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MACBETH – Orson Welles – 1948

July 8, 2017

Number one in a series of six.


MACBETH – ORSON WELLS – 1948 - movie 

 Adapted from a 1606  play by William Shakespeare.

 The action is set in 1056 Scotland.



Adaptations by:
 1. Orson Wells – 1948 –
Orson Welles, Jeanette Nolan
 2. Roman Polanski – 1971 – Jon Finch, Francesca Annis
 3. Philip Casson – 1979 – Ian McKellen, Judi Dench
 4. Rupert Goold – 2010 – Patrick Stewart, Kate Fleetwood
 5. Justin Kurzel – 2015 - Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillrard


Orson Welles version.


I was unable to find a transcription of his script that identified the players. He moved scenes and acts to suit his concept. He also intermingled lines among acts and scenes to accommodate his version of how the dialogue should flow, and he insisted that the players speak their lines with a Scottish burr. The sound track on my DVD was almost unintelligible. In addition, there was an unacceptable amount of negative and positive dirt. Before transferring to video they obviously didn’t make a new print, or even bother to clean the film.













My knowledge of Shakespeare is limited and the only way I could know who was speaking what, was to scroll the original play on my computer while watching the movie. I then did a search to find out what the next line might be. He also costumed the players in ostentatious tartan plaids. Both of these annoying contrivances distracted from the dark drama that was unfolding.















When adapting Macbeth – or any of Shakespeare’s plays - to the medium of film, there many cinematic techniques that make watching his dramas more interesting; voice over action, close-ups, editorial pacing, etc. Welles used many of these techniques to good effect. But, his compulsive tinkering with the order of the dialogue and his reassignment of lines to different actors seemed to serve no purpose except to satisfy his own ego.





Welles’ biggest success up to 1948 was Citizen Kane which is, arguably, one of the greatest movies in the history of cinema. However, none of the films that Welles directed ever made a profit in his lifetime… some were not even released.





Based upon Welles’ reputation, Herbert Yates, the producer of low budget Roy Rogers westerns and president of Republic Pictures, made him sign an agreement that any amount over $700,000 would come out of Welles’ pocket. That’s over $7 million in 2017 money. He was given 23 days to shoot the script, including one day of re-shoots. They must have forgotten to include a budget for the music track, which seems to have been lifted from one of their low budget westerns.



The filming took place on old western sets on the Republic lot and Welles used rented costumes. After its initial release, and in reaction to its negative reviews, he was forced to ask the actors to return so they could read-to-playback without the Scottish burr. In the version I screened, the burr was still there.
















Casting for Lady Macbeth was a problem; he tried to get, Mercedes McCambridge, Agnes Moorehead, Vivien Leigh, Tallulah Bankhead, and Anne Baxter but couldn’t interest them or was turned down. He finally got his old friend Jeanette Nolan to sign on for the part.




It’s a mystery to me why Welles would cast former child star, Roddy McDowall, as Malcolm. This is a very masculine role, the very image of a man who will become King of Scotland. In Act 4, Scene 5 it’s hard to imagine him – in his weak, high voice - urging Macduff to avenge the murder of his family… and to “dispute it like a man.” Roddy in a helmet reminds me of Dukakis in a tank. 







Welles was obviously impressed with the roles of the Witches… he used them well in his opening and closing scenes.












A really nice touch was in the final act, when Malcolm was crowned King, Welles inserted a cut-a-way to the murdered Banquo’s young son, Fleance, holding a small crown… as foretold by the Witches… he was destined to become a future King of Scotland. 





Given his reputation for overseeing such details as camera angles, he missed a lot of opportunities to dolly in for dramatic close ups. But… since that kind of move means you have to change the background, re-light, lay track, and reposition the crew, I’m sure that time and money here were a big factor.


It almost seems sacrilegious to say so, but after all the work Welles did to personalize this effort, in the end he delivered, what at that time would be called… a melodrama.





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