By Tony Williams.
Humorously referred to by one academic as “Shakespeare Rides Again” due to Macbeth’s origins in Herbert J. Yates’s Republic Studios and having several familiar locations such as the cave used in the final sequences of Passage West (1951) as well as Macbeth and Banquo on horseback in the opening scenes, Orson Welles’s first Shakespeare film adaptation (1948) has generally received negative evaluations. This is certainly so when it initially appeared as the infamous Life Magazine (satirically re-named “Weight” by James Jones in Some Came Running) 1948 feature that compared it detrimentally to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet as the real standard by which any cinematic version of the Bard was measured – and often found lacking. Yet as decades pass, Olivier’s Shakespearean adaptations appear more dated in comparison to the more technically adventurous nature of Welles’s work in this area. Elsewhere on Olive Films’ new home video restoration one of the contributors mentions that Welles’s daughter Christopher Welles Feder heard Laurence Olivier expressing praise for Welles’s Shakespeare adaptations noting that they were cinematic while Olivier played safe by being conventional. Significantly, Welles wanted Vivian Leigh to play Lady Macbeth for his film but the Oliviers then planned to do their own version. I well remember reading Charles Higham’s excoriation in his initial edition of The Films of Orson Welles yet feeling some reservations about this judgment when I first saw the full, Scottish-accented version on BBC TV which at that time acted as a repertory theater for those of us who did not live in a large city. Time has been more generous to Welles’s Macbeth and contemporary acclaim by European talents such as Jean Cocteau seem less extreme to us now when we understand that they took the film on its own terms with none of the Anglo-Saxon critical establishment bias that affected Welles throughout most of his career.
Olive Films released a pristine restored version of Macbeth a few years ago with no extras. This year under its Signature banner, Olive offers a two-disc version of the film with generous extras, including a meticulous restoration of the telling, if painfully lacking 85-minute version from 1950. The nature of this release notes Olive to be a major rival to Criterion’s crown which they may gain should that prestigious company decline further with its recent offerings leading to some Macduff figure offering the crown to a new contender in the same way Dan 0’Herlihy does to Roddy McDowall as the end of Macbeth. At least, one is spared recent Criterion’s awful art work and wallpaper inside jacket commentary. Instead one pleasurably encounters a real booklet written by Jonathan Rosenbaum and reproduced off-set stills, one on the back of the DVD showing Christopher Welles’s “Son of Macduff” berating her real father for possible parental neglect during his demanding career while Macbeth’s henchman stands by with knife drawn awaiting the fatal order from his master on the lines of “Will no one save me from this meddlesome child?” The booklet has other stills such as Welles’s Macbeth shaking the hand of studio boss Herbert J. Yates while Jeanette Nolan’s smiling Lady Macbeth looks on with two of the three witches above them. Did Welles employ some voodoo to enchant Yates as he earlier did in a different manner (in his 1936 Harlem stage production) a decade before when one of his witches was called forth to “take arms” against one “sea of troubles” leading to the speedy “end” of one hostile racist critic?
At least Yates did not insist on Vera Hruba Ralston playing Lady Macbeth so the opportunity for Welles to direct his own independent film version without interference proved a blessing. This probably explains why Welles agreed to the now rarely seen re-edited 1950, 85-minute version both as a way of thanking this studio boss as well as compromising by fitting into the 90 minutes Yates preferred for his features. (The full version presented by Olive, alongside the 1950 edit, runs 107 minutes.)
Up till now I had never seen the 85-minute version, but on viewing it I immediately understood why Macbeth initially had a bad reception if this was the only version available in America. As I’ve said we were more fortunate in Europe and I remember seeing a version of Welles’s second Shakespeare adaptation Othello screened on BBV TV in the early 80s that had spoken credits at the beginning, one of the many variants (another having Suzanne Cloutier speaking her own lines) of this film that exist. Now available for comparison with Welles’s first version that has been around for some time, one can understand why most people reacted against the truncated version of a film that in many ways was a travesty of the original. Certainly, the thick Scottish burr accents are no longer present in the redubbing done by Welles and Richard Wilson (at Yates’s request). But at certain points of the revised film it became evident that Welles and his actors did retain a light Scottish intonation in their dialogue and did not totally succumb to Americanized dialogue similar to the practice employed in Roger Corman’s Tower of London (1962) with Vincent Price playing Richard III and Bruce Gordon (the beloved Frank Nitti from The Untouchables TV series) playing the ill-fated Earl of Buckingham. However, at times, lapses occur especially during the famous sleepwalking scene when Nolan briefly utters an Americanized scream before struggling to regain the very different vocal pattern that became necessary with re-dubbing. Although flashes of the brilliant original version do appear, the re-edited 1950 text often resembles “Shakespeare for Dummies” with Welles’s voice-over explaining the religious conflict governing the film in an added prologue and Banquo’s voice-over following Macbeth as he goes to that banquet to encounter his former friend’s ghost reminiscent of Boris Karloff’s line in Targets (1958): “I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
Edits also result in the loss of Gus Schllling’s porter scene in the original, the disruption of a ten-minute take a year before Hitchcock’s experiment in Rope (1949, the introduction of the murderers in Macbeth’s court, the riding shots of Macbeth approaching a castle in an early scene with smoke implanted on the camera lens as it pans left, confirming that the painted shards clearly visible on the camera lens also engaging in a panning movement in The Lady from Shanghai (1946) is not “clearly a director’s error” as James Naremore asserts in The Magic World of Orson Welles (University of Illinois Press, 2015, 145). Welles may be engaging in his own version of “ostranenie” here as he does in the entire auditory and visual world of Macbeth. Naturally Jacques Ibert’s extended musical prologue to the opening of the film is gone and during certain parts of this re-edited version the music appears muted and less acoustically expressionistic as it does in the original version. Also during the meeting of Macduff, the Holy Father (Alan Napier), and Malcolm in England, the studio has inserted some intrusive music to punctuate the dialogue that works much better in the original with no accompaniment. As in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) some anonymous Roy Webb studio hack appears responsible for this. The addition of this re-edited version is welcome if only for comparison with Welles’s original demonstrating by its very inferiority Jonathan Rosenbaum’s argument that Welles was really an independent director who just happened to work in Hollywood at a particular time.
The remaining Special Features usually run from 8 to 10 minutes in length. Michael Anderegg, author of the superb Orson Welles, Shakespeare and Popular Culture (1998), offers an informative ten-minute talk on Welles’ lifelong interest in Shakespeare pointing out not just Mercury Radio and Theater antecedents but also Welles staging the complete cycle of historical plays in the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois [year?] where he played both Falstaff and Richard III in a mammoth production “The Winter of Our Discontent” that obviously (along with the Mercury Theatre stage production Five Kings) influenced the 1960 BBC TV production An Age of Kings, now available on DVD. A less interesting feature “Adapting Shakespeare on Film” is mostly irrelevant to Welles’s Macbeth except for the concluding comment by director Carlo Carlei who remarks that the innovative type of cinema represented by Kubrick and Welles is “a testament to an age that has gone forever,” especially in the light of today’s crowd-pleasing big budget infantile blockbusters. Concluding scenes of the Federal Theatre production of the Harlem Macbeth also appear in an excerpt from the New Deal documentary We Work Again (1937). Viewers can clearly note similarities between what remains as a visual record of the original theatrical production and the later film version, such as the staircase set modified for the film version and the appearance of the three witches (lacking Hecate in the film version) who are present during Macbeth’s final demise. Peter Bogdanovich delivers one of his many “I Remember Orson” reminiscences in the next feature. Remaining features consist of former UCLA Preservation Officer Robert Gitt speaking about the arduous task of restoring the edited version of the film, a short item on Republic Studios founder Yates, and a video essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum that duplicates material in the accompanying booklet. Rosenbaum draws attention to parallels Welles’s Macbeth has to the excellent book by Lawrence Levine – Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Culture Hierarchy in America (Harvard University Press, 1988) – seeing it as belonging “to the time when Shakespeare was a staple of American popular ‘low culture, not a prized exhibit in elitist and effete `high culture’”.
All these offer a virtual treasure chest from the new Olive Signature series. However, the main attraction on disc one is the audio-commentary by long time Welles scholar, historian, and investigative journalist Joseph McBride who had the fortune to work on the still unreleased version of Welles’s last feature The Other Side of the Wind. This is one of the most informed audio-commentaries available on any DVD spoken by a critic who has written an enormous amount of material on Welles. McBride admits that his earlier negative view of the film was influenced by sole access to the re-edited version before Welles’s version was discovered and now regards it as “one of his best films.” Unlike many home video companies Olive has not succumbed to the lure of a “celebrity commentator” who knows nothing about the subject but is there for marquee value to articulate platitudes “full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.” Instead Olive Films has intelligently chosen one of the major Welles critics active for more than forty years to the present. An expert teacher and researcher, McBride offers a clear presentation of material to those outside his classroom, one characterized by conciseness, acute visual observation, and historically informed observations. He notes that a younger generation of students like Welles’s version of Macbeth more than the older ones and Welles’s fondness for King Kong (1933) (whose visual style may have influenced this production). Formerly skeptical of Welles’ relocating to Europe almost immediately after finishing Macbeth, McBride suggests the strong possibility that “he was blacklisted” and fled to avoid the possible incarceration of radicals urged by J. Edgar Hoover on President Truman at this time. Among the many fine observations made are McBride’s understanding of Macbeth as being both “poet and a murderer” and well as seeing Welles’s Scotland being really “a state of mind.” This is an exceptionally fine audio-commentary that matches those on the Criterion restorations of Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story. It complements the excellent quality of other material on this DVD of which Olive has a right to feel very proud.
Tony Williams is a Contributing Editor to Film International, author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity, and co-editor with Esther Yau, of the forthcoming Hong Kong Neo-Noir.