Macbeth (1948, Orson Welles)

There are two classes of performance in Macbeth, those who can only handle a double r-rolling and those who go for a triple r-rolling. Director, star and screenwriter Welles gets to do the triple. As does Jeannette Nolan as Lady Macbeth. Everyone else is only doing the double r-roll for their Scottish accent. Like much of Macbeth, it’s a puzzling directorial decision from Welles. Though nothing’s more baffling than him taking the lead role. When Dan O’Herlihy gets his incredible monologue—I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Macbeth or read it because I think I’d remember the Holy Father (Alan Napier, in the film’s best performance) telling O’Herlihy his family’s “well” only to say “jk, Macbeth killed them all, why are you upset”—but when O’Herlihy gets that moment, it’s clear it’s the better part. At least in how Welles made Macbeth.

The film has a bunch of apparent constraints. Budget is the first and most obvious. The film’s primary location is a paper machete castle. Welles and cinematographer John L. Russell play with contrast throughout to compensate, and it often works. Macbeth’s often well-directed. It’s always cheap, but it’s often well-directed. One of the problems is when you visibly see Welles chafe against the budget. Instead of working through the specific constraint, he comes up with a universal fix (the lighting, dubbing the entire thing), and it might work for that one scene, but it sure doesn’t work everywhere. Welles hasn’t figured out how to be a low-budget filmmaker at this point.

Another significant constraint is the play itself. It’s not Welles’s fault Nolan goes from having a transfixing part in the first act to getting upstaged at every turn in the second and third. She’s one actor Welles trusts with the power of the triple r-roll (outside himself), and she gets looped by Peggy Webber and Lurene Tuttle. Webber, playing O’Herlihy’s doomed wife, has a meaty part, but Tuttle’s literally just describing Nolan’s behavior and ends up getting the better scene. Of course, by the third act, it’s clear Welles doesn’t have anything else up his sleeve, filmmaking-wise, but, unfortunately, Nolan is lashed tight to the film’s wanting ambitions.

Because the first act of Macbeth is ambitious as all hell. Another reason I don’t think I’ve read or seen Macbeth is not knowing how many common phrases come from the play, but also because it hopefully would’ve occurred to me Macbeth, at least in the first act (here and then the first two acts of the play itself), is film noir, actually. So much I thought it’s weird no one ever tried calling film noirs Macbeths. Obviously, by the finish, it doesn’t work; heck, it doesn’t work immediately after Macbeth starts losing it, but until then… it’s the best noir ever.

Welles plays Macbeth’s descent into madness as drunken guilt. Nolan’s concerned, but the guilt part doesn’t occur to her, so she just sees it as weakness. She’s not wrong, of course. Macbeth’s all about men with drinking problems and a variety of complexes at play. One big problem with Welles’s adaptation here is the lack of engagement in the descent. He and Nolan don’t deserve any sympathy, but Welles’s performance isn’t good enough to make it interesting without. Though—and I’ll admit I thought about the technology required to visualize it—if you imagine Welles is an original “Star Trek” Klingon dubbed in English… well, it kind of works. Especially since the cheap 1948 historical costume design, made for black and white, does look a lot like 1960s color TV costumes. Fred A. Ritter and Welles did the costumes. The guards look like Little Caesar. As in, pizza pizza. The capes and cloaks look like thin throw blankets or table clothes. The gowns are good, and Napier’s get-up is solid, but otherwise, not good. Sometimes silly.

Macbeth just can’t sustain itself. The other constraint—the Production Code—figures in a whole bunch, too; Welles’s take on the Weird Sisters is terrifying and effective, but it clearly could go so much further. And Welles knows it. Some of the shots are intentionally blurry to appease sensibilities, which sort of sums up the entire experience. If you broaden sensibilities enough to include the clear budget limitations.

The film does have its moments. Sadly none really for Welles after the first act; the trip out to see the Weird Sisters is lackluster, though the transition to it is solid and some of the direction is good, just unrealized. He’s boring as a guilt-ridden incompetent drunk. Nolan never gets to do anything anywhere near as good as in the first act, though her sleepwalking scene is still good. The first act stuff is too excellent to overcome. O’Herlihy’s fine. I kept wishing he’d be better. Great hair. Roddy McDowell’s disappointing, but it doesn’t seem to be his fault; Welles told him to lay into the rhyming.

I somehow managed to forget the rhyming stuff. Starting in the second act with McDowell trying to comfort O’Herlihy about his dead family (“bro, why you sad”), Welles all of a sudden decided the double r-roll class should try to emphasize rhymes when possible. They don’t do it until that point in the film but then do it for the rest. It’s like Welles figured the audience would have gotten used to the Scottish accents and would need something else to cringe through. Leveraging the rhyming really doesn’t work. Though would it be worth going all rhyming to get rid of the accents? The unanswerable questions.

There’s some excellent filmmaking in Macbeth, there’s some interesting filmmaking in Macbeth, but there’s mostly unsuccessful filmmaking in Macbeth. Welles does what he can with what he’s got; he later rationalized the project as an attempt to encourage other filmmakers to “tackle difficult subjects at greater speed” (it only took twenty-three days to shoot), but—and here’s the big problem—Welles just isn’t very good making a cheap, quick movie here. All of his impulses beg for big budget.

And when he doesn’t have it, he just gives up, and it’s a bummer.


This post is part of the No True Scotsman Blogathon hosted by Gill Of Realweegiemidget Reviews.

8 Comments

  1. Brian

    I’d never thought about Macbeth being the original “film noir” before, but it does have a lot of those classic elements — a flawed protagonist who could go either way between good and evil, and a femme fatale goading him into the latter. And you make another important point — it’s not easy to make a good, quick low-budget movie. Low budget B’s require a special kind of artistry. Great review!

  2. Eric Binford

    A curious effort that doesn’t really work (Welles’s Othello has similar problems). It’s a far cry from Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and Hamlet. Plus Roman Polanki’s 1970s Macbeth is, in my opinion, the definitive version of the play. I do have to say that Welles redeemed himself with the brilliant Chimes at Midnight.

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