Macbeth (Olive Signature Edition)
Released by: Olive
Released on: November 15th, 2016.
Directed by: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles, Jeanette Nolan, Dan O’Herlihy, Roddy McDowell, Edgar Barrier, Alan Napier, Erskine Sanford, Peggy Weber, William Alland
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William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Macbeth was first performed in 1606 under King James 1 and later published in 1623. While it isn’t generally regarded as the author’s best work (that title would likely go to either Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet), it certainly gives Othello a run for its money as his bleakest and most horror-oriented play. Here is the story of a military general who vies for the Scottish throne, but his ambition brings with it a fateful prophecy. It’s hard to deny a story that revels in fog and Gothic castles, madness and witchcraft, curses and gruesome murders its place as one of the premiere literary efforts in a genre that stretches back, in one form another, to the beginning of recorded history. And Orson Welles’ classic take on the tale doesn’t shy away from its genre roots.
Shakespeare’s play has seen its share of celluloid adaptations, going all the way back to cinema’s beginnings (1898 to be exact), and filmmakers haven’t stopped filming it since. While its big-screen talkie adaptations have been less common than other Shakespeare adaptations, it’s history on television has not. Many of these programs have been stage bound, shot on primitive video for easy consumption by the masses, but there have been a couple of notable theatrical adaptations as well, including works by Orson Welles (1948), Roman Polanski (1971), and Justin Kurzel (2015). Of these, Polanski’s is today generally regarded as the best, and with good reason: It provides a realistic treatment of Shakespeare’s horror classic, not shying away from the spit and blood that fuels the story’s primary action. Welles’s version is nowhere near as realistic, but it certainly is gorgeous in its own inimitable way. And it’s just as horror-oriented.
Interestingly, the year before he produced Macbeth, Welles had tried to get a film adaptation of Othello off the ground. Unable to kick start the program in the way that he wanted, he turned instead to an adaptation of Macbeth and quickly found Republic, who wanted to move away from Westerns and toward more highbrow and thus Oscar-worthy fare, interested. (He did eventually complete Othello.) Shot on a relatively low budget with sets and costumes left over from many a cheapie Western, Welles managed to imbue the film with a vibrancy few other filmmakers could have achieved. Unfortunately, critics didn’t take to the film (one problem was that the actors spoke in a Scottish rather than an English accent, making the language difficult to understand), and Olivier’s Hamlet, released around the same time, was stealing the Shakespeare spotlight. The film was pulled before securing a wide release, several scenes were cut, and much of the dialogue was dubbed over. It was re-released in 1950, and while nowhere near the commercial bomb its reputation suggests, it didn’t exactly take audiences by storm either. For years it remained a mostly forgotten work, playing, if at all, on late-night television in its truncated and less effective form.
A Scottish general, Macbeth (Orson Welles), and his men encounter three witches, who predict an impossible fate for the military leader: He will become king, and no man born of woman shall harm him. His ambition piqued, Macbeth and his wife (Jeanette Nolan) plot and carry out the murder of King Duncan (Erskine Sanford), but they soon begin to see ghostly visions and grow paranoid. They murder anyone they believe will stand in the way of their success, but an additional prophecy foretold by the three witches comes true in a most unconventional manner.
Welles cast his picture with some powerful performers, not the least of which are: a young Roddy McDowell as Malcolm, Dan O’Herlihy as Macduff, Alan Napier as Holy Father, and Peggy Webber as Lady Macduff. Not interested in the letter of Shakespeare’s play so much as its dark spirit, Welles cut some characters, combined others, and added still others. He did the same with the dialogue, creating something that captures the tragic mood of Shakespeare’s play while simultaneously crafting something new and Expressionistic. To hide the cheap seats, he cranked up the fog machines and lowered the lights, casting grim shadows and heightening the horror angle. Adding to the forbidding nature of the film were arresting moments of violence. It may be a highly stylized adaptation, perhaps even an uncharacteristic one, but no one can accuse Welles’s adaptation of Macbeth of being boring, and if isn’t quite as powerful as Polanski’s, it’s not for want of trying.
As part of its Signature package, Olive has released Macbeth with a new digital transfer and a host of extras, not the least of which is the shorter 1950 version of the film. Both versions are in 1080p high definition with MPEG-4 AVC encodes. Both are also presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratios, slightly off from their theatrical ratios but none the worse for it, each on its own BD50 disc. This review is primarily concerned with the longer (and better) 1948 film and its video and audio quality, though it will briefly touch on the 1950 film as well. It’s clear that less than pristine elements were used for the transfer, but given the treatment of the material over the years, it’s to be expected that original elements would be missing. The film is extremely dark, but much of that is intentional: It takes place largely at night or on dark and dreary days, on a soundstage where Welles was clearly able to orchestrate the film’s mood through tightly controlled set design and cinematography. There is also a great deal of fog on hand, given the setting (a highly fictionalized recreation of Glamis Castle, situated in a cold and windswept lowland valley). Both of these facts help underscore why the film appears to be mostly detail free, at least on the surface. Scenes with fog tend to obscure detail, and there are many here; Welles’s use of darkness and shadow was an intentional attempt to hide the limitations of the set and to generate a mood of abstract horror. Yet, if one carefully examines the lighter areas of the frame, one can spy a generous helping of detail, particularly in people’s faces or clothing and occasionally in the stony rock of Glamis Castle. There is a layer of grain, but it mostly seems natural and shouldn’t be too distracting for well-informed viewers. Density fluctuations and flicker are a problem at times, as is minor print damage, dirt, and debris. But despite the various issues, all of it pales in comparison to Welles’ intentions: to make a dark, moody horror film where clarity was far less important than atmosphere. And atmosphere the film—and this transfer of it—has in spades.
