(Orson Welles, USA, 1948) 107 minutes


Director: Orson Welles
Producer: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles
adapted from the play by William Shakespeare
Photography: John Russell
Editor: Louis Lindsay
Music: Jacques Ibert
Orson Welles (Macbeth)
Jeanette Nolan (Lady Macbeth)
Dan O'Herlihy (Macduff)
Edgar Barrier (Banquo)
Roddy McDowall (Malcolm)
Erskine Sanford (Duncan)

Reviews and notes

"MACBETH was made in twenty-three days, including one day of retakes," as Welles tells the story. "People who know anything at all about the business of making a film will realise that this is more than fast. I never thought I was making a great film, or even an imitation great film. I thought I was making what might be a good film, and what, if the 23-day shooting schedule came off, might encourage other film-makers to tackle difficult subjects at greater speed ... I am not ashamed of the limitations of the picture ... MACBETH, for better or worse, is a kind of violently sketched charcoal drawing of a great play."
-Sight and Sound.

Shakespeare has had a tremendous influence on the work of Orson Welles, not only in the largeness of his poetry and vision but also in his philosophical ideas: "The great quality of Shakespeare is that he had neither moral nor political partisanship. Shakespeare never wrote real tragedy; he wrote melodrama that had the stature of tragedy, and all his interesting characters are bastards." In that opinion, Welles reveals his own code: "The moral aspect is the only one of importance. I am more interested in character than in virtue ... I call it artistic morality above bourgeois morality. Macbeth is detestable until he becomes king; after that he becomes a great man."
-Cahiers du Cinema.

In his MACBETH, which he accurately describes as a rough sketch, we can see the beginnings of his filmic conceptions of Shakespeare, which he was to perfect in Othello. That is, of interpreting the Bard for the screen, rather than the other way around as the other movie versions of Shakespeare have done. He takes Shakespeare's theme, story, and poetry and freely adapts them into motion picture terms. That way, he uses the play as a starting point in developing his own visual design. He rearranges the speeches so that they flow more naturally on the screen and elaborates on Shakespeare's stagebound directions: Lady Macbeth's death is described in the text as "a cry of women within," but on the screen there is no reason not to let her hurl herself from one of the heavy, brooding cliffs that surround the action of the piece. There is a claustrophobic quality to the world of Welles' MACBETH that is perfect in intention - the crimes of that dank world are exposed yet entombed. Macbeth is a cursed man, but he is a great character. That is Shakespeare and that is Welles.

Since the film was shot in 23 days, perfection was neither intended nor can it be expected. Therefore the performances are uneven in execution; Jeanette Nolan is too pale a figure as Lady Macbeth and many of the supporting parts are not entirely realized. Welles himself gives a free-wheeling, inspired reading of the title role, a performance that, like the film, is a "violently sketched charcoal drawing" of the character. The photography and the atmosphere are almost completely successful - the weird opening with the witches, the grimly terrifying invasion at the end, the shadowy, foreboding mood of the entire film, as well as the initial conception of making the people of Macbeth barbarians. And the movie remains of interest, not only for itself, but because of the way it foreshadows Welles' technique of filmed Shakespeare, which he was to bring to fruition with his next film.
-Peter Bogdanovich, The Cinema of Orson Welles, Museum of Modern Art, 1961.

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