Friday, May 01, 2015

Sleep No More

The sixth film in the Orson Welles retrospective that I was able to view was projected in 35mm.

Macbeth (1948, Orson Welles) is called a Mercury Theatre Production, but it was released by Republic Pictures--an independent studio. Seeing Welles emerge undaunted by lack of funds for costumes, sets, locations, and a large crew of technicians is most evident in this picture.

I couldn't believe it was almost two hours when I looked at my watch after exiting (I saw the version with an overture) this movie. Macbeth begins with an expertly crafted supernatural tension, and like The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Welles) feels like a quick nightmare. The plot device of the three witches telling Macbeth and Banquo their fates makes for a tight straightforward narrative structure which was rare for Welles at this time; except of course for The Stranger (1946, Welles). Also the Scottish palace sets contribute to the minimalism of the world of the story in their limited quantity and sparse landscapes, combined with Macbeth's drugged out looking two weeks he spends as King without sleeping make this movie a scary bad dream.

Another motif that springs up constantly with Welles is corruption at the highest levels of wealth or power, and Lord and Lady Macbeth are still jarring to one's sense of morals by today's standards. They're like hey what if we just killed everyone who is above you so you could be the highest boss. And what an oddly comic tone that underlies the horrific abrupt moment when Macduff's son is happily not at all worried about his missing father and prodding his mother to remarry right before some paid thugs break in and murder him. What? The child murder is so over the top I think it was a little funny. Damn.

So yeah, the locations and camera work aren't as baroque as Welles's earlier films, but the world of Macbeth has a compelling look throughout. And the girth of Welles stomping around with his horn goblet, regal robes and crown is commanding. While this may be the only of Welles's films that deal with supernatural elements, I guess this type of magic would make sense in interesting the famously practiced stage magician Welles.

John L. Russell photographed Macbeth, Samuel Fuller's Park Row (1952), then a lengthy career in television before returning with the iconic and polished Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock). This film feels like it's always dusk or midnight. But one sublime frame worth mentioning takes place as Macduff returns to confront Macbeth in a duel to the death: a medium close-up of the armored Macduff is backlit, leaving him in complete darkness with his cross topped helmet towering toward the camera with foggy smoke bathed in waves of diffuse light behind him. This is another of Welles's films with a grand climax of action suspense that sees an arch villain thrown from a high place down into a plummeting death.

Again, how clever of Shakespeare to have guilt keep Macbeth from sleeping. This one definitely translates well to the screen in Welles's hands.


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