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Macbeth

****
1971

‘…there’s something in Polanski’s insistence on the cyclical nature of evil, a state of continual entropy that seems to envelop the Scotland shown here…’

There’s a whole lotta Shakespeare out there, but it’s not easy to find good examples of the bard on the big screen. Even in theatre, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a stage production of Hamlet or Macbeth that’s entirely worked for me; part of the process of ingesting these texts as an impressionable youngster is that you have a set image of how the tragedy might play out, and it’s hard to match that with any production, stage or screen. Roman Polanski’s 1971 version of Macbeth was a flop at the time, but my hot take is that it’s probably the most effective big screen outing for this story of toil and trouble to date.

And so we have Macbeth, played by Jon Finch; a Scottish warrior, he’s due for an upgrade in his position, but gets passed over by King Duncan (Nicholas Selby) in favour of the younger Malcolm (Stephen Chase). But Macbeth’s already on edge due to an encounter with three witches who claim he’ll take the throne, and his pushy wife (Francesca Annis) is there to prick the sides of his intent. Duncan exits stage left after about an hour, but as Macbeth finds that one murder leads to a second, then a third, there’s seemingly no escape from the dark fate that his ambition has set in motion…

Don’t call me woke, but I generally steer clear of Polanski for well-documented reasons; in 1971, though, his legal troubles were still in front of him, and the murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child seems to have been the driving factor behind the bleak, nihilistic here. Polanski uses Northern English locations and castles to create a rough and ready look, and even if the matching of shots is poor, he taps into Scottish culture that few adaptions consider; Macbeth’s costume even incorporates the lion rampant design. There’s also a unique view of court/castle life, with lots of farm animals, straw, and whitewashed stonework; it’s one of the only adaptions that feels faithful to the spare feel of the original text.

And the acting is good too; Finch seems lean and hungry, Annis reveals the hidden depths required, and there’s some professional support from John Stride, Terence Bayler aka Leggy Mountbatten, Martin Shaw and more crack British thespians. Polanski retains some frequently cut text, like the conversation that reveals the venal commentary of those who attend the king’s court, and also adds some very 70’s dream sequences and visuals that trip balls effectively. And there’s something in Polanski’s insistence on the cyclical nature of evil, a state of continual entropy that seems to envelop the Scotland shown here. The film ends with Donalbain consulting the witches, and suggests the whole narrative will soon begin again, power corrupting absolutely. At the time, Polanski wouldn’t have known that he’d soon by constrained by the results of his own actions, changing a once mercurial talent into as familiar a villain as Macbeth himself.

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  1. This and Throne of Blood helped me pass a university exam as I recall. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It had tremendous power and because the stars were relative unknowns – neither big stars of the the theatre nor the movies – made it much more approachable.

  2. Nice to see this reviewed because I agree this is the best Shakespeare on film Ive seen.

    I find it ironic that it takes one of them ‘foreigners’ to show the English how to do their own works of English literature properly. (Worth checking out Tess for another example). I think this draws attention to how the classic works in England are appropriated and massaged into acceptable forms, Shakespeare’s dangerous edges filed down into a perfect cut-glass accent.

    (I once saw Cleopatra on stage performed by a text-book English drama school actress and it was so sad to see).

    Second thing I wanted to say was regarding Polanski. Its really worth a read of this article which is an interview with Samantha Geimer.

    https://quillette.com/2018/01/31/nobodys-victim-interview-samantha-geimer/

    In your typical newspaper article on the rape, you actually rarely hear from Samantha herself, or you hear her quoted out of context. The reasons why become clear when you read her interview.

    PS could you tell me the Act / Scene for ‘the conversation that reveals the venal commentary of those who attend the king’s court’ please? Many thanks

    • Thank for this, and for your support; I felt I was going out on a limb by praising this film, but it turns out that I’m not the only fan. I’ll delve back into my notes and see if I can identify the exact exchange you mention; it was one that I was unfamiliar with from other films and productions, but it adds to your argument that Polanski really does a great job with the text here. I’ll add the text reference to these comments once I’ve found it!

      I’ve skim read that article, and it certainly sheds fresh light on the Polanski back-story. I’ll go back and give it the time it deserves. There are several sides to MeToo, but there is an aspect to which victims are subjected to a second assult by being the focus of cancel culture, and that’s not helpful for sure. But I do have a duty to educate myself, and will make sure that I understand more about this case before mentioning it again. And yes, Polanski managed to do with decades of ‘serious’ British directors have failed to do, by locating a realistic spot for the language to flow from, and keeping the poetry intact. Thanks for this comment!

  3. I’m not a Shakespeare fan and the very few English-language adaptations I’ve seen (only McKellen’s Richard III I think) did anything for me except this Polanski version which I saw in 1972 when it opened in the UK. I don’t think I’ve seen it since but its power stayed with me. I don’t remember it being a flop. Polanski was big box office at that time and this was a follow-up to Rosemary’s Baby, even if there had been a three year gap. Philip Strick in Monthly Film Bulletin gave it a very positive review. I can understand your reluctance to get too involved with Polanski’s work but I remember him acting in Wajda’s A Generation (Poland 1955) and Kanal (1957) and I followed his early career closely. I haven’t seen some of his more recent stuff but he has been a great director. He should have been prosecuted. His early experiences don’t excuse his later behaviour but nothing can negate his talent.

    The most successful Macbeth is Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (Japan 1957), one of the best films of the 20th century. In its Japanese setting you can forget about Shakespeare and just marvel at the storytelling and the filmmaking genius.

    • Great comment, and agree on these points. It’s the nature of cancel culture to put good work out of our reach, and I was on a mission here to exhume a film completed before Polanski’s fall from grace; he wasn’t prosecuted because he went on the run, and that does feel like an admission of guilt. But his early work in particular was great, and he’s an undeniable talent. Totally agree about Throne of Blood, but in terms of Shakespeare’s language, this is probably the best Macbeth, although I have a fondness for the Sean Connery one too. And you’re right to pick me up on the word flop; maybe better to say that this was a prestige picture of the day, and not expected to pull in the same kind of cash that Rosemary’s Baby did. The first quite that came up for me was this ‘According to The Hollywood Reporter, Playboy Enterprises estimated in September 1973 that it would lose $1.8 million on the film, and that it would damage the company as a whole. Total losses were $3.5 million.’

      • I’d forgotten it was a Playboy production. I’m guessing that THR was reporting Playboy on the North American box-office of the film. In those days they tended to ignore overseas returns even if they made money on them. I saw the film in the small Times Cinema in Baker Street Station where I think it ran for several weeks. It had a wide circuit release in the UK and also showed in arthouses. I was wrong, I did see it a second time when visiting Zambia in 1973! Michael Billington, long the Guardian’s theatre reviewer praised the film highly in his cinema column for the Illustrated London News. The film had excellent pre-publicity and seems to have been generally well-received apart from the odd protest about the violence (generally understood to be appropriate and not gratuitous)

        • Love to hear such on-the-spot intel, and happy to hear that this film was well thought of! Just read Halliwell’s zero star review ‘the blood swamps most of the poetry’ but that’s Halliwell’s for you. We can agree that this is an excellent adaptation, and also that I shouldn’t read too much into US centric sources!

          • Sorry, Brian. I don’t think that Columbia, which distributed the film in the US and the UK, thought the main market would be arthouses. In the early 1970s, as in the late 1960s, Hollywood distributors took on ‘prestige films’ and promoted them heavily. Macbeth was given a Royal premiere in London and was widely covered in the press from the Mirror to the broadsheets and on TV. It didn’t get a circuit release and yes it did play some independent cinemas and film theatres like the Cosmo. But it also stuck around in cinemas in all parts of the UK during 1972 and later into the mid 70s. It arrived at the Gaumont in Aberdeen for a week in November 1972. It was at Odeon 1 in Liverpool in July 1972. These cinemas were not arthouses (source; British Newspaper Archives).

            • It’s listening in to conversations like this that makes it an education to blog. There’s so much information about the release of films that’s hard to find these days, and I totally appreciate the intel that I get from these comments. The release of Macbeth was before my time, but I find it really interesting to hear about specific booking and publicity. If I had a month to write each review, I’d include this kind of detail, but I’m happy at least that my review sparks this kind of discussion.

            • I take your point, Roy, but studios did not always get to dictate where their movies were shown. Actually, Macbeth did not do badly in London West End- three weeks at the Plaza, then eight weeks at the Metropole and another three weeks at the Cinecenta. But the fact it took so long to get round the country told its own story. It bombed in the US. According to a report in Variety (“Majors Rentals Projections, Nov 29, 1972) it fell into the $100,000-$249,999 category. And I doubt it did much better in Britain. Remember, also, 1972 was a boom year and hits were being held over in regional city centres for six, seven, eight weeks, making it harder for smaller films to find a slot.

              • I am absolutely agog at this exchange of cinematic information. You guys really brought the receipts! I’ll need names and ages for the ushers, estimates of the heat generated by the projectors and the times of the last buses home before my investigation of the UK box office performance of Macbeth is complete.

                • You had to get your skates on for the last bus home in Glasgow in 1972. Cinemas often relied on audiences to generate heat rather than boilers.

              • Studios don’t dictate but they have usually had arrangements with specific exhibitors and they have always dominated distribution in the UK. In 1971 Columbia in the US was in financial trouble and had started to work with Warner Bros. Outside the US they created Columbia-Warner as a distributor and it was this company that distributed the film in the UK (although its BBFC Classification was given with Playboy as distributor in October 1971).

                The historical arrangements whereby Warners released through ABC and Columbia via Rank had begun to break down and the Plaza for the premiere was a Paramount West End house, ironically at the point when Paramount and Universal were creating CIC as their jointly-owned overseas distributor. Macbeth did not get a circuit release initially but later it played in a lot of Rank cinemas across the country. The Metropole cinema in Victoria was owned by Rank and had been used for several years for ‘roadshow’ bookings and then for the odd film like Macbeth that didn’t fit the Rank release pattern.

                The long period in which Macbeth was ‘on the road’ wasn’t necessarily a sign it was doing badly. This was quite common for a number of films, including major European films in dubbed versions like A Man and a Woman released by United Artists through Rank cinemas from August 1967 and on throughout 1968. I don’t think that in the UK Macbeth was an arthouse film. It wasn’t for everybody but its appeal went beyond the arthouse audience.

                • Fascinating information, Roy. You are a man after my own heart. I had forgotten about the Columbia-Warner tie-up but I knew that major studios tied up either with Rank or ABC. As I remember MGM, Paramount, Universal and Warner distributed through ABC and UA, Fox, Disney and Columbia went through Rank. There was also a deal in the major cities whereby second-run city centre cinemas – in Glasgow this would be the Regent and La Scala – were guaranteed a first run picture every six weeks. But ABC had a huge fight with Paramount when when CIC was in its initial stages which resulted in Love Story launching at the La Scala where it ran for a record (for that cinema) of 26 weeks.
                  You are right that films that didn’t fit the circuit pattern got slotted in as and when.
                  Macbeth did not receive a Rank circuit release, however, not according to Allen Eyles’ history of Rank which lists all circuit releases from 1942 to 1979. But Rank would take on the occasional arthouse picture – in 1972 Bergman’s The Touch doubled with Lovers and Other Strangers went out as an alternate for cinemas that did not want to play Kotch/How Do I Love Thee or Danny Jones/My Old Man’s Place – quite unusual in itself because if there was an alternate in the Rank system it was usually a choice of one programme not two.

                  • What about my website, Bunty!? Don’t see Roy covering werewolves and minions in the granular detail I do.

                  • You have a very interesting website yourself Brian. I can see that our interests overlap in some quite specific areas. If I seemed like a dog not willing to give up a bone re Macbeth, it’s simply that I’ve spent much of the last eighteen months tracking the release of certain foreign language films in UK cinemas between 1965 and 1975 and despite having been a cinemagoer in those years I was surprised at what I found.
                    One last point on Macbeth. I was surprised to find that neither the film or Polanski as director are mentioned in Alexander Walker’s book on 70s British cinema. Given it was a completely British production apart from Hefner’s money, I find this very odd.

                    • Walker is nothing if not idiosyncratic, Attenborough’s output also doesn’t make the cut in that book if I remember correctly. Walker had his favourites….

                    • Interesting project, Roy. I have tracked the release of all pictures in Paisley, Scotland, between 1950 and 1954. That’s around 1200 films a year showing in eight cinemas, first run and second run., including to my surprise some foreign pictures. I’ve also tracked all the films showing in Glasgow city centre between 1960 and 1969. So we are definitely on the same wavelength. and as you are probably aware from the site I have written an academic history of Hollywood reissues and, separately, of the Hollywood wide release starting around the 1910s and going up to a few years ago.

  4. I was king of Scotland for a while. But I never let it go to my head.

    You’d think Shakespeare, and in particular this play, would have a better record on screen. But few people seem to get it right. I agree this is probably the best Macbeth we’ve got. Haven’t seen the Denzel one yet.

    Duncan exists stage left . . . groan.

  5. I’ve given up trying to find watchable Shakespeare on the screen. And since I never looked for it on the stage, well, I’m stuck with reading his plays. And that’s a chore and half, no matter what anyone says.

    What brought this particular edition to your attention?

    • This is the one I saw at school when I was 13, back when they dragged a tv on wheels into the classroom, and you couldn’t see the picture for the tracking. This one was criticised for violence swamping the poetry at the time, but it’s not OTT by today’s standards. This brings the play to life.

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