Sound and Fury

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Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, filmed by Ken Hughes.

Yes! Ken Hughes films Philip Yordan’s Macbeth-as-an-Amurrican-gangster epic, in which lumpen Paul Douglas as the titular JOE MACBETH rises to the position of kingpin in a version of the New York mafia recreated on a small scale in England. The British version of America always seems like a cheap-ass solution, or at least it does when it’s obvious. Here we get reasonable but small sets, and a few obvious stock shots to broaden out the scope. What really gives it away is the cast.

Douglas and Ruth Roman (as Lily Macbeth) are the sort of affordable American stars who could be tempted over for a British film (Douglas had appeared in the minor classic THE MAGGIE a year earlier). The supporting cast is made up of a mixture of Americans abroad (Bonar Colleano, who’s very good here as a cheeky combo of Fleance and Macduff; beetle-browed Robert Arden of MR ARKADIN fame — both these guys appeared in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH) and those Brits who could muster a convincing yank accent. I’m inclined to think the following scene will be amusing to British movie fans:

After watching THE ATOMIC MAN, in which Charles Hawtrey intrudes like a music hall apparition, I’m beginning to suspect that Ken Hughes liked having Carry On film stars pop up and wreck his ambiance just for the hell of it.

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Also prominent in this scene is Ruth Roman. She does make a terrific Lady Mac, I take back anything bad I may have said about her. I think this kind of role maybe suits her better than the more tame parts I’ve seen her in. Her biggest problem is creating any kind of heat with the doughy Douglas, who’s good at freaking out, sweating and shaking his jowls as if he’s trying to physically detach them from his face and make them fly off and stick to the walls, but his baggy, Lon Chaney Jnr. appearance is a little unhelpful in more tender moments.

R.R. plays it fierce in the early scenes, and the snappy, snippy relationship reminds me of Douglas’ marriage in LETTER TO THREE WIVES. This is an unusual version of the play in that the Macbeths actually grow closer together. As a femme fatale, seducing her husband into murder, Roman, “the nicotine-stained goddess of the denim pantsuit” (here clad in revealing gowns) is very effective — Mrs. Mac uses sex as a weapon.

As one reared on Jon Finch in the Polanski version, I had trouble imagining how Douglas and Roman could have reached the age they’re at without previously showing the ferocious ambition that overtakes them. A straight rendering of the play would offer us a supernatural catalyst, whereas here, Roman’s fortune-telling friend is an insufficient motivation. Stripping the play of the uncanny does do it quite a bit of damage. Without the prophecies about Birnam Wood and “no man of woman born”, the climax loses it’s plot twists, although Yordan arguably improves on Shakespeare by bringing Macbeth and wife to their doom together.

The femme fatale scenes make me think that a straight noir approach would work better than a gangster one. For one thing, the underworld vibe is utterly generic, with Hughes concentrating his attention on creating a viable N.Y.C. in Pinewood or wherever, so that he has no opportunity to create the specific details that make a film like SCARFACE or THE PUBLIC ENEMY so memorable. And killing a kingpin lacks the moral outrage of killing a king: murder is a commonplace in Joe Macbeth’s world, so there’s a loss of dramatic force there too.

The best bits:

1) A distant bell tolls each time a kingpin dies. When Douglas has offed his boss (Gregoire Aslan, a surprisingly gallic mafiosa), the bell is accompanied by shrieking birds, and the killer’s moral torment is reminiscent of Sydney Chaplin’s downfall in Hughes’ CONFESSION.

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2) A completely unShakespearean character, Big Dutch, an oyster-munching vulgarian played by Harry Green, who has no reason to be in the film really, but frees everyone from the need to do a paint-by-numbers Shakespeare-goes-gangster movie. His grotesque, slobbering scenes are weirdly pointless but hypnotically repellent, focusing on the act of EATING to the exclusion of all else. “What an attractive man,” remarked Fiona, dryly. Accompanied by his food taster and two weird-looking blond girlfriends, Green’s ebullient schtick is almost Lynchian in its unashamed status as gratuitous cameo grotesque. Slurp!

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3) Bonar Colleano’s reaction to the death of his family. This always seems a near-impossible scene to play. How do you act a thing like that? Hughes holds on the speaker’s face for ages, with Colleano’s suffering hidden except as mirrored in the guy’s reactions. Then he does cut to B.C. and holds on him for ages too. And Colleano pulls it off. This guy got plenty of work as a stock American in the U.K. but either got stuck with some Brit screenwriter’s idea of what a yank should be, or played nationality-neutral roles (as in the fine DANCE HALL) where his American accent raised unanswerable questions. A shame.

4) Angus (Walter Crisham). A problematic role in the play. If memory serves, Polanski and Tynan made him a traitor, just to give him something to do. Ken Campbell speculated that the seemingly pointless role was just an opportunity for Shakespeare to do a walk-on (“Cos he always liked to be in ‘is own stuff, like Hitchcock,”). Here he’s the butler at the mansion house which passes from one kingpin to another, and his willingness to serve whomever’s in charge, coupled with his revealing just how often the place changes hands, is a nice warning of how short Macbeth’s reign will be.

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Mac.

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15 Responses to “Sound and Fury”

  1. Surprised you didn’t mention Welles’ MacBeth as a point of comparison, or is Orson off-limits as Chaplin. What do you think of that? To me that film captures the primal, medievel ambience of Shakespeare’s play better than anything. The Polanski is also excellent.

