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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

#23: Macbeth (1971)

Early on, this Roman Polanski film from 1971, the year of my birth, looks like every non-Shakespearean’s nightmare about what Shakespeare is like: forgettable characters braying gibberish that is meant to set the scene, but in essence makes us not especially want to watch the story at all.

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Jon Finch, our Macbeth in this film, looks a little bored at first, with his awesomely sullen Max von Sydow cheekbones, rubbing his ass emerging from a tent or chasing the weird sisters down into a stone basement.

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Francesca Annis’s cold, sullen beauty as Lady M makes us wonder, and admire, where this animosity and reckless ambition might come from.

Nicholas Selby is so foppish as King Duncan that we are perhaps too eager to see his slaughter.

Like the recent Justin Kurzel adaptation, Polanski’s Macbeth is traditional, which is to say, medieval. But the landscape of this Macbeth is both strange and unpleasantly earthy. The camera opens on the curves of a beach at low tide, with the odd coloration of dusk (or dawn?) sped up, and then we see the weird sisters, one of whom is missing an eye, messing about in the mud, using a severed hand in their incantations. This movie is bleakly, miserably muddy at nearly every turn, and the mood is even stranger than the Kurzel version.

Within fifteen minutes, the Polanski film draws me in, hypnotically. The mixture of early 1970s facial hair (especially Terence Baylor’s mustache) and quite good acting is intoxicating. And the score, by the experimental ambient group Third Ear Band, sounds like Krzysztof Penderecki somehow riffing on the Barbarella soundtrack, with hints of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew.

When Macbeth is imagining daggers before the assassination of King Duncan, the effect is cheaply psychedelic, like something out of a Roger Corman’s color films, yet is just funky enough, just accurate enough in terms of perspective, to be much better than current special effects.

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With soliloquies delivered in voice-over, the overall perspective of the film is disorientingly claustrophobic. This sensibility intensifies when Macbeth has his second audience with the weird sisters. The psychological kinks of this patricidal hero are depicted as a daisy chain of visual signifiers that powerfully mimic the language of the play with a gusto perhaps never before attempted with Shakespeare on film.

And at some point along the way, one begins to see this Macbeth as an especially disturbing film, in its depiction of violence. We are given an intimation of this after the opening credits, when a soldier tests the leg of a fallen enemy.

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The enemy is not quite dead, so the soldier whacks into the enemy’s back with the steel ball at the end of a flail, once, twice, three times, four times, until blood thuds through this man’s clothes, and sound of the thumping continues as Duncan’s forces arrive on the scene for its report. These are the good guys, the flailers of wounded men’s backs. This is a world without mercy, without any consideration of the suffering of others. All is death and killing and mud.

When the assassins arrive at Macduff’s home to kill his wife and children, the inconsolable screaming of a woman is heard in the background.

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When Lady Macduff, having just had her young son die in her arms, flees the chamber, she collides into the gang-rape of one of her maids that makes the murder seem civilized by comparison. She will see her other children’s corpses, and the family’s chapel in flames before her own inevitable death. The scene is like a medieval version of a Charles Bronson movie. Or worse.

This scene in particular reminded me that this movie was released (October 1971) not especially long after Roman Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, and four other people were murdered by the Manson “family” (August of 1969). Also killed was the unborn child of Tate and Polanski. Sharon Tate was eight and half months pregnant. The director was not at home that night, as he was away scouting locations for a film that he would, under the circumstances, not be able to bring himself to make.

The production schedule of this Macbeth (November 1970 to April 1971) overlapped the Manson trial (June 15, 1970 to January 25, 1971).

These are ghastly things to notice, worthy of tabloid journalism and shabby psycho-biographic scholarship. I notice these facts reluctantly.

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Francesca Annis, Lady Macbeth.

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Sharon Tate.

Francesca Annis, who in my opinion looks similar to Sharon Tate, plays Lady Macbeth’s somnambulistic scene in the nude, which is far more weird than erotic, despite the fact that the film was produced by Playboy magazine and Hugh Hefner.

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Annis’s vulnerability is agonizing, and when she later falls to her death, a plot point that in Shakespeare’s text happens entirely off scene, Polanski directly shows us the horribly misaligned anatomy of her corpse, and then, after the camera cuts away, returns to witness this destroyed flesh in case we looked away the first time.

This extra-textual eeriness reminds me of how Robert Blake’s spooky Mystery Man character in David Lynch’s Lost Highway in 1997 became even more disturbing after he was arrested for his own wife’s murder five years later.

Lost Highway Mystery Man

Lest we plummet too far down the speculation pit, however, we do need to remember that Polanski co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with the provocative theater critic Kenneth Tynan, who in 1969 produced the salacious erotic revue, Oh, Calcutta!  

Neither Kenneth Tynan nor Polanski seem to have much to relate about Tynan’s contributions. In his diaries, Tynan does tell a story about how he and Polanski had a desultory conversation about the assess of actresses, both of these men being ass men, and that when the conversation turned to Marilyn Monroe’s posteriors, Polanski apparently said, “Oh, if we’re going to talk about dead people, then Sharon’s bottom wasn’t bad” (29), which is perhaps an odd thing for a widower to say–or then again, perhaps that is precisely the appropriate thing to say.

In his autobiography, Roman, Polanski claims that the behavior of Macbeth’s assassins in the court of Macduff was inspired by an SS officer who “had searched our room in the ghetto, swishing his riding crop to and fro, toying with my teddy bear, nonchalantly emptying out the hatbox full of forbidden bread” (333). 

Roman Polanski does not seem like an especially self-aware person, so I have difficulty deciding if that explanation, more than the more recent horror of his life, was some extra-textual analogue. As a Jewish child during World War II, he saw an old Jewish woman murdered on the street, and was used mockingly as target practice for some German soldiers. 20% of the population of Poland was murdered in the holocaust.

Ultimately, such questions about the director’s emotional interiority are our burden, not the film’s, and even if Polanski was working through his feelings about the drugged-out, murderous barbarity that had invaded his home, that does not mean that the work would be less significant or valid because of it. When the film came out, Newsweek’s reporter claimed the film was right out of the aesthetic of the holocaust and the Manson murders–now that is barbaric. Before the Manson crew was caught, people and the press speculated that the imagined decadence of Polanski and Tate were the obvious cause of the murder, and Polanski himself was suspected by some people of the murder.

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Did I mention that the medieval fight sequence is totally cool? The sequences between Macduff and Macbeth show these soldiers fighting quickly, in armor. Visually, this looks a bit uncouth and goofy, yet also looks totally believable.

As does Macbeth’s severed head at the end.

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Works Cited

Polanski, Roman. Roman. New York: William Morrow, 1984.

Tynan, Kenneth. The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan. Ed. John Lahr. New York: Bloomsbury, 2001.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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