Directed by and starring Orson Welles, Republic Pictures' 1948 adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth might make a few changes here and there to the source material but for the most part, it sticks to the text. The story follows a Scottish general named Macbeth (played by Welles himself) who is told by three witches (Peggy Webber, Lurene Tuttle and Brainerd Duffield) that one day he will be crowned the King of Scotland. Ever the ambitious sort, he's quite taken with this and after talking about the prophecy to his wife, Lady Macbeth (Jeanette Nolan), he decides to take actions into his own hands and murder King Duncan (Erskine Sanford).
With Duncan out of the way, Macbeth usurps the throne but is soon overwhelmed with guilt to the point where he becomes paranoid, distrustful of everyone around him. As his paranoia continues to increase, he kills again and again to eliminate any and all he sees as a threat. It isn't long before those around him realize he's going quite mad and eventually there is a revolt.
First things first, this isn't just Macbeth, this is Orson Welles' Macbeth. The man's stamp is all over it and those who don't appreciate his sense of grandeur and his sometimes bombastic style may not take to this particular version. Hardly a humble man, Welles puts himself front and center in all of this. Of course, as Macbeth himself that makes sense but some of the supporting characters are given the shorter end of the stick for it. Having said that, Welles really is excellent in the part. His take on the character is a melancholy one, playing the character as very morose at times, but there's no denying that the man's inimitable screen presence brings a lot to this production. While the story may have been tweaked a bit, characters changed around here and there and dialogue occasionally shifted bout (all issues that purists can rightly take issue with should they so choose), the man is unforgettable in this film.
The supporting players are also great. Jeanette Nolan shines as Lady Macbeth, playing her character really well and infusing all sorts of emotion into the part. A young Roddy McDowell plays Duncan's son Malcolm with a glint in his eye. It's interesting to see him here at only twenty years of age, already quite an experienced actor. Alan Napier shows up as a priest while Dan O'Herlihy and Erskine Sanford are great as Macduff and Duncan respectively.
The cinematography by John L. Russell and the score from Jacques Ibert add a lot to the production. Macbeth's world is one awash in shadow and fog, a gloomy and harsh landscape full of craggy rocks and eerie, darkened castles. It is magnificently shot and even if it is almost always obviously done on a soundstage and not shot on location, there's great depth to the image thanks to some fantastic camerawork.
Note that this release is a two disc set. The first disc contains the 1948 version of the movie where the dialogue is spoken with Scottish accents and the second disc contains the 1950 version of the movie. The 1950 version still features some Scottish accents but also features stretches that were dubbed for this version without accents. It also runs about nineteen minutes shorter, with a few speeches removed and some considerably shortened. The 1950 version also features a prologue spoken by Welles before any of the play itself actually begins in the film. The 1948 version is definitely the superior cut of the film but it's great to see both versions included on this release as the 1950 version is certainly an interesting variant.The Blu-ray
Each version of Macbeth is presented on a 50GB Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition in its original aspect ratio of 1.33.1 fullframe. Thanks to a really high bit rate, the black and white picture is free of any compression artifacts and the absence of any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement has resulted in a very film-like image. Contrast looks excellent and black levels are nice and deep. There's very little print damage outside of some specks here and there and the occasional scratch, nothing too serious or in the least bit distracting. There is excellent detail and texture throughout. The video quality on this release is impressive.Sound:
The only audio option for the feature, regardless of which version you choose, is an English language DTS-HD Mono track. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH only (they are in a yellow font and nice and easy to read against the black and white picture). The audio here is just fine. Dialogue is clean and properly balanced against the score and effects. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion and some of the effects work is actually quite chilling.Extras:
The only extra on the first disc is a commentary track with Welles' biographer Joseph McBride. This is a pretty interesting talk that goes into quite a bit of detail about the behind the scenes aspects of the production, Welles' relationship with Republic, the performances featured in the picture (not just Welles in the lead but the entire cast), the production design, the directing style and quite a bit more. McBride has clearly done his research and knows his material. As such, he's able to offer up a really fascinating history of an equally fascinating film.
The second disc contains a host of featurettes starting with Welles And Shakespeare which is a twelve minute piece wherein Welles expert Professor Michael Anderegg is interviewed about the connections between the Bard and Welles. Here he explores some of the themes that pop up in this piece and offers up some interesting trivia and analysis of Welles' take on the source material. Additionally, Olive has included Adapting Shakespeare On Film which is an eight minute conversation with directors Carlo Carlei (of Romeo & Juliet) and Billy Morrissette (of Scotland, PA). The two men talk about some of the challenges inherent in bringing Shakespeare's work to the big screen. Also on hand is a seven minute Excerpt From We Work Again, which is a 1937 WPA documentary that contains a few scenes from Welles' Federal Theatre Project live stage production of Macbeth. This is quite interesting to see and a nice addition to the extras. Peter Bogdanovich gets a ten minute on camera interview in That Was Orson Welles where he talks about his friendship with the late actor and filmmaker. Also of interest to fans is the eight minute Restoring Macbeth featurette which is an interview with one time UCLA Film And Television Archive Preservation Officer Bob Gitt about what went into getting the two versions of the film included on this release into the excellent shape we're now able to enjoy them in. Documenting the history of the studio behind Macbeth is a seven minute piece called Free Republic: The Story Of Herbert J. Yates And Republic Pictures. As you'd probably guess from the title, this is a quick history of the studio that brought this film to the public.
The two Blu-ray discs in this set are housed inside a standard sized Blu-ray keepcase that also contains an insert booklet of liner notes entitled The Two Macbeths which is an interesting essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum about how and why the two versions of the movie exist in the forms that they do. The Blu-ray case fits inside a nice cardboard slipcover. It's also worth pointing out just how classy and slick looking the cover art is for this release.Final Thoughts:
Orson Welles' version of Shakespeare's Macbeth is an excellent adaptation of one of the playwright's finest works. The movie is rich with macabre atmosphere, it features some absolutely gorgeous production design and it makes great us of a very talented cast. Olive Films have rolled out the red carpet for this movie with their new two disc Signature Series reissue, presenting both cuts of the movie in great shape and with a very nice selection of supplements as well. Highly recommended.