Papier Machebeth

Continuing our MACBETH investigations, we turn to the Welles, which Polanski, a great Welles fan, felt it was safe to disregard completely. A minor work. Well, yes, but even minor Welles shouldn’t be disregarded.

Incredible that this was shot in three weeks, first of all. Whether you think it works at all is one thing, but the achievement is something else. There are films that work brilliantly with a strictly-from-poverty aesthetic, like Ulmer’s DETOUR, where all the creative decisions are also economical ones, but they’re STRONG decisions. MACBETH isn’t like that: though the monotextured sets — everything seems to be made of still-damp papier mache, and the truly unwearable costumes, speak eloquently of a bottom line that’s bottomed out, the mise en scene and range and number of set-ups have nothing to do with low-budget cinema, and would compare favourably with many an A picture.

IMDb credits art director Fred A. Ritter and Welles himself with those costumes. Ritter never ran that department on any other film, according to the same source. So it was Welles’ own choice to spend much of the film with a tiny occasional table turned upside down and crammed onto his skull. It probably looked OK as a drawing. It’s a huge relief when he trades it for the BDSM Lady Liberty tiara. Fiona thought the baubles on his jerkin (right) made him look like a Dalek. The feeling is FLASH GORDON movie serial, a feeling augmented at times by sets and costumes and playing. Like they designed a few things, badly, and then grabbed everything in stock that was vaguely relatable to the subject — Genghis Khan flicks, caveman movies, Viking epics, and some anachronistic bits of plaid — Duncan wears a big picnic blanket, Macbeth has a tartan scarf draped over his head like a shawl.

The sets are cheaply constructed but are still impressive — how did they achieve THIS on a micro-budget? There’s an argument that you could get away with a lot less in the way of set design — black voids and smoke and boulders have been pressed into service before — but you can’t get away with ridiculous clothes, because they’re ON the actors, who are the thing we’re always meant to be looking at.

Welles’ decision to pre-record all the dialogue and lipsynch to it, as if in a musical, seems kind of crazy, but it apparently achieved its goal of allowing more set-ups to be shot: the extra effort that went into the actors learning not just their lines but their precise delivery was absorbed by the cast outside of working hours, allowing the shoot to move faster. It definitely wouldn’t be my choice, but what the hell.

The further decision to get William “Thompson” Alland to drill everyone in a fake Scottish accent doesn’t come off too badly. It smacks slightly of Groundkeeper Willie, that accent, but as Fiona said, “I’ve definitely heard worse.” And it makes sense for the characters to have Scottish accents, even if it doesn’t make sense for them to talk in blank verse. It comes back to the question of how much realism is the right amount for a film of Shakespeare’s Macbeth? I would argue that NO realism is the right amount, so the look of this film, all dry ice and backcloths, is fine. The only realism that should be admitted is the psychological kind, so that it doesn’t make sense for Jeanette Nolan’s Lady M to SCREAM at her husband while they’re trying to carry out a secret midnight assassination.

“She’s my least favourite Lady Macbeth,” said Fiona, following this with “Hurry up and die,” during the mad scene. Harsh. I think she was alright, but doubling down on Lady Mac’s harsher aspects is typical of Welles’ occasionally simplistic reading of Shakespeare’s characters. (It takes an effort to avoid seeing Iago as fundamentally A SNEAKY GUY: but surely he can’t be as furtive and implausible as Micheál MacLiammóir in Welles’ OTHELLO? Nobody would fall for his tricks, not with that moustache.)

Welles’ interps are better when they’re weird and idiosyncratic: his judgement that Macbeth is a mediocrity UNTIL, trapped by fate, he resolves to fight on to the last, gives him one really good speech, the moment when his performance comes to life: even playing outright villains, Welles seems to have needed to find something admirable or pitiable in the men he portrayed: Hank Quinlan is an injured lion, Harry Lime is charming, Kane just wants to be loved.

Of the other players, Alan Napier (playing a part invented for the movie, “a holy man,” given most of Ross’s lines plus some from other characters) has the best version of the accent, Roddy McDowall has the worst (though I liked his dreamy delivery, and making Malcolm a kid is a nice idea — Roddy was twenty but seems younger) and Welles’ daughter Michael has none at all. Dan O’Herlihy is a great Macduff — “terrifying,” as Fiona put it, maybe because HE’S SO INTO IT.

Welles’ reusing the set design from his voodoo Macbeth was a good idea, must have saved time on blocking; the ten-minute take that surrounds the regicide was a bold one; there are longish passages where the camera just looks at twigs or smoke while some soliloquy is going on: maybe this doesn’t quite come off, but it’s where the film seems most avant grade, ambitious and ballsy. Or bloody, bold and resolute if you prefer.

