could be — all that’s needed is the acknowledgement that if these are prophecies, they’re mostly self-fulfilling at best. The supernatural isn’t exiled from the world of the play, but it’s not an entirely rational world either, and though the professed “point” of Welles’ production may be the duel of religions, if there is a god, or gods, their meddling seems to be on the side of the pagans, since the Christians have no elements at their command, no gaps of faith or logic for their god to fill. I don’t think that Welles’ intent, but I’m more certain that it’s not Shakespeare’s either. If Shakespeare meant a god to inhabit this Scotland, he left a long time ago.
Regardless, Macbeth sends his goons to kill the Macduffs, killings and executions becoming a far easier thing when Macbeth isn’t the one performing them. Macduff hears of his family’s murder and plans his own coup. The is the one time in the film, besides the opening scene, when Macbeth is not present, and I think its length is due more to Welles’ theme of dueling religions than for mere dramatics. Incidentally, that’s Roddy McDowall as Malcolm, and there’s an anecdote that Welles relates about meeting McDowall, who informed the director that whenever he wanted to enjoy himself, he would watch of a print of Ambersons. Welles responded, “You idiot! You’re in a pretty good picture of mine called Macbeth!” McDowall apparently had forgotten he was in the movie.
The stage is set for the storming of Iverness, and the rebels’ men disguise themselves in Burnham Wood. Welles races to his finish line in finale that matches the beginning in its pace.
Lady Macbeth kills herself, and Macbeth realizes that he’s misinterpreted the witches’ words. Welles shoots the approach of Burnham Wood in slow motion, giving it an ethereal feel and a mist that recalls the opening clouds. Be it destiny, the passage of time, the murky future, or the Christian god’s will, there’s a heavy symbol in the clouds (and they return for Macbeth’s “Life is but a walking shadow” speech. More on point is the bell ringer, who’s hung himself. Death (maybe that’s it!) surrounds Macbeth. Welles occasionally speeds up the film during the soldiers’ storming, but more interestingly, he zooms in as they invade Inverness, adding to the sense of death closing in. Clad in the garb of the Statue of Liberty, he slays the Holy Man, and the soldiers spill into Macbeth’s domain like ants or villagers in a Universal film.
Macduff appears in silhouette, like a crusader. The two fight, and Macduff reveals the origins of his birth, a revelation that so shocks Macbeth that the crown falls from his head.
Welles’ first foray into filming Shakespeare is, if nothing else, wholly cinematic. Though his introduction of paganism versus Christianity may not add much, it doesn’t really detract either. The usual Welles trademarks of lighting and framing are carried over (though gone is his beloved deep focus), but ultimately I think (contra the initial reviewers) that Welles puts Shakespeare first — or that he puts his talents in service of the play instead of putting the play in service of his own vision.
While some purists may argue that Shakespeare can never be truly translated to the screen, as it’s in the very nature of cinema to direct our attention away from the words (not that I’ve heard anyone make that argument), I don’t feel that Welles’ Macbeth lacks or disregards its complexity. Certain omissions may lessen its depth, particularly early in the play, but that equally disregards the innovations and added depth that Welles’ camera brings. It may not be the best adaptation of Macbeth (I think that honor goes to Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood — precisely for the great Japanese director’s innovations), but I think if Shakespeare were alive to make his play a film, it would most resemble Welles’.
Next Time: OTHELLO (1952)