In the hands of Orson Welles, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” is an expressionistic, dream-like waltz through shadows and fog that comes across the screen as an aristocratic B-picture.
Macbeth is a film full of charming imperfections. Welles made the film cheaply and quickly in 23 days and utilized old stock sets and costumes, giving him intense limitations in adapting such a dense and highbrow piece of drama. At times the artifice is so glaringly noticeable – cardboard crowns, aluminum foil chain mail, plaster caves – that we cannot help but smile at the earnestness with which Welles and company deliver their lines. Yet, at the same time, Macbeth’s artificiality heightens our awareness of the divide between reality and fantasy, a central theme for Welles’s Macbeth, which is heavily played upon visually with murky fog and darkness. Does Macbeth, for example, actually see Banquo’s ghost or is he merely an imagined projection of Macbeth’s guilt? Is Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking state more clearly connected to her true self than her waking body? And perhaps that cardboard crown sitting on Macbeth’s head after he becomes king can now become an object of the deepest irony as we know that Macbeth is only king in title but not in substance.
Perhaps the greatest stylistic device of Welles’s film, however, is the long take. Welles makes use of several incredibly long takes (up to a full reel at a time), at technique which speaks to the real-time dimension of theater, but which simultaneously allows purely filmic devices – perhaps Welles’s visual approximation of the harmony he wishes to attain between the two worlds (film and theater) in adapting Shakespeare. For example, though there are no cuts during these long takes, there are several changes in the framing of images and locations, as well as dramatic use of deep space and perspective. Instead of a character exiting the stage as they would during a play, the camera can now pan away from them to focus on a new character or setting. These techniques are not new to theater adaptations, though with Welles they are pushed to their extreme.
The most poignant shot of the film comes in the fifth act, during Macbeth’s oft-quoted soliloquy (Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more) when Welles cuts to the central visual motif of the film: darkness and fog. It is a moment of pure poetry that speaks to the theme of the film – the light, dust, and darkness visualizing the impermanence and futility of Macbeth’s life – and simultaneously makes use of the nothingness provided Welles for the film’s budget.
Macbeth, with its obvious limitations and moments of brilliance, reminds us of the tragedy of Welles’s own career – one fraught with the grandness of vision clashing with the consistent inability to find funding. Despite all, however, Welles, like Shakespeare, will remain with us infinitely, beyond the shadows and fog that signified Macbeth’s quick and tragic passing.
Orson Welles’s Macbeth is playing at the Walter Reade Theater this Saturday, July 18th @ 7:00 PM, restored with Scottish accents as Welles originally intended.
– Kazu Watanabe