A Month With… Orson Welles: Macbeth

Based on Shakespeare’s play, Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948) focuses on juxtapositions. The director shows audiences the contrast between nature and the perverse, the body and the mind, and – perhaps most importantly – the inside versus the outside.

Macbeth opens with a series of fades and fade-transitions accompanied by dramatic non-diegetic music, displacing audiences as the fades and transitions connote a lack of concept of time: immediately Welles has created a world for the witches that is unlike the world of Macbeth. This is connoted through the fog that encompasses these opening scenes, as it makes clear the witches are characters who want to be seen but not identified, as witnessed through the fog covering their identities but contrasting nature’s whiteness with their black dress codes.

Faced with a wide angle shot of the three witches on a rock on the right side of the frame and a withered tree with no leafs on a hill on the left, Welles could be making a connection between the witches – the supernatural/Other – and nature. This opening shot presents a likeness between them, and, along with the ubiquitous fog that silently tortures Macbeth and his mind throughout the film, there seems to be a bleak ideology here. Since the witches seem to be one with the fog, nature and even the world’s elements (the water, fire, bubbles and steam from their cauldron), the film begins feeling as if the witches are controlling all of the events that take place, while the audience are merely watching Macbeth and Lady Macbeth lose control.

In Welles’ adaptation, the fog becomes a conceit that is a constant reminder of Macbeth’s lack of control and the witches’ presence in his mind, differing the 1948 film from both Justin Kurzel’s (Macbeth, 2015) and Akira Kurosawa’s (Throne of Blood, 1957) adaptions with their uses of fog symbolising mystery, confusion and the inner turmoil of Macbeth’s mind.

Welles still allows Macbeth to be heroic, however, as the minute the film cuts from the witches to the title screen reading “Macbeth,” loud and dramatic non-diegetic music steals the presence. The score by Jacques Ibert in the titles takes audiences through Macbeth’s inevitable dark journey, as it takes us from the pride and glory of loud, crashing symbols and trumpets, to quieter, softer and more delicately played music. Macbeth’s introduction on screen to audiences connotes the aforementioned pride, as the wide angle tracking shot ensures it is Macbeth who takes up the most space, but in landscape and in the frame.

Yet, despite the director manipulating the camera shots to ensure Welles is seen as higher than everyone else (for example the levelled shots for other characters but low angle shots for Macbeth’s), through both the literal and figurative darkness of the film Welles uses nature to go against Macbeth.

While I was watching Macbeth, I had to pause the screen about fifty times to make sure my television brightness was correct, as a lot of the scenes are so dark you can barely see anything. I soon realised this was supposed to be like this and so wrote a note in my book about it so I could form a pretentious thought on it later and write about it here…and here is that pretentious thought: almost all of the lighting in Macbeth seems to come from nature/natural sources, for example the candles (fire), the campfire, or just the fact that outside is when there is the most light. Macbeth’s own castle, which is itself built out of foundations of nature such as rock, fails to illuminate the king who lives in it. The grand, gigantic staircase reflects this too, as in the scene where Lady Macbeth becomes most manipulating with Macbeth it is the staircase and the camera’s movements that dictates each characters’ positions of power — it is never there’s to control or keep.

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The relationship Orson Welles creates between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is notable, as the director often provides new ideas of looking at them through the language of film. First of all, they are the only two characters with whom audiences are allowed inside their heads, with Lady Macbeth’s first soliloquy emphasising how Welles’ use of voice overs for their lone speeches are representations for the fact they believing and calling from within themselves rather than relying on external forces.

There is one scene near the beginning of the film where Lady Macbeth and Macbeth kiss while a hanged person is in frame to the left behind them. Due to the hanging bringing forth imagery of death by suicide against death by murder (although it could be said they are the same), the man’s hanging becomes a representation for their relationship. If it is a suicide, it is not clear who kills who: the rope or the mind. If it is a murder, they are both doomed.

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The juxtapositions of inside and outside become more and more important as the film goes on. Night and day become ambiguous, interfusing with one another, and the inside and outside become reversed – both in terms of the external world as well as in terms of Macbeth’s mind. Near the opening of the film, Macbeth stops in front of a puddle and audiences can see himself reflected in it. With this idea of mirroring and multiple selves being introduced, the later themes Welles creates come to represent Macbeth’s dissociation of his inner self with his external self, with the beginning of this disintegration being witnessed first in the kaleidoscopic, blurry shots that change points of view of Macbeth.

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The denouement of Macbeth reenforces just how dark Orson Welles adaptation is. When with the witches – the darkest characters of all – audiences are presented with the most light. The final shot of the witches staring at the foreboding castle with pieces of nature in their hands, while thorns and leafless tree branches intrude the frame reestablishes their – and nature’s – control over Macbeth’s life in Orson Welles’ interpretation.

A Month With: An Introduction

This year I’ve decided that I’d like to write about films more, so I’m going to use this site to try and do that. Each month, I plan on spending a month with different directors that interest me, where I watch/read about/dissect their films and then talk about them here.

I’ve made sure I’ve begun my year on a good start by choosing Orson Welles as the first director of the month, where I’ll watch Citizen KaneMacbethOthello and Touch of Evil (and maybe The Third Man, even though he didn’t direct it).

If anyone actually reads this/what I write, please contribute to the discussion as what I write is just a starting point from my mind. Any suggestions for directors/films would be appreciated too.

Oh, and, happy new year.