Along with Romeo And Juliet, Macbeth has always been the most film-friendly of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Unlike Hamlet and King Lear, the Scottish play is relatively short, with few lengthy digressions into philosophical reverie; unlike Othello, it boasts a streamlined narrative that’s easy to follow regardless if one has a handle on the intricacies of Elizabethan prose-poetry. It’s been said that every great actor should play Hamlet at some point, and one could likewise argue that every great director should adapt Macbeth for the screen, as a rite of passage. Certainly, there’s been no shortage of heavy hitters: Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa (Throne Of Blood), and Roman Polanski all tackled Macbeth between 1948 and 1971, in each case with a robust visual sensibility that’s anything but stage-bound.
Of those three major versions, Polanski’s, newly released on Blu-ray this week by Criterion, is the bloodiest and grimmest—not surprising, perhaps, given that it was the first film he directed after the Manson Family murdered his wife and unborn child. Macbeth, played by Jon Finch (whose only other significant starring role was in Hitchcock’s Frenzy the following year), may be reluctant to kill Duncan, doing so mostly at the urging of his wife (Francesca Annis), but that doesn’t stop him from finishing the job by shoving his dagger directly into the king’s throat, in gruesome close-up. Likewise, the butchering of Macduff’s family results in a tableau of carnage so lurid that some critics accused Polanski of deliberately recreating the slaughter that had taken place in his own house. Pauline Kael, who was generally not rattled by violence, would later confess in an interview for Mademoiselle that she had great difficulty reviewing the film. “The murder of Lady MacDuff, the torn bodies scattered around, the pieces of children’s bodies, like a chicken yard, the knives constantly going into flesh had me shaking afterward. I felt numb. When I came home my daughter thought I’d been mugged.” Compared to any Saw movie, what she’s describing is quite tame; in a Shakespearean context, however, the horror registers more strongly, as it arguably should.
Given this emphasis on brutality, it’s easy to overlook how sophisticated Polanski’s Macbeth is in other respects. The screenplay, written by the director in collaboration with Kenneth Tynan (himself a former critic, for the theater as well as the cinema), places a great deal of the dialogue, including most soliloquies, inside the characters’ heads, to be spoken as voice-over narration. Faces are often viewed in repose for minutes at a time during speeches; rather than watch the performers act, we’re encouraged to watch the characters think, which allows for an unusual degree of psychological realism. Finch rises to the occasion with a remarkably inward interpretation of the title role—even when he gets to deliver the famous “tale told by an idiot” speech (for the camera, moving his mouth), he does so with comparatively little sound and fury. At all times, Macbeth plays like a film, not like filmed theater. Polanski even forgoes opportunities for special effects: In the play, the stage directions dictate that the “weird sisters” vanish after their initial encounter with Macbeth and Banquo, but Polanski merely shows them enter an underground lair, treating Macbeth’s line “into the air” (in reply to Banquo’s question about where they went) as a wry joke.
One of Polanski and Tynan’s most interesting choices—significant enough that it gets its own section on the film’s Wikipedia page—is the elevation of the minor character Ross (played by John Stride) into a figure of Machiavellian cunning and intrigue. It’s an effect that would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve onstage, at least without becoming a huge distraction; either new lines would have to be created for Ross or he’d have to be spotlighted at key moments. On film, it’s as simple as providing Stride with a few key closeups and reaction shots, and generally making him visually prominent in scenes where he’d otherwise just be part of a crowd. This revision is more of a fascinating curiosity than anything else—it doesn’t alter the play’s meaning in any material way (as a brief, invented final scene does)—but it shows how a great filmmaker can subtly change even the wordiest material in terms of images. Macbeth has been adapted for the screen a number of times since 1971, but not memorably; we’re long overdue for a contemporary version by a major director. What might Paul Thomas Anderson or the Coen brothers do with Shakespeare? Screw your courage to the sticking place and honor the tradition, fellas.
Macbeth is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion.