Macbeth (1948) Review

Macbeth (1948) Director: Orson Welles


Orson Welles’s eccentric, Expressionist adaptation of “The Scottish Play” varies marginally from the text of the original play in that certain sections of the Shakespearean dialogue are revised or eliminated, and in one instance a “Holy Man” character is wholly introduced. These changes are partly owing to the rigid censorship of the Hays Code (for example almost all of the Porter’s double entendres are revised). However, I appreciated the use of Scottish accents in this production as well as the extraordinary sets made to look like a bleak, harrowing, swampy wasteland. Everything is dirty, grimy, foggy, earthen, and primal as old and new religions come into direct conflict with one another. In the film, Welles offers a somewhat blameless account of Macbeth portraying him as a mere victim of circumstance and supernatural machinations –he is a trapped hero constrained by dark forces. Apparently, Welles drew upon his famous staged performance of the play (the so-called “voodoo Macbeth” performed in 1936 which featured an all-black cast). Tragically extremely tight deadlines and a narrow budget hampered this film from the outset. Welles was forced to turn to B-movie studio Republic to complete the film and it is a testament to his skill that he was able to create such a remarkable picture after working with such minimal resources.

Often contrasted with Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (also released in 1948), Welles actually considered inviting Vivien Leigh to play the role of Lady Macbeth but he ultimately decided against the idea, fearing Olivier’s potential response, and instead approached several others including Talulah Bankhead before settling on Jeanette Nolan.

While a classic in its own right, I have to admit that Orson Welles’s Macbeth is not among my favorite of his films. From alluring strange, swampy or craggy sets (tin fact the abandoned sets of old westerns) coupled with pre-recorded lip syncing narration (including the same inner monologues technique borrowed from Laurence Olivier) along with heavy studio edits –the Macbeth film we see today is a far cry from Welles’s initial vision. Who knows what may have happened if he was granted sufficient time and resources to make Macbeth the way he wanted. A copy of the original film was found in 1980 and restoration attempts were made at UCLA until a vastly improved film was released.

With Macbeth, only Orson Welles could take a bare bones budget with a short timeline and turn it into a memorable, compelling rendition of Shakespeare’s darkest play –the film was shot in a mere 23 days! Orson Welles returned to Shakespeare again with Othello (1951) and Chimes at Midnight (1965).

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