Orson Welles’ Horrorshow

On his centenary, looking at Orson Welles’ Macbeth, the horror film no one likes to call a horror film.

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The writing guru William Zinser once said words to the effect that if you wish to write long sentences, you best be a genius, the movie version equivalent of which is, probably, if you want to do long takes, be Orson Welles.

There wasn’t a shot Welles thought he couldn’t get, and it didn’t matter if we’re talking the artistic majesty of Citizen Kane, or any of a number of the cheapjack efforts Welles, having fallen from Hollywood grace, spent the bulk of his life trying to cadge up funds to shoot.

With May 6 marking Welles’ centenary, Kane will get still more props as not only one of the two or three best pictures ever made, but the sole picture on which Welles had complete artistic control. He was 25 when he made it, a conqueror of Broadway, the radio, and now Hollywood, and after racing off to South America to shoot a war effort the next year and leaving his Magnificent Ambersons footage in the hands of others, Welles would essentially be kicked out of Camelot on account of the final result, with a reputation for not seeing projects through.

As a sort of riposte, Welles, at the end of the decade, decided he wanted to shoot Macbeth, Shakespeare having been the biggest influence on his life. His so-called Voodoo Macbeth, with an all amateur black cast, had wowed NYC in 1936, but Welles had more to say on the play in refashioning it as what amounts to a classic 1940s horror film, although no one ever talks about it that way. Welles pitched his adaptation as having elements of James Whale’s 1935 Universal doozy, Bride of Frankenstein, and Republic Pictures, desperate to hop out of their standard gutter of padded dramas, campy serials, and Roy Rogers oaters, gave the go-ahead, provided Welles could shoot his film in 23 days. No bagging out this time.

And More...

For more Colin Fleming on Orson Welles, check out his appearance on NPR’s Weekend Edition, where he discussed Welles’ radio work.

Welles pre-recorded the soundtrack so no one would have to say anything as they acted, and he could bellow his commands, directing cameras hither and yon, thus speeding up the shooting process. The 1930s produced the mighty horror troika of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Bride, and the 1950s would witness subtler brands of horror, plus Hammer’s gloriously splashy approach, but if you’re a horror buff, you probably dig the 1940s best. This is when monsters romped and continuity didn’t matter so much as fun, and fog and smoke rolled across everything. But no one had hit upon the idea of applying any kind of cinematic virtuosity to the caloric tropes of horror until Welles’ Macbeth.

The original version of the film, from 1948, was entered into the Venice Film Festival, and then quickly pulled, on account of the success of Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. (Later, it would be pared down for a 1950 release, and this version circulated until 1980, when Welles’ vision was finally put right again.) Olivier and Welles didn’t like each other, which is one reason why the latter didn’t ask the former’s wife—Vivian Leigh—to play Lady Macbeth. Olivier’s Hamlet was clean, polished, with elegant accents and crisp lighting, the most professional cinematic production of a Shakespeare play anyone had seen. Whereas Macbeth looked like it had just emerged from one of the fighting scrums of the Thane of Glamis’s last living moments.

Welles didn’t have the budget for new sets, so he did what the Universal horror directors did and recycled what was at hand. This meant a lot leftovers from Westerns, which Welles built up to make like huge geological formations. People are in animal furs, Welles is forever sweating, one eye going in one direction, another in the other, as though even his ocular identity is cleaved in two, just like his moral one is.

Smoke and fog roll over everything along the lines of 1939’s Hound of the Baskervilles, another dramatic story that morphed into a horror film. For the murder of Duncan, the boulders loom over Welles’ Macbeth and his wife—played with understated, believable ice by Mercury Theatre regular Jeanette Nolan—like geological phenomena sitting in moral judgment, a felsic, unwavering jury. The scene lasts for one continuous ten minute take, a virtuoso flourish on a set that looks like something out of a black and white Fraggle Rock nightmare.

This was one weird mash-up of cinematic elements, and no wonder Olivier was pulling the plaudits: Welles’ decision to take Shakespeare back to something primordial, with man barely, if that, slithering out of the ooze, was almost too human. Which is to say, too Shakespearean. The groundlings would have got off on this.

The witches have a greater presence here, and as Welles noted to Peter Bogdanovich, they’re not predicting the future, they’re making it. A square-shaped cardboard crown rests upon Welles’ head, and even the look of this oft-familiar symbol comes off as a paean to unnatural order, with everything needing to be put right again.

The voices of the witches are intercut with low-level traces of male inflection, and even a few animal notes. Shakespeare loved himself some ghosts, almost as much as Dickens did, and Banquo’s post-life return has a Jacob Marley element in that he’s a pretty human looking ghost. Welles’ trick is to have Macbeth view him rapidly, as if through a faulty telescope, at the far end of the banquet table, with the rest of the cast wiped from the image. Because that’s the thing about ghosts, isn’t it? They work one on one best, especially when they double as a stand-in for one’s guilt, apprehensions, self-doubt.

This is one visually tricky film, like the Weird Sisters had been brought in as a post-production focus group. When Macbeth sees an airborne dagger, it appears so quickly that even the viewer thinks, wait, what was that? Welles was good at getting you in on the proceedings, and if the key to Macbeth the play is putting you right in Macbeth’s head, Welles’ joint-witnessing technique places you squarely in the crook of Macbeth’s elbow.

There are moments when Welles drops his Scottish burr, but all that does is firm up the link with the regular make of 1940s horror films in particular their ambivalence with continuity. This isn’t so much a full-on treatment of the Bard, as an eldritch venture borne of a distinctly Wellesian logic. Granted, you won’t see Macbeth sandwiched on a horror bill between The Wolf Wan and The Mummy’s Ghost, but sometimes genius crowds out the bogeys, and you can no more assign easy labels than stop the trees from marching towards your property once they’re of a mind. •

Colin Fleming’s fiction appears in Harper’s, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, and Boulevard, with other work running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and JazzTimes. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Downtown with Rich Kimball, in addition to various radio programs and podcasts. His last book was The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, and he has two books forthcoming in 2018: Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls, and a volume examining the 1951 movie Scrooge as a horror film for the ages. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com.

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