Shakespeare’s play as film noir—medieval, though, not modern—and existential tragedy: a marvel that its studio, Republic, mutilated for no good reason. In its restored form, however, Orson Welles’s first of three Shakespeare films seems to emanate from Macbeth’s own mind (some of Macbeth’s utterances emerge as somber voiceover), as if from his grave, and the witches—neither as ghostly as Akira Kurosawa’s (Throne of Blood, 1957) nor as corporeal as Roman Polanski’s (1971)—recall some ancient past and look ahead to an even gloomier fate. With its barren landscape echoing the inescapable outcome of grief, madness and power’s pursuit, Welles’s dark, barbaric fable takes us to the no-man’s-land that projects Macbeth’s eternally murder-damaged soul. (Like Shakespeare, Welles targets excessive rather than all ambition—an error that Kurosawa would have the boldness to correct.)
This film is full of powerful, grimly poetic images. The opening passage, which may have inspired the doll-making from chewed bread in Ilya Khrjanovsky’s brilliant Chetyre (2005), is tremendous; the witchly formation of the clay figurine that embodies Macbeth and telescopes his destiny turns the Shakespeare inside-out, projecting instead of Shakespeare’s secular gospel of individual responsibility Welles’s own fatalism, a reflection of world horrors and personal calamities: the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the revelation of the Holocaust; the hour of footage that the studio had blithely ripped out of his final cut of The Lady from Shanghai (1947); the collapse of his marriage to Rita Hayworth. Welles, starring, proved an excellent Macbeth, and the dark, sweeping scene of Macduff’s beheading him doubled as an authentic glimpse into Welles’s own feelings vis-à-vis recent and current realities.
Welles’s Macbeth is famous—unfortunately, for its vilified female lead. Agnes Moorehead, whom Welles had wanted to play Lady Macbeth, would have made the film perfect.
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