Monday, June 10, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.6: Orson Welles' Macbeth


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 53/C+

The director that doesn’t finish films. That’s what Orson Welles was known as in the 1940s. After leaving The Magnificent Ambersons unedited to work on It’s All True (which he never finished), Welles became a pariah in much of Hollywood, and the failure of the edited version of The Lady from Shanghai didn’t help. Welles had trouble getting any funding at all at this point, so he resolved to make a movie cheaply and quickly, and convinced independent studio Republic Pictures to finance his adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth for only $700,000, with Welles chipping in another $100,000 in order to finish it. Alas, the film was not a success for Welles, as it was overshadowed by Laurence Olivier’s more successful adaptation of Hamlet and roundly criticized for many of Welles’ creative decisions. The fact that Welles unwisely spent time on other projects during post-production didn’t help his clout, and by the end of the whole affair Welles’ career in Hollywood was finished for the next ten years. On one hand, it’s a shame- Welles’ Macbeth is original, distinctive, and wildly audacious for a film with such a low budget. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it successful.

Macbeth (Orson Welles) has been a crucial player in King Duncan’s (Erskine Sanford) war, and he soon gains the title of Thane of Cawdor. But Macbeth meets a group of witches who also prophesize his ascension to the throne. Macbeth and his wife (Jeannette Nolan) murder Duncan and pass the blame onto his sons Malcolm (Roddy MacDowell). But some, like the honorable Macduff (Dan O’Herlihy of Robocop fame) and Macbeth’s friend Banquo (Edgar Barrier) suspect Macbeth, and as the new king grows increasingly power mad and paranoid, his world comes crashing down.

Part of the film’s criticism came from Welles’ liberties with Shakespeare’s play, something I’m quick to ignore considering how one must change things in adaptation rather than remain devoted to the text (repeat after me: nothing is sacred, not even Shakespeare). Truth be told, many of Welles’ changes to the play fit the story he’s trying to tell. For example, Welles axes the character of Ross and gives his lines to a Holy Father, a priest who serves as a moral compass for the film and turns the film into a struggle between a new religious power and an old Druid faith (the witches, who construct a voodoo doll of sorts of Macbeth). Welles also makes Macbeth a less hubristic figure- he’s to blame for much of the horrors on display (which plays into Welles’ interest in megalomania vs. morality and the downfall of powerful figures), but Welles is playing with a feeling of helplessness and fate that he no doubt felt after the events of World War II. It’s a film with a mood of hopelessness, which allows Welles to build off of Shakespeare’s play while still exploring new territory. 

Hopeless is the right word: Welles pitched the film to Republic as a mixture of Bride of Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, and the film takes on an appropriately horrific atmosphere. Welles’ shoots much of the film like a horror movie, heavy on fog, obscured supernatural figures, strange imagery (witches clawing at mud to make a voodoo doll of Macbeth), shrieking violin music, and bizarre low angles that suit his expressionistic tendencies. Welles also stretches the budget quite successfully- some of the costumes look rather cheap, and one might complain that every setting looks like the same rocky area, but many of the images are quite striking.

Welles also plays up his Brechtian influences, often calling attention to the artificiality of the sets, the costumes, and the nature of cinematic storytelling by establishing a fluidity of time and space. Everything seems to be only a few minutes or a few feet away from each other, and while that does pose certain logical questions regarding the film’s story, it does give the film an appropriately off-kilter feeling.

It’s a truly cinematic film, with the same expressionistic tendencies and hushed intensity as Olivier’s Hamlet (not to mention the use of internal monologues for many of the soliloquies). So why does Macbeth not quite work? Part of it comes from the film’s arch tone- it’s a stimulating intellectual exercise and an atmospheric piece of work, but there’s a certain lack of an emotional core. In a way, the qualities that make the film striking also make it curiously remote. The Brechtian detachment removes much of the passion of Shakespeare’s play, and Welles’ tinkering with Macbeth’s hubris puts some of the tragic elements out of whack, reducing some of the pathos. 

But the real problem with the film has to do with Welles’ most controversial choice- having the actors perform not in a non-regional voice, but in pre-recorded Scottish burrs. It’s a unique and chancy decision that Welles likely made as another way to amplify the strangeness of film, but it doesn’t change that it’s a bad idea that renders much of the dialogue incomprehensible. Welles had already proven in The Lady from Shanghai that accents were not necessarily his forte, and the disparity between his physical performance (not bad) and his vocal performance (quite bad) is astronomical. Nolan’s Lady Macbeth isn’t much better, often sounding like Scottish landlady rather than an evil queen, and the rest of the film’s performers are wildly inconsistent, ranging from solid (O’Herlihy) to dreadful (MacDowell). Plainly put, the text loses much of its meaning when filtered through the Scottish burrs, and it makes much of the film a slog to sit through. Welles would make two much stronger Shakespeare films later in his life. His first experiment, unfortunately, goes down as an interesting failure.

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