One scene, three times. (1) Welles.

Let’s do a CLOSE ANALYSIS!

I was struck by one particular scene that appears in the Welles, Polanski and Coen MACBETHs — Ross delivers the bad news to Macduff.

Billy Wilder said that there are two occasions in dialogue scenes where the director ought to arrange it so that the character has his back to the camera: when he is getting a brilliant idea (“I have just invented the light bulb!”) and when he is receiving terrible news.

Macduff strikes me as quite an easy part: like Banquo, he’s just a solid sort of bloke. But this scene is tricky, because all of a sudden the actor has to play something that’s very nearly unplayable. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it done really successfully, even though Shakespeare certainly gives the poor strutting and fretting player some help.

Before we go in, we should note that Welles, Polanski & Kenneth Tynan, and Joel Coen have not only interpreted but rewritten the text in markedly different ways, so we could argue it’s not even the same scene. Welles’ changes are, in a sense, the most extreme — he’s eliminated Ross entirely and invented a holy man, who has Ross’s lines and some other characters’ lines. This goes towards a theme about the old and new religions that Welles wanted to get in there, but that Shakespeare hadn’t thought of providing. I think it creates some problems here…

Still, it gives this scene a nice image, the Celtic cross standing in the middle of nowhere — a Star Trek landscape with low horizon and big cyclorama.

The most noteworthy thing about Welles’ version of Act IV, Scene III is that it’s a sequence shot — the whole scene covered in a single unbroken take. All the more remarkable since Welles apparently recorded the dialogue first, then had the cast lipsync to it, a bizarre technique more associated with musicals, apparently intended to save time on the set by eliminating the need to record sound.

FADE IN. Roddy McDowall strides up as Malcolm, saying some lines stolen from Macduff, and beginning three syllables from the end of a line, iambic pentameter be damned. Still, the lines work well with Roddy’s mournful, poetic delivery: “Each new morn new widows howl.”

Along with Malcolm and Macduff is a third bloke, no idea why. Probably there should be a whole gang of them, but Shakespeare only gave lines to two, plus Ross who has yet to appear. This guy is, I guess, an attendant lord, to swell the scene, and I note Welles has cast a fairly fat bloke to that purpose.

Malcolm strides forward into medium shot, but Macduff has the sense to keep going, meaning he gets a closeup. Macduff is Dan O’Herlihy, and he knows what’s what. But the CU only lasts a second, as with typical restlessness he heads back into the distance, pulling the camera rightwards. “I am not treacherous,” he remarks, apropos of nothing — Welles has stolen the line from later on. Then the mysterious extra dude chips in a line, “But Macbeth is,” which has been stolen from Malcolm, to give this interloper something to say I suppose.

The blocking goes a bit wobbly now, as McDowall stands in front of Third Bloke for the next bit, turning what should be a lopsided A composition into a dirty two-shot. Realising he’s being completely hidden, Third Bloke edges round a bit so we can see him, which only draws attention to the error. Bastard.

(But remember, Welles shot this in 23 days. If a long take like this was mostly acceptable, they couldn’t keep at it in search of elusive perfection. Getting six and a half minutes shot in a oner would certainly have helped them stick to the schedule, though.)

Malcolm now refers to England’s offer of thousands of troops, so we surmise that Third Bloke is a representative of England. I guess that makes sense: you want to visualise what they’re talking about somehow, and showing a lot of troops would be costly. Now the Holy Man comes striding through the background and approaches. This is Alan Napier, Batman’s butler, giving one of the film’s best performances and best Scottish accents. As noted, he’s delivering Shakespeare’s lines but he’s not playing a character Shakespeare actually wrote.

Everyone bows to the Holy Man, then they head off into a new composition — this is all one shot, mind. Another new composition, and then another.

Inevitably, when Scotsmen meet abroad, the one who’s just come from there is asked how things are going, and inevitably he answers: fucking awful. Macduff now asks how his wife is — he moves closer, but behind the HM, which allows us to see the anxiety in the HM’s eyes when he lies and says Mrs. M. is fine.

This I find a little hard to accept. If this was Shakespeare’s Ross, a simple thane*, it would be easy to interpret: he’s not used to delivering this kind of tragic news, and he postpones the inevitable and makes things worse (but only slightly: things are already about as bad as they can get) by deflecting his duty with a pathetic lie. The Holy Man, it seems to me, would not be this bad at what is, after all, a major part of his job, or so I presume. I mean, I don’t think Welles is intending some critique of the church here, it’s just that he’s saddled with the scene as Shakespeare wrote it (though, given everything else he’s changed, he COULD presumably have just chopped this bit and had the HM get straight to the nub).

Now the HM realises he’s failed at one of his main tasks, a task he’s presumably been thinking about all the way from Scotland — he’s actually walked the hundred miles or so precisely to give this bit of news. So he turns to face Macduff, man to man… and changes the subject.

