Combustible Celluloid
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With: Orson Welles, Jeanette Nolan, Dan O'Herlihy, Roddy McDowall, Edgar Barrier, Alan Napier, Erskine Sanford, John Dierkes, Keene Curtis, Peggy Webber, Lionel Braham, Archie Heugly, Jerry Farber, Christopher Welles, Morgan Farley
Written by: Orson Welles, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Orson Welles
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 107
Date: 10/01/1948

Macbeth (1948)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Scottish Play

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Like Fritz Lang and John Ford, Orson Welles found a certain amount of artistic freedom and the Poverty Row studio Republic Pictures. He shot this haunted Shakespeare adaptation quickly and cheaply by not recording sound; the actors dubbed their lines afterwards in a studio.

The result can be a bit ratty; lips don't always match the line readings, and the audio sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. But the film has a jagged, noir-ish aspect that makes it a masterpiece. It's as if we're watching the clear, small space in the eye of an enveloping fog. The opening sequence with the witches could be something out of an atmospheric horror film.

Welles stars as a powerhouse Macbeth, wearing a square, heavy crown, and Jeanette Nolan matches him as the shrieking Lady Macbeth. Dan O'Herlihy (Robinson Crusoe) and Roddy McDowall (How Green Was My Valley) co-star. The plot, of course, has Macbeth, spurred on by the witches' prophecy, murdering to become king, although there's a second part of the prophecy that still remains.

This was the first of three Shakespeare films completed by Welles. Welles made The Lady from Shanghai the same year. Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski also made excellent versions of "the Scottish play," Throne of Blood (1957) and Macbeth (1971), respectively.

Welles' version has never been officially available on DVD in the United States, though I own a British import. Now Olive Films has released beautiful new DVD and Blu-ray editions, and it's a cause for celebration, despite the fact that there are no extras -- and notably no subtitles, which I sometimes like to have for Shakespeare movies.
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