Tuesday, August 10, 2004


* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 August 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Orson Welles: Rogue Genius)

The Brattle's summer Orson Welles series has skipped around his career, which in some ways makes patterns easier to pick up. Seeing Welles's Macbeth after his version of Othello was instructive - though only a few years seperates the two movies based on Shakespeare's plays, they are decidedly different experiences, as Othello feels much more like a movie, as opposed to a filmed play, than Macbeth.

Maybe that's not quite accurate; Macbeth looks like a certain type of movie, although not a popular, mainstream one. When modern movies need to parody pretentious, artsy-fartsy films, they'll often use what I assume to be a pastiche of The Seventh Seal, showing black-and-white footage of a stark landscape, with actors standing quite still as they say their lines, often with one huge head in the foreground while another character stands off in the distance. That is, in a nutshell, what Macbeth looks like much of the time. The sets are surreal, and though much of the movie takes place outdoors, there's seldom any sense of there being a horizon in the distance. It's not claustrophobic, but it definitely gives the whole environment a vibe of unreality.

Another thing that's striking is how vital Welles was in his younger years. He always had some bulk, but here he seems powerful and virile, possessed of a rawer charisma than his later works would indicate. He can move quickly, and not look completely overmatched in his final swordfight with Macduff. He hits the right notes for Macbeth at every stage, whether it be the brave and popular hero, the guilty, frightened king, or the tyrant driven mad by his belief in his own indestructability. Dan O'Herlihy is nearly as forceful as Macduff. Edgar Barrier is a decent Banquo (though he's saddled with an extremely goofy hairdo), and Roddy McDowall is passable as the doomed King Duncan.

Welles seemed unsure what to do with Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth. Though given a costume that highlights her body, there's no apparent sexual component to her interactions with Welles as MacBeth; she doesn't seem to have enough of a hold on him to push him into doing evil. This may have more to do with how Welles chose to trim the play to get it into the 1:45 range. As a result, Lady MacBeth's breakdown seems abrupt and out of character. But, if Lady Macbeth is to be a bitch, Nolan manages that quite well, emasculating her husband while hiding her monstrous side from others.

Welles makes some curious decisions. Oddly enough, one of the more negative comes from trying to do something on film that you can't do on stage - many of the characters' asides to the audience are changed to internal monologues spoken in voiceover. The thing about this is that when an actor makes an aside to the audience, it's a dynamic thing - he steps away from the other characters and speaks conversationally to us, with gestures and perhaps a conspirational tone - but making those passages into the characters internal thoughts freezes the movie: You just see a medium shot of see Macbeth standing still while hearing his thoughts on the soundtrack.

It also doesn't help that Welles, especially, is easier to understand in his spoken dialogue than in his thoughts. Apparently, he used a thicker accent when recording the internal monologues than he did when actually on set.

Many others are good, though - I like how the Weird Sisters always seem above the fray, and the imagery Welles uses for Birnam Wood advancing on Dunsinane makes good use of the surreal design of the movie. And, he's shooting MacBeth, easily among the greatest of Shakespeare's plays.

The print shown at the Brattle was very good, from the UCLA restoration of the full, undubbed version of the movie (apparently Republic originally had Welles cut twenty minutes from the movie and re-record it without Scottish brogues). I'm not sure who currently owns the DVD rights to this movie - I want to say Artisan, but I'm not certain. In any event, it is currently unavailable on video, so I feel lucky to have had an opportunity to catch it.


Anonymous said...

Good review, but Roddy MacDowall played Malcolm, the King's son. He was still in his teens. Erskine Danford played Duncan.

Anonymous said...

Sorry that should have been erskine Sanford, not Danford.