Shakespeare Noir

 o Macbeth

1948 / B&W / 112 Min. / Orson Welles, dir. / Republic Pictures Home Video

This film is a fairly faithful rendition of Shakespeare's play. The video package calls it "...one of the greatest experimental films ever made under the Hollywood studio system." But that, of course, is saying very little. While not nearly as uninspired as Olivier's screen adaptations of Shakespeare, as a film this work is distinguished only by its atmospherics. It has the look of an expressionistic stage production and only rarely makes use of the special qualities of film. However, as a stage production, this work has much to recommend it.

The entire film seems to have been shot at night and mostly on a single set. The low key lighting is reminiscent of the film noir classics of the same post-war era. About the only scene that seems truly cinematic is the movement of Birnam Wood: the use of fog gives the appearance that the woods really are moving. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Kurosawa's admiration can be gleaned from his near identical depiction of this scene in Throne of Blood.

This film's greatest attribute is its cast. Welles himself plays Macbeth and he excels in the role. He very convincingly characterizes the combination of ambition and remorse that provides the key to Macbeth's actions throughout the play. Many productions of the play make Lady Macbeth the sole source of the couple's avarice for power. But here, Welles gives us a more believable depiction of the dynamics involved.

Lady Macbeth is played by Jeanette Nolan and she too distinguishes herself through a superb performance. Her Lady Macbeth exhibits a sensual passion that motivates both her all-consuming ambition and, later, her all-devouring guilt. This provides great depth to a character who is all too often played as a two-dimensional cartoon.

This film, recently restored to Welles' original, full-length version, is well worth seeing.

-- Robert Stewart


 o The Story

Macbeth is based on a true tale of a Scottish king who rose to power through bloody ambition. The play opens as Macbeth has just vanquished a usurper of the current king's throne. He and his comrade Banquo come across three witches who prophesy that Macbeth will be made thane of Cawdor and will eventually become king. When he reaches the king's court, Macbeth is made thane of Cawdor as a reward for his bravery and loyalty. Now the witches' greater prediction begins to occupy the minds of both him and his wife. It is Lady Macbeth who plots the murder of King Duncan and the ascension of her husband to the throne. Macbeth initially resists her prodding, but finally he agrees to commit the regicide. While the plot is successful and Macbeth rises to the throne, many suspect him of the murder. His reign is marked by the murders of his opponents, both real and imagined, and by the visitation of spirits. Both Macbeth and his wife suffer greatly from their guilt, until the dramatic conclusion that ends his bitter rule.