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.
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.
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!
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.