As he did in KANE, Welles recycles his meagre cast, making the same actors play front-and-centre figures and silhouettes (the witches are never clearly seen; are the best characters from a visual standpoint as a direct result). The dagger scene incorporates startling rack-focus effects, reminiscent of the start of the crazy house sequence in LADY FROM SHANGHAI. The banquet is really scary — Banquo’s spectre is simple but effective, suitably bloody, and occupying a frame from which all the supporting cast has vanished. The dead walk not in the spaces we walk in, but in the spaces between.

(In the Polanski, brilliantly, all the diners freeze into a tableau vivant with only the principals animate.)

And the climax, once we’re at Dunsinane, is terrific. The movie has a great opening and a great ending. Lady M’s death plunge has never looked more dramatic: she seems to be falling from the stratosphere. A floppy dummy, admittedly, but Welles racks focus to nowhere just before that becomes distracting. As the English army invade, the optical zooms Welles has slapped on everything create a propulsive energy. He’s actually invented a whole new technique here, zoom upon zoom, which could look impressive in a modern film.

Hard to escape the suspicion that Welles’ ambulatory forest, step-printed into eerie slomo, inspired Kurosawa’s depiction in THRONE OF BLOOD.

Where Welles’ Macbeth connects to Coen’s is chiefly in the idea of an interior film, shot entirely (a) in the studio and (b) in Macbeth’s head. Though both versions include scenes without Mac, and we’re not in the realms of Welles’ planned HEART OF DARKNESS, shooting everything subjective camera, there’s still a strong sense of this 1:1.33 grey box we call the world being compassed within the hero’s mind. Maybe that’s why Orson wears a square crown.

MACBETH stars Hank Quinlan; Bertha Duncan; Robinson Crusoe; Caesar; Dr. Karol Noymann; Alfred the butler; Roger Bronson; Morgan Ryker; Thompson; Goldie; and Rock Person.

11 Responses to “Papier Machebeth”

  1. The stage Welles shot “Macbeth” on was used primarily for Tex Ritter westersns. “Macbeth” was one of Republic’s dips into the “Art Film” The other two of note being Ford’s delightful The Quiet Man” and Lang’s magnificent “House By the River”

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    The stage set led to the film being called “Shakespeare Rides Again.” Naremore in THE MAGIC WORLD OF ORSON WELLES and Michael Anderegg in WELLES, SHAKESPEARE, AND POPULAR CULTURE bring several interesting insights into this unjustly neglected film that Charles Higham savaged viciously

  3. What’s next?Joe MacBeth?

  4. Joe Mac:

    Our rule was to only watch Macbeths that grapple with the language, though we may revisit Throne of Blood, a film I always found hugely impressive but never warmed to the way I love the other big Kurosawas. But maybe I should look at the TV versions of Nicol Williamson and Sean Connery. Actual Scotsmen!

    To appreciate Welles’ Macbeth it’s simply necessary to appreciate what he was up again, and pay due attention to the bits of the film which are absolutely stunning.

  5. roberthorton Says:

    I assume Polanski’s original comment was in response to the 88-minute version. I remember when the 107-minute cut appeared, it was such a revelation – the movie still had issues, but it was much richer, much fuller. (And, as is so often the case with these things, it seemed shorter because it flowed better.) I’ve come to like it a lot over the years. One surprise with my most recent viewing: I really liked Jeannette Nolan, at long last! She looks severe, but she brings a lot of hunger to it.

  6. Thanks for the link to the earlier Joe MacBeth write-up. As far as TV versions go, Ian McKellan is not Scottish, but his version of Macbeth is quite good.

  7. True, Polanski would have seen the shorter cut without the burrs. The interview where he discussed it was more recent, but I don’t know if he’d revisited the film and seen the cut discovered in 1980.

  8. architekturadapter Says:

    The Welles version of the scottish play is still my favorite, I guess for all it’s madness and cheapness of the design (brilliantly discribed in your article : Flash Gordon … Daleks (!) it never occurred to me, but it’s obvious) and because of the expressionist mise en scène.
    At the end, the execution of the papier maché Macbeth-head is very effectif (at least as much as the “realistic” rolling head in Polanski’s).

    Very clever not to show the witches faces and yet they are so terrifying. But I also like the way Polanski filmed the witches – very different, and of course, Kathryn Hunter’s “one witch in three persons” is outstanding, maybe the best of all – I guess this is my favorite part of the play : the witches !)

  9. Coen’s conception of the witch/es as ravens, descending to pick clean battlefields, is marvellous, thus connecting the film to his worst movie, The Ladykillers, which features a prominent corvid out of Poe.

  10. The Nunn version with McKellen and Dench is indeed quite good. Not a total success, but a far more intelligent TV filming of a stage production than the more recent one with Patrick Stewart.

  11. Paul Almond’s Canadian TV version of 1961 is on YouTube in shocking quality, and the witches — Kate Bush interpretive dancers — are terrible — but it has a rather magnificent Macbeth in Sean Connery, who speaks the verse with tremendous informal clarity — he obviously knows exactly what he’s on about — and who looks more like a warrior than anyone before or since.

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