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.