A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Macbeth (Orson Welles, 1948)

Welles may have taken the old theatrical superstition of referring to the play not by its title but as "the Scottish play" a little too seriously. The decision to have actors deliver Shakespeare's lines with a Scottish accent was met with derision by critics, and Republic Pictures, the poverty-row studio that released the film, eventually had it redubbed without the accents after the initial release flopped. The original soundtrack has been restored, however, and it's hard to see what set the critics' teeth on edge: For the most part, the occasional flavoring of the dialogue with Scottish vowel sounds and diphthongs is unobtrusive. The one exception, to my ear, is Roddy McDowall as Malcolm, who carries the accent a bit too far -- though that may be because McDowall's conception of the character is something of a callow noodge, especially in the scene in which he's trying to persuade Macduff (Dan O'Herlihy) to cease grieving for his murdered family and take action. I must have seen the old redubbed and cut version at one point, because I remember the film as rather glum and murky, when in fact, although it's not wholly successful, it's filled with Wellesian visual touches and some very solid performances. Welles makes remarkable use of the celtic cross as a visual motif, for example, having the troops advancing on Dunsinane carry impossibly long staffs surmounted with the cross, a touch that dazzles the eye. His own performance is somewhat uneven -- Welles was seldom the strongest actor in his productions -- and he fails to provide Macbeth with the character arc that makes the character a tragic figure, moving from mere ambition to blind bloodthirstiness. Jeanette Nolan is a good Lady Macbeth and O'Herlihy a suitably strong adversary for Macbeth. As usual, Welles drew many performers from his Mercury Theater company, including Erskine Sanford as a dignified Duncan, something of an about-face from his broadly comic performance as the flustered newspaper editor Herbert Carter, huffing and puffing when he's ousted by the paper's new owner, Charles Foster Kane, in Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941). The low budget for the film shows, especially in the sets -- Dunsinane seems to be more cave than castle, its walls made out of Plasticine -- cobbled together on the Republic soundstage by art director Fred A. Ritter. And although Welles's keen eye served him well, as Alfred Hitchcock's would later when he shot Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960), John L. Russell was never a distinguished cinematographer. Still, this is a fairly distinguished effort at putting Shakespeare on film.

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