Everyone gets into a discussion about the upcoming invasion while Macduff cannily heads for the foreground, his expression telling us that he’s not satisfied he’s gotten the whole story.

Now that the death of the Macduff household has been left safely in the dust, the HM steps off into a solo shot to raise the subject again, something which now seems to lack any psychological impetus. He hints that there’s some terrible news, and O’Herlihy comes smashing into frame as an over-the-shoulder jump scare out of a late Wes Craven movie. Napier pivots, and we have a flat two again, but closer than before. Properly intimate, the other characters nicely offscreen.

Still, the HM is really bad at this. Having created the sinking sensation in all our stomachs by telling Macduff that he has really awful news and it mainly pertains to Macduff, he then pleads that Macduff won’t hold this against him. An acceptable line for a thick thane*, but really poor work from a priest.

In another clever bit of staging, O’Herlihy doesn’t stay to hear the news, but walks off, stopping with his back to Napier, Malcolm and English Third Bloke standing staring helplessly in the b/g. And yes, this is STILL all one shot.

Macduff is gazing into the backcloth, alone, in a private space, as he gets the news, but unfortunately, I think, Welles has the HM jump-scare into shot and SNARL the news at Macduff, who whirls to face him with wild surmise. Little Roddy has got himself into the background to make it an A composition in which he sort of upstages the principals, but not in a bad way. I guess the purpose of the central figure in an A composition (picture the scene from above, with the edges of frame as the feet of the A, the two profile characters and their eyeline as the A’s horizontal strut, and the third character as the tip or zenith) is so that the middle guy can show the emotions on his face suggested by the two profile characters.

Macduff advances to face us, giving us all a chance to see that O’Herlihy can’t really act this devastating emotion, as who could? Malcolm/McDowall comes up behind him to, rather insensitively I would have thought, urge him to pull himself together.

Rather than smack his silly face for him, which seems warranted, Macduff claps him affectionately on the arm and heads off into empty air again, which works better because we can now IMAGINE his emotions, projected onto his back. When Napier comes back into shot the angle sensibly favours him, again allowing us to project the appropriate emotions onto O’Helihy’s three-quarters-rear-view.

It’s not ALL projection, though that is a powerful and underrated component of acting, where the audience can actually help the performer. But in a rear view, depending on wardrobe, an actor can really deliver a lot of emotion. Olivier, often derided as a bit of a ham, which he could be, was really really good at this. The costumes in Welles’ MACBETH are mostly pretty unfortunate, and Macduff’s sticky-oot shoulders probably cut down on his potential expressivity in rear views.

If the audience is helping here, Shakespeare is also giving the actor a leg up, because the way Macduff keeps asking about his wife and kids is really heart-rending, a fantastically authentic bit of writing, even allowing for the stylisation of blank verse in which Macduff begins an iambic pentameter with “At one fell swoop?” and Malcolm finishes it with “Dispute it like a man.” Imagine if you were replying to someone but you had to fit it into six syllables because they’ve already used up four. It’d make everything tricky.

Welles continues with the complex staging, all crosses and turns, justified by Macduff’s state of uncomprehending grief. O’Herlihy isn’t a back actor (backtor?) of Olivier’s quality, though, so when he wanders off into long-shot he just seems like a guy walking over to a tree. Welles, incidentally, while agreeing with whoever said “tragedy is close-up, comedy is long-shot,” added that an extreme long-shot becomes tragedy again. The character alone, surrounded by space. Maybe here the problem is that we’re not wide enough. Maybe the cyclorama’s too close, or, with this single-take approach there isn’t time to let Macduff get far enough away.

Having walked dramatically into long shot, O’Herlihy now has little choice but to walk back dramatically into closeup, which he does, and it works better because he’s more of a front actor. There’s a nice moment when all the supporting cast are clustered over his shoulders, but then two of them sort of shuffle awkwardly out of view, having apparently been told by Welles that he didn’t want them there. Third bloke stays put, equally awkwardly, and soon becomes the point of another A composition.

Malcolm, clod that he is, keeps urging Macduff to get over his grief, and is satisfied by the end of the scene that the grief is turning to anger, which he can use. Shakespeare, writing to please the current King of Scotland, now ruler of the newly formed United Kingdom, is probably NOT consciously smuggling in some critique of cynical monarchs and their politicking, but somehow he suggests it anyway, because he’s too good a writer not to sometimes risk getting himself in trouble.

Macduff, finally coming to terms with the awful truth, heads out of shot almost at a run, seemingly on his way somewhere important, so that it’s rather a surprise when the others, having exchanged some expository remarks, walk a few paces screen left and find him standing there. They all walk off together, intent on their single purpose, the liberation of Scotland, for their varied personal or political reasons. The church bell which had sounded at the start of the scene rings again, and we fade out.

