Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw, Terence Bayler
Written by: Roman Polanski, Kenneth Tynan, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Roman Polanski
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 140
Date: 10/13/1971

Macbeth (1971)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Out Damned Spot!

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Like Hitchcock and De Palma, Roman Polanski is a filmmaker that works out his inner demons on film. So it's not surprising that he would choose to tackle William Shakespeare, with modern-day violence and nudity, as his first film after the murder of his wife Sharon Tate. When I first saw the film in 2002, on Columbia/TriStar's DVD, I found it admirable, but disappointing. I wrote about what I saw as a lack of precision and ferocity, and noted that both Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa had already made outstanding versions of this particular play.

Now the Criterion Collection has released Polanski's Macbeth on Blu-ray for the first time (and re-released it on DVD), newly remastered and approved by Polanski, and I watched it a second time. This time the film struck me as quite powerful and immediate; it's bloody, yes, but it's perhaps more muddy. It's a definite outdoor production, dependent on weather, chilly, and gray with clouds.

Death is everywhere, corpses, hanged men. Even a boy is brutally killed. When the time comes for Macbeth to kill the king, it's a grim certainty more than it is a decision. This Macbeth (Jon Finch) sees grisly ghosts, and intangible daggers. He visits the witches who foretold his future and sees an entire coven of them, naked and shriveled and cackling; he drinks a potion and has a hallucination involving mirrors, each disappearing into the next. When Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) tries to wash the spot from her hands in this film, she's sleepwalking nude. It's not just her hands that are fearfully exposed.

The final battle is imprecise, and exhausting. Polanski seems to have tackled the material as if possessed, tearing at it from inside out. In a way, it's stripped down, torn free of suspense or thrills. It truly is, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." I now see the film as the equal and the essential companion to the Welles and Kurosawa versions (all three films provide different insights into the play).

Theater critic Kenneth Tynan co-wrote the screenplay, and Hugh Hefner of Playboy magazine produced. Criterion's Blu-ray comes with a 4K transfer and a new 3.0 DTS surround soundtrack. There's a fascinating new 60-minute documentary (with a new Polanski interview), a vintage 47-minute documentary, a 1971 interview with Tynan on "The Dick Cavett Show," and an excerpt from an old British TV show interviewing Polanski, as well as trailers. Critic Terrence Rafferty provides the liner notes essay.

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