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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:

Roman Polanski's
Macbeth


Macbeth
Columbia TriStar
1971 / Color / 2:35/ 140 min.
Starring Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw, Terence Bayler, John Stride, Nicholas Selby, Stephen Chase, Paul Shelley
Cinematography Gil Taylor
Production Designer Wilfrid Shingleton
Art Direction Fred Carter
Film Editor Alastair McIntyre
Artistic Advisor Kenneth Tynan
Fight Director William Hobbs
Original Music The Third Ear Band
Written by Roman Polanski,Kenneth Tynan from the play by William Shakespeare
Produced by Andrew Braunsberg, Hugh M. Hefner, Victor Lownes
Directed by Roman Polanski

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In 1971, critics were tripping over themselves to find ways to associate their names with two transgressive but trendy new pictures, A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs. Both were by controversial directors, and both were extreme and challenging. But the critics didn't have all that much to say about Roman Polanski's version of Macbeth, except to complain that he had 'injected' unneccessary violence into the play, and gone out of his way to make it as unpleasant as possible. Polanski was still vaguely associated with the Manson murders, as if his 'demonic' movies like Rosemary's Baby somehow made him responsible for them. Macbeth is one of Polanski's very best. Seen previously only in Shakespeare film festivals, and fatally pan-scanned on cable TV, this new Columbia TriStar DVD will be the first time most consumers will be able to appreciate it in its full glory.

Synopsis:

After helping to put down a rebellion, Macbeth (Jon Finch) is rewarded with the post of Thane by good king Duncan (Nicholas Selby). But he bitterly thirsts for even faster advancement, as a cackle of witches has forecast his eventual rise to the crown. Macbeth and his scheming wife (Francesca Annis) plot first the murder of Duncan, and then the demise of heirs that stand to accede to the throne before him. But as they start down the path of killing, the ambitious couple are beset with strange visions and hallucinations.

About the best the critics could muster for Macbeth was to grudgingly chart Polanski's alterations to the bard. "Lady Macbeth walks around in the nude", was about all one heard, as if the movie had tried to turn Shakespeare into Oh Calcutta!, or Hair. Theater critics normally enjoy debating alterations and edits done to the famous texts, as improvements or interpretations, but in film, even Laurence Olivier was clobbered for daring to cut scenes from his 1948 Hamlet. Orson Welles? He was always considered untouchable-crazy anyway, so the radical reshapings in his movie versions were indulged or praised as inspired creativity.

Not so Roman Polanski. Here was a play with bloody mayhem in practically every scene or alluded to as taking place offstage, and he dares to bring it front and center. There's been a battle, so he shows wounded, bloody men. There's a party, so we see a cruel bear-baiting scene, also very bloody. The fights (excellently arranged by William Hobbs) really look like people are hacking each other to bits. The blood and guts made reviewers acutely aware that, two years after his wife Sharon Tate was murdered in the most lurid and bizarre crime of the century, Polanski seemed to be wallowing in gore. The 'home invasion' rape and slaughter of the Macduff household plays as a creepy shadow of the Tate killings, complete with bloodied, murdered children.

A Clockwork Orange was hip, and Straw Dogs was a crowd-pleaser for the rah-rah violence crowd, but Macbeth was difficult for the average viewer to understand - the poetic, arcane dialogue just didn't play to audiences who know nothing of Shakespeare. Not only that, but Macbeth was a Playboy production - cultural conservatives had another negative association to lump onto Polanski's back. The sensitive crowd ignored all three of the 'shocking' 1971 movies and went to Nicholas and Alexandra instead - where they promptly fell asleep.

Picture for picture, from 1962's Knife in the Water, through 1979's Tess, Roman Polanski made more superlative movies than anyone working anywhere. Macbeth has a stunningly dark look that combines a very non - Brigadoon view of Scotland with masterful direction. His often hand-held camera tracks through the narrow corridors and ramparts better than a steadicam; he makes bravura shots look easy, combining complex moves with lighting changes. He does invisible objective-subjective shifts of POV as the camera swoops to peer through leaded windows of the castle set - revealing a real castle exterior and horizon beyond.

Directorially, Macbeth is the best movie of its year. Polanski blocks his action with unsettling perfection. The camera holds the characters in point-blank closeup, or lets them move in wide-blocked masters, depending on exactly what the director is trying to express. In a Playboy interview, Polanski said that he only used one camera, because the added coverage from two cameras would just create meaningless film - at any given moment, there's only one place the camera wants to be anyway. Nobody, like, nobody knows better where to put the camera than Roman.

Macbeth is also a visual masterpiece. The various stage illusions, such as the floating dagger and the ghostly appearance of the dead Duncan, are startling effects, yet simply achieved. The dream sequences are masterpieces. The most astounding one plunges the camera through a series of mirrors (like the one Macbeth is holding on the DVD cover illustration) at breakneck speed, recording a catalog of horrors. We're too astounded to even think about how it was done.