The scene is reasonably clear, brilliantly complicated and yet somehow simple. I don’t think it’s very emotional, though. The moment when Welles seems most interested in Macduff is when he becomes a righteous avenging angel at the end of the film, which is, not coincidentally, the point at which Welles thought Macbeth actually shows some greatness by defying his fate, even though all seems lost. Welles mainly seems interested in this sequence as a bravura staging opportunity. But then, the question of emotion in Welles is always complex — he tends to like creating sympathy for villains, gets bored by heroes, likes to create tensions between conflicting, disturbing emotions (all the icky sexual stuff in TOUCH OF EVIL) in a way that’s anti-Hitchcockian, anti-Spielbergian, closer to Kubrick or even Lynch.

Tomorrow (and tomorrow, and tomorrow) we’ll look at another take on this scene, with its own strengths and weaknesses.

*Don’t know what it means.

9 Responses to “One scene, three times. (1) Welles.”

  1. One of the great debates about Shakespeare is this exchange:
    MALCOLM.
    Let’s make us med’cines of our great revenge,
    To cure this deadly grief.

    MACDUFF.
    He has no children…

    What does MacDuff mean here? Does Malcolm have no children so he can think revenge somehow compensates for their deaths?
    Does MacBeth not realise how bad his crime is because he has no children?
    Has MacDuff become so inhuman that he wishes MacBeth had children for him to kill in full vengeance?
    Just to begin with… It’s best as a backshot, which means the audience can decide what he means, but you can’t do that in a theatre.

    It’s the big problem with Coen’s film. I think. His MacBeths are too old to have children, so there won’t be a dynasty, so why be king at all? I’ve forgotten whether the “I have given suck…” line is in the film, but it’s one of the other crunches – in a film, which is freer than a staged play, it would be possible to emphasise the significance of the MacBeths’ childlessness and whether it’s permanent or they expect to have children again.

  2. It’s absolutely clear to me that Macduff is saying he can’t have revenge on Macbeth because Macbeth has no children to kill. Within that interpretation, there are multiple ways of saying the line, as we’ll see.

    You could, I suppose, have Macduff say it to the audience as an aside, pointing a thumb at Malcolm, but I think that would be ridiculous, and also not as meaningful. It’s not so much that Macduff wishes Macbeth had kids to kill, more that he’s saying he can never take an adequate revenge on the man, so this “medicine” does not exist.

    Polanski was very definite that the Macbeths should be young, ambition being a disease of youth. You COULD say that the Macbeths have always been ambitious and now, as old age comes into view, they see this as a last chance. But then the dynastic aspect, as you say, falls flat, unless they DO have kids already.

  3. MacDuff could just say it to himself or Ross, leaving the question of who he’s talking about open. I don’t think the MacBeths have living children – no mention or appearance.
    There’s a famous essay “How many children had Lady MacBeth?” arguing that it doesn’t matter, they’re all words on a page, but when you’re putting a character on stage it does make a difference to how you portray them.

  4. Lady M’s attitude towarss children is highlighted by Glenn Close in this great scene from “Heights” (a film that should be better known)

  5. Lady M tells us that she’s suckled a baby, so there WAS a child. One could, I suppose, do a production where they have kids running about that they never refer to, and try to make it clear that Macduff is talking about Malcolm when he says “He has no children.” But that seems like a lot of hoops to jump through. To me it’s perfectly plain that Macduff is talking TO Malcolm ABOUT Macbeth.

    We know that Shakespeare thought deeply about what makes for a truly thorough, proper revenge, as he has Hamlet plot Claudius’ damnation: he can’t kill the guy while he’s praying, because then he’ll go to heaven, while Hamlet Sr. is still plodding about in purgatory.

    The only reason to doubt Macduff’s line is a natural squeamishness about someone wishing their enemy had children for him to kill. But Macduff is still processing his own terrible grief, I would say it’s entirely natural that, in the heat of this moment, he should say something he wouldn’t normally consider.

    I think it’s interesting to compare the readings of that line in particular: continued tomorrow.

  6. All these lines, and their readings underscore the difference between Shakespeare and Jacobean tragedies that preceeded him. Shakespeare ws (dare i say it?) sentimental He wants you to empathize with protagonists as hideously flawed as Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth. Quite a chance for the likes of “Tis Pity She’s a Whore”

  7. I’m a little wary of the word “sentimental” but yes, empathy is certainly something Shakespeare seems to feel and strive for. Even a contemporary like Marlowe seems more to enjoy the havoc and iconoclasm, rather than putting the audience into the story emotionally.

  8. Dearek put the GAY audience into the “havoc and Iconoclasm”


  9. Sentimental? Only in relation to Cole Porter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: