Orson Welles

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Stanley Kauffmann

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[In the restored version] Welles's Macbeth is now a bold, exciting, innovative film.

It is not Shakespeare's Macbeth. I'm not going to reopen the old critical hassle of whether or not there is an ideal Macbeth …; I simply tell again the beads of my Shakespeare-on-film rosary: no film of a Shakespeare play can be that play….

But Welles knew all this…. [It's] no surprise that his Macbeth has often been called expressionist. But in aesthetic terms, the most striking aspect of this restored film is Welles's apparently quite conscious attempt to fuse a third form out of theater and film. (p. 24)

[Most] of the standard objections to this film seem to me to miss the point. It's been dubbed the "papier-mâché" Macbeth because of its sets, it's been castigated for its obvious studio lighting. These strictures, and more, grow out of the belief that film automatically equals realism; and they grow out of hunger for the same kinds of cinematic virtuosity that Welles had shown in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, a poetic realism so prodigally inventive that it's almost as if he was making the first films ever and the world was lucky that the terrain was being discovered by a young man with genius.

In Macbeth he is moving past realism…. The film settings are meant to look like settings, the way they would in a symbolic stage production. The lighting and photography are meant to evoke the atmosphere of the theater…. The lighting of Macbeth, in most shots, surrounds the subjects with the magic air that surrounds theater actors in nonrealistic stage lighting, that strange feeling of the consecration of space. In Macbeth there is very little sense that Welles is trying to show that film can take things from the theater and do them better; he is taking from the theater and film and trying to do something else, to blend them, to give us a theater experience through film and vice versa, and therefore something different from a usual theater or film experience. (pp. 24-5)

With this general look of things, Welles has also worked for flowing motion. Whenever possible, a scene is led by the camera and the actors' movement into the next scene…. It's easy to say that Welles was going after the fluency of the Elizabethan stage, the speed that was such a big part of Granville Barker's theory of Shakespeare production, but doing it on film is more daring than on stage. On film it doesn't obey its medium, it challenges. It underscores artifice, rather than intensifying film realism….

In his union of theater and film—neither filmed play nor stagy film but an aesthetic union—Welles is using ideas as revolutionary as those in Kane, though surely they have had much less influence…. The difference here from the theater is in the greater immediacy of that internal reality—a face, or some faces, sometimes as the whole of what we see; the voice-over soliloquies drifting up from inside; the almost palpable increase in envelopment by inner states. (p. 25)

Stanley Kauffmann, "Restored and Revisited" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1980 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 183, No. 4, July 26, 1980, pp. 24-5.

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