Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: The Shakespeare Films of Orson Welles

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday March 21, 2008
Orson Welles in the title role in his 1948 adaptation of Macbeth.
Orson Welles in the title role in his 1948 adaptation of Macbeth.

With just a few exceptions, when we talk about an Orson Welles film we talk about a tangled mess of topics all at once. We talk about the film as it exists and the film as it might have been; we talk about intentions and motivations, disagreements and compromises, edits and changes; we talk about artistic integrity versus commercial considerations, about the rights of the artist contrasted with the rights of studios, stockholders, producers and distributors.  

When left to his own devices—or, more accurately, the devices of himself and his chosen collaborators—Welles created great cinema. Yet Citizen Kane is perhaps the only one of his films to reach theaters entirely without compromise. A couple of others survived with only compromised production values as opposed to compromised content, but most of the Welles filmography is the story of films that are at best approximations, and at worst mere remnants, of the dreams that gave birth to them.  

The Orson Welles of caricature—of bloated budgets and extended, meandering production schedules—would come later. In the 1940s his films were produced in the same manner in which he had produced his stage and radio projects. Budgets were relatively small, schedules were adhered to (though always pushed to the last second); planning and rehearsals were thorough but open to last-minute changes and improvisations. And in this climate he produced two of his greatest works: Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.  

After Kane nearly brought down RKO studios in 1941 by taking on William Randolph Hearst, the most powerful media mogul of his day, Welles’ career took an unexpected turn. Though RKO and Welles survived the battle with Hearst, the studio became wary of its star director. But it was ultimately the gloom of Ambersons and the freewheeling experimentalism of Welles’ South American documentary project It’s All True that finally derailed Welles, and he spent the next few years struggling to win back the trust of his benefactors.  

His reputation—some say justly, some unjustly—became that of a troublemaker, an arrogant, budget-busting, non-commercial maverick. Having conquered Broadway at 20, radio at 21 and film at 24, he was not used to failure, or to playing the supplicant. And he must have found it galling that he, whose genius had always included the successful marriage of commercial entertainment with high art, should be branded an unbankable risk.  

The Stranger (1944) was a purely commercial product, delivered on time and under budget for International Pictures. With the exception of a few flourishes here and there, it is the least Wellesian of his films and thus the least interesting. Lady From Shanghai (1947) was begun as payback for a loan that Columbia Studios chief Harry Cohn had given Welles for one of his stage productions. Shanghai too was a commercial film, with a few twists. But it was those unwanted twists that angered Cohn, who re-edited much of it and added a cheap score. 

It was at this time that Welles, looking to find a studio that would back him as RKO had with Kane, joined Republic Studios, a low-budget producer of B movies, mostly westerns. Republic was willing to support a pet project of his: a stark, spare adaptation of Macbeth. Shakespeare was his foundation as an artist: As a teenager he had published a series of guidebooks for adapting the works of the Bard to the modern stage, and as a young man he had made his reputation with the so-called “voodoo Macbeth,” a Roosevelt-era public works project in which he staged a sensational Haitian version of the play in Harlem with an all-black cast consisting mostly of first-time actors. Shakespearian tragedy underlies much of Welles’ self-written dramas, and he would return to the plays themselves on stage, radio and screen for much of his life. 

Welles concocted a multi-faceted approach to the new Macbeth that would hold down expenses while maximizing rehearsal. He took a cast consisting largely of players from his own Mercury Theater on the road to Salt Lake City, where they would stage the play three times a day for four days as part of the Utah Centennial Festival. The festival would pick up the tab for the costumes, Republic would pay for the sets. When the theatrical run was over, the company would adjourn to the studio where, with three cameras operating at all times, shooting several scenes simultanously, with the actors miming to a pre-recorded soundtrack, they would shoot the film in just three weeks. It would be a semi-radical but inexpensive experiment in stripped-down, streamlined filmmaking. (This is in marked contrast to his next project, the nomadic, globe-trotting four-year odyssey that would become Othello.)  

Welles first adapted Macbeth to a screenplay, using his own guidebooks to fashion a dramatic restructuring of the play, emphasizing the witchcraft and heightening the horror and melodrama in the creation of a sort of high-art B picture. It is not so much an adaptation as a re-imagining, for Welles had no interest in simply filming the play; his goal was to rediscover much of the brash, barnstorming fun and frolic of Shakespeare, qualities he felt had been lost over decades of stuffy academization of the Bard. His intent was to use Macbeth as a starting point for something quite different, for something purely cinematic. He then adapted the screenplay to the stage for the Utah performances.  

Much of Welles’ vaunted innovation throughout his career stemmed from necessity, from improvisation in the face of less than perfect circumstances. His radio shows conjured whole worlds on a merciless weekly deadline; the shadowy photography of Kane was conceived primarily as a method of concealing the lack of sets; and the staging of a famous scene in Othello amid the swirling steam of a Turkish bath was another inspired bit of improvisation, compensating for the fact that Welles’ supplier failed to deliver the costumes. Macbeth was essentially built from the start on a framework of improvisation amid low-budget circumstances, its design consisting of papier-maché sets rising above a bare soundstage, its staging and photographic angles organized around the necessities of the quick three-camera shooting schedule. 

Republic released the film in Europe to good reviews, but tested it only in select cities in America. They had already required Welles to cut about 20 minutes from it, but now they cut still more and insisted that as much of the dialogue as possible be re-recorded without the Scottish accents. (Welles had sought to return the play to its roots by abandoning the hybrid English accents that had become standard for interpretations of Shakespeare with a Scottish burr.) When this highly compromised version was finally officially released in the States after a lengthy delay, critical reception was largely hostile. While some of the footage has been replaced since then, and the Scottish-accent soundtrack restored, the film, like so many other Welles films, is still not quite the film he intended.  

The film still draws mixed reviews. Joseph McBride, one of Welles’ most sympathetic biographers, bemoans the lack of subtlety of Welles in the title role, the weakness of Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth, and what he considers the budget-hampered photographic style, in which the actors move more than the camera. Meanwhile, David Thomson, generally one of Welles’ more critical biographers, describes the acting as “heartfelt and liberated” and flatly states that “no film since Kane had had so profoundly organized or expressive a photographic style.” 

Welles’ films, like the man himself, retain the power to polarize his most ardent fans, even after 60 years. 


MACBETH (1948) 

119 minutes. 2 p.m. Sunday. 


OTHELLO (1948-52) 

91 minutes. 4:30 p.m. Sunday. 


Pacific Film Archive. 2575 Bancroft Way.