As a period film, Macbeth has a startling grimness that makes ancient Scotland a land of mud, mire, rain and misery. The hills and lochs are visible in some shots, but we mostly see a blasted landscape of scrub and lonely beaches. The (real?) castles are enormous but intimidating. At court, the only luxury to be had is due to the labor of an army of woebegotten servants, and with the exception of the King's radiant nobility, the assembled knights and retainers cluster around like thugs, waiting to see whether to back Macbeth or his foes. Yet there's a moment of formal triumph, before the call is given to storm Macbeth's castle. The caped knights stand in rows, looking very much like the rigid formations in Fritz Lang's The Niebelungen.

The action is brutal but breathtaking - minimally undercranked, looking dangerous as hell. Men battling in armor is more a test of stamina than anything else - bashing one's opponent into a wall, pounding on him with firewood when there's no pike within reach.

MacBeth is about horror: mass killings, supernatural predictions, the hateful arrogance of the ambitious. The intimate conspirings in the Macbeth bedroom are tense and joyless - the murderous couple sometimes resemble a pair of Yuppies plotting their marriage-career. There may be horrid hag-witches influencing the brew, but this Macbeth places ultimate blame on the blackness of the human heart, nothing more. One of the more noted additions to the tale is the passed-over heir's final visit to the witches. At first it seems like yet another Polanski downer, that ends the show on the darkest possible note. Shakespeare scholar (and Playboy movie reviewer) Kenneth Tynan went on record defending his and Polanski's alterations to the play, but were cold-shouldered by aesthetes who preferred more traditional tellings. One masterful Polanski move is to partially internalize some of the soliloquys - Macbeth's 'Time' speech is half-spoken, half-rendered in the voiceover of Macbeth's thoughts, and has a tremendous impact.

Macbeth is blessed with perfect casting. Jon Finch and Francesca Annis make an excellent pair of youthful ghouls, riffing nicely off Zeffirelli's 'youthful' casting for Romeo and Juliet a few years before. Finch is remembered much more for Alfred Hitchcock's awful Frenzy, where he's just as unpleasant as the rest of that film. But he's at his best here, as a brooding monster whose martial prowess is enhanced by delusions of invulnerablity.

Francesca Annis' interpretation of Lady Macbeth is more subtle, and was highly criticized for its lack of bombast. Where her husband is deluded by evil dreams, Lady Macbeth comes off as a delirious psychopath, able to inspire all number of horrid deeds but incapable of coping with the consequences of any of them. Finally, we have a 'hand washing' scene that doesn't go over the top. Shared crimes don't draw the killer couple together, as in Double Indemnity - as his wife becomes more deranged, Macbeth drifts away into morbid isolation as well. Her suicide is powerful because it expresses the utter blatant negativity of evil deeds coming home to roost - she's the queen, but when her body's found broken in the mud, they just toss a blanket over her and walk away.

The rest of the casting is equally impressive. Terence Bayler is affecting as the warrior who's told of the death of his whole family, repeatedly asking if it's true that none were spared. Nicholas Selby's king is so paternally strong that we experience a real loss of security when he's taken away. Martin Shaw as Banquo and Keith Chegwin as Fleance are an idealized pair, the perfect father and son and tragic victims of a man they both love. Polanski's witches are such a slimy, obscene lot, we wish Matthew Hopkins were around to start some bonfires. The supernatural element has often been downplayed as representing the psychological darkness of Macbeth, but Polanski lets it stand right up front: these witches do have power; evil magic doth hold sway o'er man.


Thank God that Columbia TriStar has brought Macbeth out on DVD in anamorphic widescreen. It was an ugly mess when cropped for television. The print looks somewhat darkish, as it did in theaters. It isn't in perfect shape. The opening sequence is rather dirty, with a scratch running through half the titles - a scary beginning that thankfully doesn't continue through the rest of the show. The movie is visually similar to The Fearless Vampire Killers and Tess but doesn't have the fairytale sheen of the first or the bucolic painterly surface of the second. Subdued in color, Macbeth is nevertheless a rich experience for the eyes. The mono sound is solid, with voices particularly well-recorded.

Of enormous use are the English subtitles, which make the Shakespearean speeches exponentially more accessible. To relatively uncultured louts like Savant, this is a Godsend. Many of the lines are paraphrased, but there are now big sections of the film that I finally think I understand - particularly the exact role of a Macbeth aide, who participates in or witnesses most of the killings, yet deftly changes sides and avoids the usurper's fate. Unsettling injustice is emphasized here, making Roman Polanski's Macbeth all the more complex - and personal. Invite some bookish Shakespeare addict to see this disc, and watch him become the center of attention in the discussion that's sure to follow.

The disc has no extras, except for a trailer - and an added trailer for Sense and Sensibility, of all things. Its presence implies that Columbia is saying, if you love this bloodbath, you'll enjoy this other disc too!


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Macbeth rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 2, 2002





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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