In the dark days of Scottish history, there is the tale of Macbeth (Orson Welles), a nobleman whose life was changed when he encountered three witches while out with his right hand man, Banquo (Edgar Barrier). They spoke of a prophecy, creating an effigy in their cauldron that they poured all their foresight into and proclaimed that Macbeth would soon be King. This news surprised him as he had the notion had never crossed his mind, but after the meeting it began to weigh heavily on his thoughts, and when his wife (Jeanette Nolan) heard of this prophecy it was all she could do to encourage her husband to follow his destiny...
Orson Welles' version of Macbeth was very much done on the cheap, quite a change from his previous big studio movies and began a cycle of filmmaking for him that saw him working in reduced circumstances simply to get his visions onto the screen. Not that this was a success in its day, as the critics were not impressed with his adaptation of William Shakespeare's play, which he had tweaked in various ways to get it all over with in under two hours, and the stylised appearance which now looks so innovative considering how much money Welles was working with was denigrated as hopelessly cheap. Not to mention the accents.
Actually, they were right to criticise those accents, as they were pretty awful: Nolan's Lady Macbeth stands out as especially hard on the ear as the cast as a whole strangulate their vowels to deliver the dialogue. So that works against the overall dour and serious tone of the production, but it's not all bad as while you tend to lose interest in the way the lines are being delivered, the striking visuals carry some power. The set design, mostly towering papier maché rocks and staircases fashioned to Welles' specifications, looks as if the actors are participating in some kind of caveman epic, yet goes some way to contributing to the primitive and godless atmosphere.
As for the director's performance, he makes for a curiously weak-willed Macbeth in spite of his bluster and the actor's physical presence, buffetted along by fate, his misplaced self-importance and the urgings of his wife. Once he knows he has to take the throne, he never considers the damage it might do him until it is too late and finally the guilt at all that death he has instigated begins to weigh heavily on his shoulders, and if there's one thing that Welles does convey strongly it's the remorse that arrives after the ghastly deeds are done. Key scenes are all present and correct, so the murder of Duncan (Erskine Sanford) is depicted with appropriate glowering, and Banquo's ghost arrives with a simple but arresting visual trick.
Welles invented a whole new character for this adaptation, the Holy Father played by Alan Napier, and messing around with the classics did not endear him to the cognoscenti of the day. Not only that, but he displays a love of the dramatic flourish which sees certain characters meeting their demises arranged with truly theatrical melodrama. But not so theatrical that you settle into watching a drily filmed stage play, as he kept his camera mobile and worked up an array of moody, misty scenes that held the eye, even if the low budget is not something he could entirely disguise - but still, that army at the end does feature an impressive amount of soldiers for a production like this. Elsewhere, this Macbeth can look a little silly as Welles sports a cardboard box for a crown at one point, then is inexplicably dressed as Genghis Khan the next, but it was a brave try nonetheless. Imagine what he could have done with more adequate funding. Music by Jacques Ibert.