Orson Welles and William Shakespeare

Macbeth out on Blu-ray

Nov. 28, 2016
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For Orson Welles, Shakespeare was a touchstone. Already mounting ambitious Shakespeare productions while in high school, Welles was still a teenager when he received his first professional roles in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. He came to attention for his all-black staging of Macbeth, transposed from medieval Scotland to 19th century Haiti. And when he came to Hollywood and rewrote the rules for commercial filmmaking with Citizen Kane, wasn’t Charles Foster Kane a tragic Shakespearean monarch for the mass media age?

As a film director, Welles kept returning to the source. His first Shakespeare movie, Macbeth (1948), is out now on Blu-ray in a two-disc set that also contains the edited 1950 version plus informative bonus material. Already branded as a mad pariah by the Hollywood industry by the time he made Macbeth, Welles was reduced to working for second-tier Republic Studio, which kept him on a budget tighter than a cat’s leash. Welles was never the spendthrift of legend and found ways to mount Macbeth despite the limited funding. Commissioned to stage Macbeth by the Utah Centennial, Welles brought a well-rehearsed cast back to Hollywood and shot it on stark, often half-empty sound stages that to later generations might resemble the low-budget alien settings from “Star Trek.”

Welles cast himself as a guilty-looking Macbeth, encouraged by the power-mad Lady Macbeth to regicide, tyranny and a tight embrace of the dark side. He had easy command over the play’s quicksilver language, and understood the text well enough to make edits and additions that served the cinematic medium. Bonus material includes the only remaining footage taken from Welles’ Haitian Macbeth and an interview with director-movie historian Peter Bogdanovich. Despite his inability to push his film projects to the finish line in the last decades of life, Welles, Bogdanovich stresses, was on point for Macbeth. He completed the shoot in 23 days. 

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