  2. What I liked about Welles’ version both his and the better ”Othello” is that it really is Shakespeare-Noir.

  3. And here’s yet ANOTHER take on the old warhorse. It doesn’t quite work, but it’s a nice try and well worth seeing.

  4. Ah, had forgotten the Turturro. Odd casting for Mac, but it could work. Amazing support. I’d watch Peter Boyle in anything.

    The other obvious connection is the Kurosawa, which is able to preserve the supernatural elements. Shakespeare fuses the supernatural and the psychological so well, you can’t strip one out, as Yordan does, and expect it to work.

    I like the Welles. The Groundskeeper Willie accents are a little distracting, but the James Whale inspired sets show that Welles understood the importance of the uncanny to the play, as is also demonstrated by what we know of his voodoo Macbeth. Chimes at Midnight is by far my favourite Welles Shakespeare though.

  5. Chimes at Midnight is in a totally different key than the other Shakespeare films. MacBeth is practically a horror film, totally baroque(visually looking like those garish woodcuts that scroll across the screen in the credits of ”Day of Wrath”), ”Othello” is total expressionism, with each new scene and shot expanding from the previous one, abolishing all time and space.

    Compared to these films and all his European ventures and all his American films save for Magnificent Ambersons, ”Chimes at Midnight” is very restrained and sober.

    So it’s really a difference in musical notes.

  6. Emphasising the melancholic undertones seems a really good way of treating Shakespeare’s bawdy comedy, too.

    Am about to get my hands on “The Orson Welles Magic Show” whixh should be interesting. And in the interests of research, I downloaded the 70s porn film he directed part of. It’s…arguably kind of Wellesian…I guess.

  7. Bonar Colleano first impinged on my brain as part of the lyric to Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ ‘Reasons to be Cheerful Part 3′ so he has managed to achieve some sort of questionable immortality there. Joe Macbeth lodged in that same brain at around the same time as one of those strange titles in a book of movie lists that i felt would never in a million years turn up on my parents’ television set. Thanks to Dave, now I feel all that pointless lust for snap-brimmed Joe Friday-styled Shakespearean gore was a bit misplaced. Shadowplay – watching questionable films so you don’t have to.

  8. Re-reading the above, the word “questionable” seems to have taken up the same space in my vocabulary that the word “disreputable” used to occupy- that is, polyfilla.

  9. There’s some very funny stuff about the attempt to turn Bonar Colleano into a major star in Ezra Goodman’s beyond essential The Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood.

  10. Oh, I’d forgotten. Must go back to that, if there’s anything left of my disintegrating copy. I presumed that Colleano got leading roles here simply for being American, and then I guess the americans noticed and assumed he must “have something”. Good actor. Face like a shark. Not too charming. Not a movie star as such.

    The questionable Joe is worth a look if it turns up on some rainy afternoon. Sid James as a specte at the banquet? Count me in!

  11. I’m wondering if say Broderick Crawford or Rod Steiger would’ve been a better choice as Joe Mac, of course we all recall how Rod would chew up scenery in overdrive. Like those close-up frames of Roman, there’s a realness, an earthiness to her face in the way it’s lit. Harry Green’s gastric intake is a classic scenario found in more than a few Italian mob films, including The Sopranos, but what readily comes to mind is Burt Young stuffing his face in Once Upon A Time In America.

  12. That Young-Pesci scene is a classic. Love the way Psci says “Da foah hoisemen ah de Apackalips!”

    Crawford would have seemed too old too. Steiger, though never actually young, might have been more like it. But a young up-and-comer just seems to make more sense in a play about ambition.

    Otherwise, Paul Douglas is actually quite good. His big explosive moments are downright alarming, as with Crawford and Steiger. He’s just not how I’d see Macbeth. Welles is closer. Jon Finch is slightly out of his element, because he works best as a depraved dandy, in lady Caroline Lamb or The Final Programme. BRILLIANT actor, but nota natural warrior.

    The gangster movie was kind of dead in the 50s. If you did it in the 30s, my God, imagine Cagney as Macbeth! Even Paul Muni would work.

    Let’s see, 50s… Brando, I’d have to say. But no way could Ken Hughes tempt Marlon over for a B-picture!

  13. Can’t find Colleano in the index of my Goodman. Maybe it was someone else?

  14. No doubt you’ve seen Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl. When you state that the gangster movie was near-dead in the Fifties, this film came to mind. Strange that this film was made in color, not quite sure why. There’s a scene in Party Girl where Lee J. Cobb’s Capone clone beats one of his guys to death with a baseball bat. But it’s a kiddie’s bat, maybe half the size of a regular bat if not smaller! You see him raise up to strike, and then the cut-away. DeNiro re-enacted the same scene in The Untouchables, to much more visceral effect.

  15. I think that’s a real Capone gag. Why a small bat? Maybe the censor ruled that a bigger one would be too violent?

    The colour seems to be inspired by the film’s relation to the musical genre. Ray had long wanted to make a musical, but the stoopid studios wouldn’t let him. Similarly, Sirk, who had considerable background in the field from his German days, never got to make a full-on musical movie. And yet these filmmakers’ orchestration of colour and movement make them naturals: proof that “the genius of the system” could sometimes be surprisingly dumb.

    But Ray at least gets to film Cyd dancing, my favourite thing in the movie. Although the music is part of the film’s lack of historical authenticity — everything is pure 1950s. The cars are the only thing that look the right period. Since Ray new the era, and was intimately acquainted with its popular music, I think it’s a shame he didn’t get to evoke it properly. My assumption is also that he wasn’t fully in control of the casting on that one, but I don’t know for sure. He certainly does everything he can to enliven it with dynamic compositions and cutting, but with those leads…

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