Olive has opted for an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. The sound effects are fairly sparse (mostly related to ambient sounds), so there’s no real reason to offer a more robust track. For what it is, the sound is fine. If non-British/Scottish viewers have trouble understanding what characters are saying, it will have more to do with the thick accents than anything else. In general, the sound is pretty sharp and clear, with distinct voices and low-key music (except for a couple of bombastic moments designed to highlight key emotional scenes). Unlike the previous BD release, Olive has given this one yellow subtitles, which stand out from the white and black background behind them. This is true of both versions contained in the special edition. A second audio track contains a commentary by Welles biographer Joseph McBride, who worked as an actor for Welles for many years. McBride recounts the ways in which the film was recut and redubbed to change its mood and flavor, noting how the original materials were recovered in 1980 and restored. He discusses Welles’s love for Shakespeare and successful history of adapting the Bard’s work, as well as Shakespeare’s original characters. Even Kurosawa’s film version, Throne of Blood (1957), gets a shout out (along with Polanski’s version). McBride covers the film’s entire history from the original germ of an idea to its production, release, bastardization, re-release, and restoration, along with the individual actors and the performances they give. He also touches on some of Welles’s other work. It’s a fascinating commentary from a well-versed scholar of all things Welles, and the special edition is all the better for its presence.
Olive has loaded its Signature Edition of Macbeth with a large number of informative extras, not the least of which is the heavily truncated 1950 version of the film in its entirety on disc two. This version is much weaker than the original; right out of the gate, the redubbing does serious damage to the atmosphere, immediately throwing the audience out and ruining the verisimilitude afforded by the Scottish burr of the original. The film still betrays Welles’s horror approach, even if its more breathless approach nullifies the carefully established tone of the original. (The partially expurgated violence doesn’t help either.) The 1080p transfer is remarkably similar to the version held on disc one, with a similar level of detail. The film itself, however, is an aberration that Welles fans will want to experience at least one, as long as they go into it recognizing what it is and what it isn’t (very good).
“Welles and Shakespeare” (11:56) is an interview with Welles expert Professor Michael Anderegg, author of Orson Welles, Shakespeare and Popular Culture. He traces Welles’s interest in Shakespeare all the way back to when Welles was 16 years old and a high school student, then follows it through all of the director’s Shakespeare adaptations, though most of it, naturally, focuses on Macbeth.
“Adapting Shakespeare on Film” (8:19) is a ‘conversation’ with directors Carlo Carlei (Romeo & Juliet, 2013) and Billy Morrissette (Scotland, PA, 2001). Morrissette discusses his love/hate relationship with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, while Carlei focuses on Shakespeare’s greatest romance.
An excerpt from We Work Again (7:14), a 1937 Works Progress Administration documentary, is one of the more fascinating featurettes in the set. It contains scenes from Welles’s Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth (more commonly known as Voodoo Macbeth), which was a stage adaptation containing an all-black cast. (The play proved so successful that it’s New York run was extended and it was sent on a national tour.) The featurette also contains footage of African American men working in skilled and unskilled labor jobs.
Of course, no special features are complete without Peter Bogdanovich’s weigh-in, and he gives his thoughts on Welles in “That Was Orson Welles” (9:49). Bogdanovich first entered Welles’s sphere during a retrospective of the great director’s work, which was put on in the early 1960s, though it wasn’t for another seven years that he finally met Welles. It was the beginning of the friendship that provides the basis for discussion in the featurette. Macbeth may not be the focus, but it is touched on.
“Restoring Macbeth” (8:22) is an interview with former UCLA Film & Television Archive Preservation Officer Robert Gitt. It’s exactly what it sounds like, covering the discovery of the original version of Welless’ film and its subsequent restoration.
"Free Republic: The Story of Herbert J. Yates and Republic Pictures" is a brief (6:35) essay hosted by historian Marc Wanamaker, author of Early Poverty Row Studios. Here, Wanamaker focuses his discussion on Yates’ relationship with Orson Welles and their work on Macbeth, as well as the end of Republic’s production arm. (Another segment of this featurette appears on Olive’s Signature Edition of The Quiet Man and focuses on that film and Yates’s relationship with John Ford.)
Rounding out the extras are two essays, both by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. The first, “Orson Welles’s Macbeth,” appears on screen and can be stepped through using the ‘next’ button on your Blu-ray player’s remote. The second appears in an 8-page booklet that accompanies the disc. Both are well worth a read.
The Final Word:
Macbeth is a masterwork, horror film as high art with one of cinema’s greatest visionaries at the helm. That it isn’t better known is a shame, but at least Olive’s superior Signature Edition release does its part to rectify that. A beautifully dark and moody transfer, a secondary cut of the film, and a witches’ cavern full of extras makes this one of the best Blu-ray releases of the year. Even if you own Olive’s previous edition, you should consider double-dipping; this is one case where it’s absolutely worth it.
*I have not seen the first, barebones BD release from Olive and therefore cannot compare the two. There is also a French release, which is allegedly brighter (an issue that, in this reviewer’s opinion, would probably harm rather than help the film).
**This release is locked to Region A.
Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s on its way.
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