Macbeths we have known

Matt Sussman June 29, 2007

The all-knowing IMDB lists over 60 films based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. As with most adaptations of the Bard’s work, fidelity to the original varies in great degree: for every faithful filming of the stage play (and those number 48), starting with J. Stuart Blackton’s 1908 silent short, there are enticing wild gambits such as "Rave Macbeth" (2001) or "Macbeth 3000: This Time, It’s Personal" (2005). While the following list may hold few such surprises, these adaptations are some of the most intensely unsettling (and most cinematically rich) re-stagings of what is arguably one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays. Did we forget to mention that a brand new adaptation opens this week? Straight outta SF360 Film+Club and now at a Landmark Theatre near you: Geoffrey Wright’s underworldy teen "Macbeth."

1. Macbeth (1948) (dir. Orson Welles)
A creeping dread hangs over Welles’ shoestring production like the machine-spewed fog that cloaks every scene. Shot over 21 days with his theater company en route to a festival in Utah, Welles’ "Macbeth" may have been a critical and commercial disaster but it has atmosphere in spades.

2. Joe MacBeth (1955) (dir. Ken Hughes)
This is for the insatiably curious only. Ken Hughes "noir" relocation of the Scottish tragedy to Mob-riddled New York can be seen as an earnest attempt to reclaim Shakespeare from the cultural elite and make him a populist author again. The film falls flat, and hard, on its face, despite Ruth Roman’s unsung turn as power-hungry moll Lily MacBeth.

3. Throne of Blood (1957) (dir. Akira Kurosawa)
As always, Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune is a force to be reckoned with in this haunting re-staging of Macbeth. in feudal Japan, but "Throne of Blood" really belongs to Isuzu Yamada. Her performance as Lady Asaji Washizu — snow-white Kabuki make up rendering her almost a ghost, even before her descent into madness — is as malevolent as it is strangely sympathetic.

4. The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971) (dir. Roman Polanski)
This might as well have been called "The Tragedy of Polanksi." The director’s first film after his wife and unborn child’s brutal murders at the hands of the Manson family, "The Tragedy of Macbeth" is unrelentingly bloody (Duncan’s on screen death isn’t detailed in the play). One can’t help but feel that we are watching the "eye for an eye" revenge fantasy of a man whose own life had been utterly destroyed by violence.

5. Opera (1987) (dir. Dario Argento)
While not a proper adaptation of Macbeth., giallo master Dario Argento’s late masterpiece Opera uses the theater world superstition of Macbeth.-as-cursed-production as a springboard for elaborate murder sequences, incredible birds-eye tracking shots, and one of the most breathless twist endings of all time. A postmodern production of Verdi’s Macbeth. is thrown of course, as members of the cast and crew meet nasty ends — which the star understudy is forced to watch thanks to some well places needles.

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