Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948)

Orson Welles

I’ve been meaning to write some more postings about Shakespeare films I’ve seen, but haven’t got round to it and my memories of some of them are starting to fade, so I’m going to do some brief capsule reviews instead of my usual epics – I’m looking to write more frequent and shorter postings anyway, although I’m sure I will continue to write at length occasionally!

The one I saw most recently was Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), which I had recorded from TV, and found much more impressive than I’d expected to after seeing some lukewarm and downright scathing reviews. Released the same year as Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, but with a much smaller budget, this production was very much overshadowed by Olivier’s big-budget Oscar-winner – but I’d say there are a lot of similarities between the two, as they both use minimalist sets and atmospheric lighting with a lot of darkness and shadows. Welles’ production is said to be influenced by German expressionism, and also has some weird camera angles.

Jeanette Nolan and Orson Welles in 'Macbeth'

They also both feature towering central performances by the actor-director – Welles might have a cheap and tacky-looking costume, but his speaking of Shakespeare’s verse is still great, and he completely overshadows all the other actors, including radio actress Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth.

There’s a good background account of the making of this Macbeth in Kenneth S Rothwell’s book Shakespeare on Screen,  where he recounts how the Poverty Row studio which released this film, Republic Pictures, made some hefty cuts before release and also forced Welles to rerecord the dialogue, which had originally been done with Scottish accents. The film has now been restored, with the cut footage added back in and the Scottish dialogue restored – I’d have to say the Scottish accents sound a bit unconvincing, but they definitely go with the wild, dark and bleak landscapes of this version.

The real problem with the dialogue, though, is that it was recorded separately, with the actors mouthing their dialogue on camera to go with the soundtrack. Rothwell suggests this method of production shows the influence of Welles’ background in radio. In any case, it didn’t quite work and a lot of  the dialogue is noticeably out of synch.  I was interested to read that some elements from Welles’ earlier touring stage production of Macbeth with an all-black cast, set in Haiti, have been included, such as the voodoo doll with Macbeth’s head – there is a clip of the ending of the stage version on Youtube, which is very striking and makes me wish it was possible to watch and compare the whole production.

For further reading, here’s a link to an article at Slant magazine about the making and restoration of Welles’ Macbeth.

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15 thoughts on “Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948)

  1. I’d need to watch this one again to be sure, but I remember thinking that the dubbing issues that you mention seemed less obvious to me as the movie progressed just adding to the other worldly feel of proceedings.

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    • Thank you, Colin – other-worldly is just right as a description of the weird atmosphere of this film! I do agree that the dubbing worried me less as the film went on, though I’m not sure if it becomes less obvious in itself or if it is just that you get caught up in the film and stop worrying about it?

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    • Yeah, I should have worded that better but I did mean to say that I found myself getting used to the dubbing and found it less distracting as the film went on.

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  2. “I’d have to say the Scottish accents sound a bit unconvincing, but they definitely go with the wild, dark and bleak landscapes of this version.

    I absolutely agree Judy on both points, and it’s true that the out-of-sych dialogue is a result of Welles’ radio training. Yet, there is a visual style here that is perfectly suited to this most horrific and barbaric of all Shakespeare’s plays. The barren landscapes, expressionistic sets and disjointed angles all contribute to an unsettling experience and a film that I feel is better than it is often given credit for. In addition to Welles and Nolan, we must site Edgar Barrier, an exceptional actor for his excellent turn as Banquo.

    Superlative capsule here Judy!

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    • Great comments there, Sam – I’m glad to hear you also think this film is better than is often claimed, and love your description of its mood and effects. Yes, I should have mentioned Barrier as Banquo, though I do feel that everybody in the film is overshadowed by Welles.

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  4. This is a really insightful piece that makes me want to watch Welles’ take on Macbeth as soon as possible…how interesting that it was released the same year as Olivier’s interpretation of the same play.

    Have you seen Welles’ interpretation of Othello? To call it peculiar would be an understatement!

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    • Aman, many thanks for commenting – Olivier’s film in the same year was actually of ‘Hamlet’, but I still find it interesting that both great actor-directors made Shakespeare films in the same year. I haven’t seen Welles’ ‘Othello’ as yet, but look forward to doing so before too long! I see your Film: Ab Initio blog is going brilliantly – congratulations on that, sorry I haven’t commented more but I will hope to do so as you get into slightly later films.

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    • You are absolutely right to emphasise the fact that these two great actor-directors adapted the same film in the same year. It leads to questions such as, were they aware of what the other person was doing? Did they deliberately emphasise what they saw as their particular style to ensure their film was markedly different to the other person’s?

      Many thanks for your kind words in regards to Film: Ab Initio. And please do not apologise – thank you for the comments you have made so far as well taking time to look at the blog, it is greatly appreciated.

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  5. I still need to see this film Judy. I have actually only watched five (Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Amderson, The Stranger and The Lady From Shanghai) of his directed works, so I still have a lot of catching up to do. Your review and the comments here make this tempting.

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    • That’s still more of his than I have seen, John – I think I’ve only seen this and ‘Citizen Kane’, and probably one or two more so long ago that I don’t really remember them! So I have a lot of catching up to do too. I’d be interested to hear what you think of this take on Macbeth when you get a chance to see it. Thanks, as ever.

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  6. Aman, it wasn’t the same play – Welles’ was Macbeth, Olivier’s Hamlet – but the questions you raise about them being aware of each other’s work and styles still stand and I’d like to find out more about that.

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    • Apologies for my misreading…

      It is certainly interesting to have two towering figures tackles these great tragedies only a few years after the end of WWII…I too would like to learn a lot more about this period and what their thinking was behind taclking these two plays.

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    • No worries, Aman – and I agree it is interesting to wonder why Shakespearean tragedy was so much in the air just after the end of the Second World War.

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