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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Macbeth




MACBETH (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

U.S.: Orson Welles, 1948 (Olive)

William Shakespeare, like many another astonishing genius —  including his great admirer, the young Orson Welles –could surpass all boundaries, master many moods. He  could break your heart, make you laugh and chill you to the absolute, desolate  bone — never more so than in  his terrifying masterpiece “Macbeth.“

Remember how it begins, in Welles’ 1948 version? In darkness. In fear and loathing…“Fait is foul and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air.” Three witches cast spells while huddling upon the inky, cold, windy Scottish moors, their faces hidden, their voices cackling in a thick Scottish brogue. Peering into their bubbling, evil cauldron, they predict the future  of a  prodigious young lord, The Thane (of Glamis), also called Macbeth (played by Welles, in his early 30s)– a gifted general who has just won a tremendous victory for his great lord, Duncan, and who now stands on the brink of  greatness himself.

They greet him with witchy irony: “All Hail Macbeth. Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis…Thane of Cawdor….Thou shalt be King hereafter!“ King? And what of Macbeth’s friend-at-arms, Banquo (Edgar Bariier), whom the witches greet, more ambiguously as “lesser than Macbeth and greater…Thou shalt get kings though thou be none.“  Somehow, it seems, an ill wind will smite the successful young Macbeth (and the young Welles?), even as a seemingly glorious destiny awaits him. How ill that wind, how dark that destiny — and how bloody a role his relentless wife, Lady Macbeth (Jeanette Nolan) will play in it all — he and we will soon learn. A dark castle lies before him (his own), a dark destiny opens wide: Alarums in the night, murder most foul and unnatural, his wfe and lady scrubbing the tell-tale blood from her hands, mad , mad, bloody and mad, and the very forests around his castle marching to destroy him while his old world the world lies reeking at his feet. And, at the end, his nemesis finds him: “Macduff (who) was from his mother‘s womb, untimely ripped.”

What language. What poetry. What sheer terror! I first saw Macbeth, at the age of  ten, on TV, in the inferior (but then highly regarded) Maurice Evans-Judith Anderson-George Schaefer version. It scared hell out of me and I loved it (“Double, double, toil and trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bubble.“) The most horrific play Shakespeare (or anybody, as far as I was concerned) ever wrote, “Macbeth” smites your ears, tears at your mind and soul. and opens your heart and veins in a rich red flood. ”By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes…”

It is known also as an unlucky play — such a precursor of real life and stage misfortune (for the players in the play as well as the character Macbeth himself) that it is often called The Scottish play, in order not to invoke the Thane of Glamis’ fearsome name,  or summon up that tragic anti-hero. “Out, damn’d spot! Out, I say!”

It may have seemed, for a while, unlucky for Welles too — though Shakespeare was his great passion, and he himself a prodigy who knew the Bard  to the last verse and rhyme (“Shakespeare is the staff of life,” he once said), who acted and directed in his works as a teenager, and had edited and introduced a study of  his e master’s works, called “Everybody’s Shakespeare” whie still in his teens.

Then, seven years after Citizen Kane made forever his own destiny, Welles was able finally to bring the writer he loved most to the screen. But, though the thirtyish Welles was able to talk Republic Pictures — best known for its low-budget, high-return Westerns with John Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers  — into financing the project (penuriously), and though he assembled a brilliant cast (including Jeanette Nolan, the woman John Wayne loves in The Searchers) as Lady Macbeth, Dan O‘Herlihy as Macduff, Alan Napier as  a Holy Father, Edgar Barrier as Banquo, Roddy McDowell as Malcolm and Peggy Webber, Lurese Tuttle and Brainerd Duffield as The Witches   — and though the film‘s paltry budget was better suited to Pals of the Saddle than Shakespearean tragedy,  all those shortcomings didn’t prevent Welles from displaying and directing some of the most powerful acting and executing some of the most beautiful, dazzlingly eerie black and white images to grace any film, noir or otherwise. (Welles’ Macbeth was photographed by John Russell, who later shot Psycho for Hitchcock.)

Welles’ Scottish film was first released to a harsh-seeming destiny: mutilated and scorned by its moneymen, shorn of  precious scenes, and redubbed to get rid of  the thick and rich Scottish accents used by Welles (as Macbeth) and most of the rest of the cast. Those scenes and brogues have been restored here. This is Welles‘ version, as best and fully as they can make it.

There was no need at all to Americanize the speeches. The Scottish-accented Macbeth is diction-perfect and crystal-clear and even musical, easier to understand than the average British gangster movie — easier than Ray Winstone’s The Sweeney, which I previewed just this week. And, to pile on more indignities and more wickedness,  the picture was flayed alive with bad reviews,  “tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…“ And it flopped at the box office.

To add unintentional insult to economic injury, director-star Laurence Olivier’s excellent, almost-as-noirish film of Hamlet came out in the same year, 1948 as Welles‘ Macbeth. Sir Laurence‘s show was a hit, got tremendous reviews, and won Olivier Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor. That isn’t necessarily  a mistake. Olivier’s Hamlet is a masterpiece. But so is Welles’ Macbeth.

Olivier is a far subtler and gloomier actor than Welles. But Welles’ florid playing style, resonant voice and majestic height and bearing are uniquely suited to Shakespeare‘s plays, especially the tragedies — and he excels here in a dufferent, more intense key than Olivier’s. What bother many of us today is that Welles (or Olivier, for that matter) didn’t act and direct more Shakespeare, whatever the budget. It bothers us, and rightly so, that the only Shakespeare-by-Welles films in Orson’s canon, besides Macbeth, are his masterful Othello, the unfinished Merchant of Venice, and the marvelous  Chimes at Midnight (made from the Falstaff sections of “Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2” and “Henry V.”) The great artist who gave us Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons should have made at least ten more Shakespeare movies. Macbeth alone proves it.

The budget may have been miniscule. But the acting, the settings, the lighting, and the music (Jacques Ibert), are all wonderful. The movie is magical and blood-chilling and awesome. It takes us into the very pits of terror and the guts of evil.  It is theatrical in the best sense, Shakespearean and Wellesian both, a joy of fearful imagination.

History sometimes rights its wrongs, and Macbeth is now generally regarded as a great and spellbinding and eminently Shakespearean movie, which it is. Republic boss Herbert Yates may have been a philistine and a spoiler, the production and sets may have been cheap, the cutting ill-judged and the dubbing ill-starred. But the words (Shakespeare’s) and the voice (Welles’)  are still beyond compare. They are scary and excellent and nonpareil and awe-inspiring. This film of Mac….This film of the Scottish Play, is a treasure, bloody, chastening, beautiful, shocking, filled with horror and wonder. Magnificent. Bravo, Mr. Welles.  “Lay on Macduff! And damned be him that first cries ‘Hold, Enough!’” Would that you could give us an encore. ..

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon