Three witches assemble on the beach and dig a hole with their hands, burying in it a length of noose, a severed hand and a dagger, thereby setting in motion the way they see things playing out with the rulers of medieval Scotland. Duncan (Nicholas Selby) is currently the King and one of his most trusted Lords, Macbeth (Jon Finch) has been instrumental in defeating the rebellious Thane of Cawdor who will soon be put to death, but on the way back through the countryside with his best friend Banquo (Martin Shaw) he encounters the witches himself...
And they have a bit of news for him, which arguably could have either been them predicting the future or manufacturing it by planting the seed of uprising into Macbeth's mind. If that is never cleared up, the rest of the forthcoming conflict is plain to see: the Lord who never thought of anything but serving his King has been corrupted by the ideas of his own glory, and while we may think he deserves our sympathy at the beginning, by the end he has become a monster, which was all too fitting under the circumstances. This was director Roman Polanski's version of the William Shakespeare play, which to all intents and purposes refashioned the classic text as a down and dirty horror movie.
Which meant blood and gore in as much quantity as the censor would allow, which was quite a lot when you were dealing with the untouchable Shakespeare, as if his distant involvement was a mark of quality no matter what had been done with his material. Polanski scripted this with noted British critic and writer Kenneth Tynan, who went on to describe the director as "the four foot Pole you wouldn't want to touch with a ten foot pole", and it's true many viewers found his approach disturbing in light of what had happened in his life a couple of years before. That being the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and her friends by followers of Charles Manson, which, if you believed the pop psychology of the day, indicated the violence of that fed into Polanski's work.
While it may have been relegated to showings in classrooms in an attempt for teachers to get their pupils interested in the Bard, thereby diminishing the concern it engendered back in 1971, it's accurate to note that there seem to be some demons being exorcised here. Polanski appears to be itching to get to the scenes where he can confront the audience with the implications of the play, that people in medieval times, and perhaps still in modern ones, are essentially bestial and it doesn't take much to push them over the edge into the most savage of acts. Granted in the century Shakespeare was writing about that may have been the case, but in this any veneer of civilisation we may have achieved since was established as a sham for it was those acts of brutality which brought us to where we are now.
Apart from all that, this Macbeth is almost perversely unfriendly to watch, with its icy visuals and atonal music by the Third Ear Band which is an acquired taste to say the least, never mind the bloodletting. Not all of it succeeds: while Finch has the saturnine brooding down pat, his soliliquies were relegated to voiceover, which tends to undercut them when they're played over the actor staring into the middle distance. And as Lady Macbeth, Francesca Annis lacked the steely proportions of malevolence which would have made her more convincing as the catalyst to her husband's wicked deeds, though they do make for an uncomfortably believable pair of social climbers in their setting. When Polanski gets to flex his muscles in such nightmarish scenes where Macbeth meets the coven or the final, gruelling swordfight (which climaxes with a startlingly real-looking beheading), that is what this version is worth watching for. A prestige-seeking Playboy financed it, much to their chagrin when it was a flop, and British viewers may find a young Keith Chegwin as Fleance jarring.
French-born Polish director who has been no stranger to tragedy - his mother died in a concentration camp, his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family - or controversy - he was arrested for raping a 13-year-old girl in the late 1970s.
Polanski originally made an international impact with Knife in the Water, then left Poland to make Cul-de-Sac and Repulsion in Britain. More acclaim followed with Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown in Hollywood, but his work after escaping America has been inconsistent. At his best, he depicts the crueller side of humanity with a pitch black sense of humour. He also takes quirky acting roles occasionally.