Criterion Prediction #125: Macbeth, by Alexander Miller
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles, Jeanette Nolan, Alan Napier, Dan O’Herlihy, Erskine Sanford
Synopsis: A Scottish general is prophesied to become king of Scotland, setting him on a path of blind and ruthless conquest to attain the title while grave consequences await.
Critique: While Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Touch of Evil are among his many rightfully-hailed masterpieces, his Shakespeare adaptations stand out the most in their ribald aesthetic brevity. Welles digs out the best elements of Bard’s work (after all, one of his inspired films is the cobbling of multiple stories that comprise Chimes at Midnight) and runs wild with them. While filmmakers like Olivier and Branagh tend to emphasize the grandiose theatrics, Welles helms in the dirt, grime, gore, and naturalistic frenzy that permeates the atmosphere of the stories setting. Macbeth might not be as bombastic as Chimes of Midnight, and it might not have the steamy earthiness of Othello but is on par with the director’s Shakespearean adaptations for its expressive stagecraft, witchy tribalism, and the fluently multi-talented Welles gives Macbeth that beautifully manic edge and wit that populate his best work. Welles’ Macbeth dials in on the diversity of classical drama by retaining the respectful stage presence but, as many filmmakers would realize that Macbeth is a very cinematic story, and will settle into a filmic format in a way that exceeds its roots.
Apparently, Welles was enamored of Shakespeare, and his Federal/Mercury Theatre Group realized Macbeth by transplanting the story to a Haitian setting. It would be known as “the voodoo Macbeth”. Another notable outing was the fascist allegorical treatment of Julius Caesar. Welles was obviously indebted to the great Bard, but his lively realizations would become the most illuminating highlights of his career, and it starts with Macbeth, a promising start to a fruitful creative marriage.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: The most obvious reason is that Welles’ Macbeth is the third missing link in the director’s three Shakespeare adaptations; its inclusion in The Criterion Collection would only make sense. Sure, the Olive Films Blu-ray is commendable, but this must be a rock in the shoe of Criterion fans and Welles completists who are cheering his expanding presence in The Criterion Collection. Whenever you stumble into any film from Orson Welles, you can’t help but wonder how many versions of the film are out there, what footage is missing, whose role was dubbed by another actor, how the director hustled money to invest in the production (though it seems like Macbeth was comparatively one of his more “peaceful” shoots). With a filmmaker like Welles, the stories of his creations are better than most manufactured fictions, and who better to bring us the full story than Criterion?