Macbeth

Macbeth ★★★

When Orson Welles made Citizen Kane, after signing the most prestigious directing deal in Hollywood history, few would have expected that just six years later he'd be clomping around papier-mâché sets on the back lot of cheapo studio Republic with a saucepan on his head.

I'm exaggerating – the sets (designed by Welles but severely botched in execution) just look like papier-mâché, and the crown is more like a pasta strainer full of penises – but he is at Republic and oh-how-the-mighty-have-fallen.

After the debacle of The Lady from Shanghai, the truncated epic noir (that’s not a thing, Orson, what did you expect?) made via his last major lifeline, his ex-wife’s studio, Columbia, Welles shuffled off to Republic, a minor film factory that was still not– as many have erroneously said – one of the so-called ‘Poverty Row’ bunch. It did, though, make mostly Westerns, and struggled to produce prestige projects until the late-‘40s. Macbeth was arguably the first, followed by The Red Pony (which has some of the most impressive credits of any movie: Mitchum, Loy, Steinbeck, Copland) and then several John Ford pictures, including The Quiet Man and The Sun Shines Bright, the director’s favourite of his own films.

This Welles effort is the first and least of his three (completed, feature-length) Shakespeare adaptations: a poorly-paced take on the Bard’s story of determinism, ambition, madness and hubris, shot in just 23 days. Those sets are notoriously dreadful, and he has the whole cast speaking in bad Scottish accents, but the director's visual inventiveness is (as always) a major plus, particularly the cleverly-blocked long takes and use of moving shadow, which with his charisma create powerful and imaginative passages compensating for periods of tedium, elements of artifice and a descent into murder and madness that takes less time than a typical Orson anecdote.

His soliloquy against a pitch black background, moving from a long-shot to a close-up, is particularly and economically striking, but there are lots of fine compositions and conceptions, from the weird sisters’ fashioning of a clay mannequin in the opening moments to the walking wood that appears like an apparition (albeit too briefly) amidst the fog on Dunsinane. It’s more a stylistic than a dramatic success, though. There are few moments of great rhetorical or emotional resonance, partly perhaps because everybody is talking like Groundskeeper Willie. Aside from Orson – brooding, sweaty, erratic but sometimes effective – Jeanette Nolan has perhaps the best of it. She lacks sensuality or slyness as Lady Macbeth, but the ‘out damned spot’ sequence is unexpectedly powerful, a faint echo of Agnes Moorehead’s exquisite pyrotechnics in Welles’ greatest film, The Magnificent Ambersons. Heartwarmingly, ever-loyal Welles regulars Erskine Sanford (as Duncan), Gus Schilling and William Alland appear in smaller roles.

Macbeth is worth seeing, but it pales alongside the director’s later efforts at Shakespeare, particularly the brilliant Othello, made not in 23 days but piecemeal across three years. By the time Macbeth reached audiences in 1948, it had lost 19 minutes and had most of its ‘Scotch’ accents re-dubbed. I’m interested to see how that version plays, as those changes may not have been the worst idea in the world, and this is the only Welles film that’s a bit boring in places. Having said that, it already seems extremely condensed, and shortening one of Orson’s movies can make it seem a hell of a lot longer, as in the ‘Confidential Report' cut of his Mr Arkadin. It’s ironic that Republic preserved his original version in their archive, whereas major studios like RKO (Ambersons), Columbia (Shanghai) and Universal (Touch of Evil) simply didn’t bother.

Incidentally, Welles really did put on a saucepan on his head in Chimes at Midnight, but that was as a fine Falstaff providing a pastiche of kingliness.