The good news? For his last Hollywood film of the 1940s, Orson Welles delivered a low-budget, inventive, expressionist Shakespeare adaptation that served as a template for his experimental European films. The bad news? Welles perhaps captures the eerie mood of "The Scottish Play" all too well; the film is an unrelentingly dark and often uncomfortable experience. The lugubrious pacing and indifferent acting offer little respite from the play's fatalism.
A little background helps one better appreciate this film. After a string of box office failures (including "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "The Lady from Shanghai"), Welles signed on with Republic Pictures to do a low-budget "Macbeth," hoping that he could popularize Shakespeare on film as he had done on radio and in the theatre. His actors rehearsed the play on tour, and painstakingly pre-recorded their dialogue in Scottish brogues. Welles then shot the film in 23 days, some kind of record for him. Well, you can guess what happened: The studio hated it. They forced Welles to cut 20 minutes from the film, and made the actors re-dub their dialogue with "normal" accents - wasting all that time they spent in pre-production. The film bombed on release and Welles spent the next 10 years working in Europe.
Years later, the original prints were found and released as another "Lost Welles Classic." Unfortunately, time has devalued that label; "Macbeth" doesn't quite meet the standard set by "Othello" or "Touch of Evil," two other films that were restored after Welles' death. While the Scottish accents are a nice touch, the extra running time actually robs the film of some momentum. Welles did wonders with the cheap Republic sets; the film is a masterpiece of expressionist set design. The same can't be said of the costumes, which make Welles look like the Statue of Liberty at one point. Constrained by having to sync their movements to pre-recorded dialogue, the actors deliver wooden performances (only the soliloquies, delivered in voice-over, resonate). Fortunately, the last twenty minutes are visually captivating and offer enough Wellesian moments to make the viewing worthwhile.
If Welles fails to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear - as he would later do with "Othello" and "Chimes of Midnight" - he succeeds in developing an expressionist style that he would later perfect with his bizarro masterpiece "The Trial." "Macbeth" isn't exactly an enjoyable movie experience; indeed, "returning were as tedious as go o'er." But for the Welles aficionado, "Macbeth" provides an essential link between Welles' Hollywood years and the independent style of his European work.