If you're unfamiliar with Shakespeare, a brief sketch of the play is as follows - set in 11th century Scotland, Macbeth a brave and loyal general hears a prophecy spoken by three witches, that one day he will be King of Scotland. Macbeth and his wife both ruthlessly ambitious, murder Duncan the ruling King, and Macbeth swiftly ascends to the throne. Macbeth however grows increasingly paranoid and tyrannical and murders all those who threaten his rule, and soon he and Lady Macbeth are consumed by despair, guilt and madness as their enemies move ever closer... Written most likely around 1606 for a special performance before King James I and his brother-in-law Christian IV of Denmark, Shakespeare in a sense tailors the play to his audience - the political intrigue, the treason in the court and assassination plots were highly topical of the day and James I was something of an expert on the subject of witchcraft having written a book on the practice in 1597 entitled Daemonologie, in which he advocated the trial and persecution of witches. Shakespeare's inclusion of the witches might have be viewed as a flattery towards his king, but it's one of the most powerful devices in the play and one could imagine a young Roman Polanski darkly impressed by these secret, black, and midnight hags.
In 1969 Polanski was in London working on a screenplay for Day of the Dolphin when he received a phone call from LA about the terrible events of August 9th. In the early hours of the morning his heavily pregnant wife Sharon Tate was savagely murdered by four members of the Manson Family. Polanski wasn't required to return to the US during the investigation and trial of Charles Manson and his followers, and decamped to a Swiss ski village where the idea developed to film one of Shakespeare's plays. Polanski later wrote in his autobiography that he was concerned that his next film would be greeted with huge interest, and immediately ruled out doing a comedy which he felt would be in poor taste. In fact Polanski had been considering making a film of Henri Charrière's novel Papillon but was now set upon the Shakespeare play. The project quickly gathered momentum. Polanski invited friend and English theatre critic and iconoclast Kenneth Tynan to co-write the screenplay with Polanski and reshape the original Shakespeare text for Cinema - streamlining the play into a manageable two hours with some tweaks and adjustments, like the use of internal monologues and showing the actual murder of Duncan, a scene which occurs off stage in the play.
From hero to hell-hound - Jon Finch as Macbeth
One of play's central themes is universal chaos, and it seems somewhat appropriate that financing for the film was partly received from Playboy Productions, the first and surely the last time Shakespeare and Hugh Hefner would share a credit. Rather than shoot the film in Scotland, Polanski settled on the highlands of Snowdonia and the beaches of Portmerion in northern Wales. Filming began in late summer of 1971 but unseasonably stormy weather had slowed the pace of the production considerably with Polanski grabbing only a few usable minutes of filming here and there before the cast and crew were forced to take shelter. Playboy's interest in the film was overseen by Film Finances who began leaning on Polanski to quicken the pace. Polanski wrote in his autobiography that Italian Job director Peter Collinson was hired to complete the picture if necessary but Polanski offered to waive his fee and in return Hugh Hefner injected more cash into the production earning the director a reprieve. Polanski completed the film in time for its US release in October and the film was released to lukewarm reviews, the film heavily criticised for it's nudity and gore, and there was controversy about Polanski's motivation for making such a violent film. The film fared better in the UK but this alone was not enough to recoup the film's production cost. Polanski had by then moved on and began working on an erotic comedy with Jack Nicholson in mind for the lead, a germ of an idea that would eventually grow into the absurdist 1973 sex comedy What?
Stars hide Your fires, let not light see my black and deep desires
From the opening sequence where the three witches gather on a windswept beach and ritualistically bury a dagger, a noose and a severed hand, Polanski's film depicts a world of cruelty and barbarism. Early on in the film, one of the king's subjects is hung for treason, pushed off the gallows with a heavy iron collar around his neck, his body left to hang for all to see. In another scene the exotic prize of a caged grizzly bear is tormented and provoked by members of the court until the poor beast is set upon by dogs and torn apart. There are images of blood and gore throughout the film - enemies of the king are vanquished with swords and spiked balls, while the murder of Duncan, violently stabbed by Macbeth, is starkly realistic (Polanski claimed that to film it any other way would have been an obscenity). There is almost no doubt that Polanski channeled the grief of his wife's death into the film, there are numerous signs throughout if you look for them, but two scenes are particularly resonant - when Macbeth gives instructions to two assassins to murder his general Banquo and his son, and the sequence where Macduff's wife and his child are brutally slaughtered while Macduff is safely ensconced in England - which echoes something Polanski wrote in his autobiography about that dreadful night at Cielo Drive - "To this day I believe that had I been there when the gang of three women and one man climbed over the fence and broke in, Frykowski and myself might have tackled them and between us driven them off"
Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble
Shakespeare's play had been previously filmed by Orson Welles in 1948 and in 1957 by Akira Kurosawa, both visually arresting works and Polanski's film follows in that tradition. Gil Taylor's magnificent 'scope photography expertly draws on the play's theme of light and darkness, the film perpetually bathed in that strange illumination known as magic hour, with the retreating sun an appropriate blood red. Among the visual highlights are the shots of Macbeth's castle looming over the horizon like a sinister spectre, or the blood soaked living dead Banquo haunting Macbeth's feverish imagination, and there's one particularly extraordinary moment where Macbeth's vision extends into a mirror, which extends into another mirror, and another and so on. Jon Finch, who previously appeared in Hammer's Vampire Lovers and Horror of Frankenstein does a fine job as Macbeth and tackles the complexities of Shakespeare's conflicted anti-hero with surprising skill. Francesca Annis equips herself very well in the role of Lady Macbeth. She's not quite the equal of Isuzu Yamada's equivalent in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, but nevertheless she makes for a fine wolf in sheep's clothing. Incidentally Annis was later cast as a very different Lady in David Lynch's Dune (playing Lady Jessica).
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?
Columbia's 2003 DVD is a fairly modest affair featuring a good serviceable 2.35 transfer. Aside from some spotting on the opening credits, the print is generally clean, sharp and colorful. Audio is fine overall, dialogue is clear and the memorably weird score by The Third Ear Band sounds robust. No significant extras aside from the trailer and who in Columbia's art department decided on the DVD artwork which inexplicably features a still of Martin Shaw's Banquo ? At the time of writing, a Blu-Ray edition has yet to be announced so the mid-priced Columbia DVD comes highly recommended.
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage