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Reel Streaming: Is This Another Macbeth I See Before Me?

Updated: Feb 15

One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 71


By Laurence Lerman / New York City


Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in Macbeth (2021)
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in Macbeth (2021)

There’s a lot about The Tragedy of Macbeth to attract media attention. The new film, written and directed by Joel Coen, is the first ever directed by one of the celebrated Coen brothers without the other’s involvement. Moreover, it stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the ultimate power couple in what critics and audiences have deemed an outstanding version of Shakespeare’s so-called “Scottish Play.” The Bard would not be displeased: the film was nominated on February 8 for three Academy Awards, including one for Washington for Best Actor,


It may be a first for Joel Coen,, but it’s hardly a first for Hollywood as The Tragedy of Macbeth is only the latest in a long line of filmed versions of Macbeth.


Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Constance Collier (1923)
Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Constance Collier (1923)

The cinematic lineage of the 1606 Elizabethan play began with a 1908 silent American film directed by James Stuart Blackton. The earliest known film version of the play, it runs about eight minutes and was produced when motion picture technology itself was only about 10 years old. It hasn’t been seen in over a century and it’s not known if any print of the film still exists. Such is also the case with a 1916 silent version starring Herbert Beebohm Tree and Constance Collier. Directed by John Emerson, produced by D.W. Griffith and shot by Victor Fleming, it’s also considered to be a lost film with only a couple of stills on hand to physically confirm that it was ever made.


But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other cinematic takes of the tragedy out there to sink your teeth into, should you wish to brush up your Shakespeare after seeing the most recent outing. Dozens of filmed versions of Macbeth have been produced around the world since the end of the silent era by filmmakers who probably weren’t as interested in box office returns as they were in unleashing their own interpretations of one of Shakespeare’s most popular and adaptable works. Presented in chronological order, here are six of the more notable ones, all of which are available to stream tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.


Macbeth (1948)

Directed by Orson Welles

Orson Welles and Jeanette Nolan (1948)
Orson Welles and Jeanette Nolan (1948)

Welles wrote, directed, produced and starred in his adaptation alongside Jeanette Nolan, who made her movie debut as here as Lady Macbeth (after Tallulah Bankhead turned down the role). Strikingly cinematic and evocative—Welles visualized his Macbeth’s violent setting as “a perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein—it’s the version that most influenced the visual style of Joel Coen’s new edition. Though the poorly received low-budget film was plagued with post-production problems, including a complete re-recording of the actors on the soundtrack, over the years it has come to be regarded as one of Welles’ most fascinating efforts.

Throne of Blood (1957)


Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada (1957)
Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada (1957)

The masterful Kurosawa, just coming off his international smash The Seven Samurai (1955), shifted the play’s action to feudal Japan, amping up the tragedy of a blindly ambitious general and his manipulative wife to operatic grandeur. Perfectly complementing a tone that’s flavored with the style of a samurai epic and elements drawn from Japan’s larger-than-life Noh theatre is the legendary Toshiro Mifune, whose snarling ascent to royal power is one of his most memorable performances. Mifune’s violent demise as he is turned into a human pincushion in a barrage of arrows remains one of the most jaw-droppingly satisfying endings ever depicted on film, let alone in a Shakespeare adaptation.


Macbeth (1971)

Directed by Roman Polanski

Jon Finch and Francesca Annis (1971)
Jon Finch and Francesca Annis (1971)

The most literal and vivid of version of Macbeth was primarily shot on the moors and in the castles of Wales and Northern England and is dripping with mood and atmosphere. Polanski’s leading players are a volatile, paranoid duo whose descent into madness only grows in anger and violence until their inevitable end. Produced only two years after the brutal murder of Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family cult, the film features as graphic a depiction of Macbeth’s beheading as I’ve ever seen, while Lady’s Macbeth’s nude sleepwalking scene is bizarre and memorable. (The film was produced by Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, so that could help explain the nudity.)


Macbeth (1978)

Directed by Phillip Casson

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench (1978)
Ian McKellen and Judi Dench (1978)

Performed live and recorded for broadcast on the BBC, this Macbeth is definitely the least visual adaptation of the bunch, with scenery, costumes and camera movement kept to a minimum. Clocking in at two hours and twenty-five minutes, it’s also one of the longest ones out there, with the primary focus kept on the text and oration. But when you’ve got Ian McKellen and Judi Dench doing what they do in this theater-in-the-round staged presentation (years before they were adorned with their “Sir” and “Dame titles), you know it’s the material and thesping that’s going to take center stage.


Men of Respect (1991)

Directed by William Reilly

John Turturro and Katherine Borowitz (1991)
John Turturro and Katherine Borowitz (1991)

John Turturro plays a rising gangster in Brooklyn’s D’Amico crime family who’s prodded by his wife (Katherine Borowitz) to get his gun on and strive to move up the ladder to the top slot. Writer/director Reilly’s setting of the film in the milieu of organized crime is inspired and nearly organic when one thinks about, even if it doesn’t wholly click. Real-life spouses Turturro and Borowitz bring on the passion in their portrayals of the borough baddies, and they’re ably supported by the familiar presence of such strong co-stars as Rod Steiger, Dennis Farina, Stanley Tucci and Peter Boyle.


Maqbool (2003)

Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj

Irrfan Khan and Tabu (2003)
Irrfan Khan and Tabu (2003)

The first of veteran Indian filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj’s three Shakespeare adaptations (followed by 2006’s Omkara from Othello and 2014’s Haider from Hamlet), Maqbool sets the ruthless action in the corrupt Mumbai underworld. Like Reilly with Men of Respect, Bhardway takes some liberties with the story—the titular bad boy is the right-hand man to an underworld chieftain and the three witches are transformed into a pair of clairvoyant cops who take a more active part in the story—but the tale remains rich and strong. Though a box office failure, Bollywood veterans Irrfan Khan and Tabu garnered acclaim and a par of Indian’s National Film Awards for their performances.


 

Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.

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