Out of all of Shakespeare’s back catalog, Macbeth has perhaps been the best cinematically served, with such Hall of Famers as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Roman Polanski applying their distinctive worldviews to the material. (Polanski’s 1971 version, his first film following the death of Sharon Tate, is still an amazingly tangible, all-encompassing ode to mud and blood and smoke and shit.) From the first frames of relative newcomer Justin Kurzel’s adaptation, it becomes apparent that his method of putting his stamp on the prose is to, well, ruthlessly pare away much of the prose. While the Big Scenes are rendered with a ravishing starkness, the connective tissue that’s allowed to remain tends to fall away into a low-toned dirge. Even those viewers unfamiliar with the source material may sometimes feel like they’re flipping through a brutally gorgeous set of CliffsNotes.
The legend of Orson Welles looms so large it overtakes the man, a legend partly engineered by Welles himself from his beginnings in the theater. Welles was the enfant terrible of Broadway, the Depression-era hope of American Theater, the radical genius of radio. He came to Hollywood in grand style and on his own terms, a display of egotism so great that the Hollywood establishment turned up its nose and waited for his comeuppance. And he got it three times filled and running over, as far as they are concerned.
Welles completed only fourteen features in his lifetime, five of them Hollywood productions (it’s hard to consider the Republic-backed Macbeth, 1948, a studio film) and only one of those, Citizen Kane (1941), completed to Welles’ satisfaction and released in its intended form. It has been so longed hailed as “the greatest film ever made” (Sight and Sound and American Film Institute polls made it official for a time) that it’s become a dry truism. Along with its creator (and let’s face it, Pauline Kael was simply wrong: this is Welles’ creation), the legends surrounding the film have long overshadowed the actual production. Above all, Welles was a showman and Citizen Kane a three ring circus of cinematic ingenuity, a startlingly entertaining blend of dime store melodrama, historical biography, detective story, political drama, storytelling confabulation and plain old theatrical flourish. It has a cinematic brio and love of expressive possibilities that you rarely see from directors coming to the movies from the stage, but it also is a terrific piece of storytelling. Welles brought an understanding of power of sound design from the radio and applied a sophisticated, layered soundtrack and a pioneering piece of dramatic composition by Bernard Herrmann for the score. Stunningly designed to appear bigger and more lavish than its budget would support, brilliantly lit and shot by Gregg Toland with a creative invention that pushed the envelope of motion picture photography, Citizen Kane is a vital, exciting moment of American cinema brought back to life with every viewing.