Macbeth – Olive Signature Edition (Blu-ray Review)

MacbethOrson Welles is forever known for changing cinema as we know it and crafting a good handful of films that are timeless classics.  Time is a kind passage to some classic cinema as well, in that most of his works that were deemed as failures or disappointments are able to be reassessed as time goes by and find a new audience that appreciates or is ready for a film that may have been ahead of its time, or just not quite understood when it was originally released theatrically.  Macbeth is one of those for Orson Welles.  While not perfect or a forgotten masterpiece (Like Touch of Evil), Welles take on Shakespeare proves to have some strong merit where it had been pretty much panned and even recut at the demand of the studio following its debut in 1948.  Luckily here, Olive Films Signature Edition not only has both versions, but a pretty solid package to look back at the film in their latest release which will be streeting Noevember 15th.


Something wicked this way comes in Orson Welles’ cinematic retelling of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Welles stars as the titular Macbeth—a doomed Scottish lord tragically undone by his own ambition. Welles’ noir-tinged interpretation bubbles over with supernatural prophecy and murderous intrigue, effectively mixing the use of shadow and oblique camera angles to achieve an ominous sense of a land in peril.

First off, I can’t hold back on my love for the lighting, sets and photography on this film.  Its a bit noir and Gothic at the same time.  Everything here is quite a gorgeous spectacle.  I feel like Mario Bava pulled from this movie for inspiration on his 1960 horror classic Black Sunday.  While things very much look like sets here, the provide a surreal feel and look like a haunted dream moreso than a play captured on celluloid.  Costumes are also enhanced by these factors too.

Why do I marvel at this so much?  Well, because this movie was SUPER SUPER cheaply made.  It used generic costumes from some random store to go along with reusing sets from westerns that were being made over at the studio producing this film.  No, there’s no forgiving Welles statue of liberty crown, but the remainder of things here are shot around or lit to hide any of this and make the very best of what they hand and its one of the scariest looking movies you’ll see.

Welles made some changes to the Shakespeare’s work for this film version.  You also kinda do when you adapt (Something a LOT of people still don’t understand).  One I like best are the use of the witches at the the beginning and end of the film.  They’re very iconic, creepy and a hell of a lot of fun.  They might be the biggest thing to pull from the film.  As I mentioned Bava earlier, you can see ripplings of them in something as recent as Rob Zombie’s film Lords of Salem.

Aside from Orson Welles, there are some other really fun cast members to see in early (Or before we’d really get to know them) roles.  We get a baby faced Roddy McDowall here, who was just entering one of his first non-child star roles.  Alan Napier, who would go on to play Alfred in the 1960s Batman TV series, is the priest in the film.  And unrecognizably (and maybe only cool to me) is Dan O’Herlihy himself.  THE Conal Cochran that tried to kill all the children on Halloween night in 1982!  He was also the old guy from the first Robocop film.  He’s super young here and my eyes popped open wide when his name showed up in the credits.

Macbeth was a hair slow for me even though I was loving LOVING the visuals and camera work in the film.  It started out on a big high with the witches, but then sorta just hung around.  The source allows for some great dramatic sequences and there are some exciting battles, but I just wasn’t completely won over.  Its solid though, and a definite collector’s item for Welles’ fans and film history buffs.

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Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail:  Macbeth features a new high definition image for this release.  Not sure if that means they tinkered with the old one or did a new transfer.  However, it looks quite noir-like and beautiful in this gothic, haunting looking film.  You can even make out folds and scratches on the backdrop cloth for certain scenes in the film (a fun little charm). Details are quite good, with both the sets and characters emitting plenty of intricate details despite how dark the film’s look is.

Depth:  Depth work is pretty decent here.  Characters all look free of the backdrops, moving around smoothly and cinematically.  There’s a good push back and feel from foreground to background imagery as well.

Black Levels:  This is a very dark expressionistic film, abut the blacks, while deep and rich, manage to enrich the overall quality of the picture.  Details, like clothing texture, hair follicles and rock definition all comes through quite well.  Shadows, darkened scenes and the like all look quite haunting and lovely.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones:  Skin tones are white/gray and keep a consistent look with the lighting a scene falls under throughout the film.  Details like stubble, make-up, dirt, face lines, sweat and such all are apparent in medium and close-up shots.

Noise/Artifacts:  There is a nice layer of inherent grain as well as some dirt/specs.  There a couple moments of flickering a some scenes have some light streaks in them.

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Audio Format(s): English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD MA

Subtitles: English SDH

Dynamics:  Macbeth’s mono audio track finds a very good representation in this presentation.  There are some good moments of lower frequency in storms and such.  The balancing of score, effects and vocals is well done with each being able to shine without stomping on the other’s foot.  This film carries a bit of an audible hiss from its analog roots that adds to its genuine feel.

Height: N/A

Low Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction:  Dialogue is good and clear.  Its really well rounded and layered, finding the fullness of their voices.  That, or Welles legendary voice is just that amazing.

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Macbeth – Olive Signature Edition is a 2-Blu-ray Disc set that contains a booklet featuring an essay titled “Orson Welles’ Macbeth” by Jonathan Rosenbaum.  The first disc contains the 1948 version of the film an the second has the 1950 cut.

Disc 1

Audio Commentary

  • With Welles Biographer Joseph McBride

Disc 2

Welles and Shakespeare (HD, 11:56) – An interview with Welles expert Professor Michael Anderegg.  He goes over the three Shakespeare films in Welles’ ouvre (Macbeth, Chimes at Midnight, Othello).  Anderegg mores covers the most depth on Macbeth and focuses on the introduction and Christianity pull on the film (Old guard going as the new religion is being swept up).

Adapting Shakespeare on Film (HD, 8:19) – A conversation with Carlo Carlei (Romeo & Juliet) and Billy Morrissette (Scotland, PA).   The two directors discuss their love for Welles’ Macbeth as well as just the original story.

Excerpt from We Work Again (HD, 7:14) – A 1937 WPA documentary containing scenes from Welles’s Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth.

That Was Orson Wells (HD, 9:49) – An interview with Welles’s close friend and co-author Peter Bogdanovich.  I love that they got Bogdanovich again to talk a legendary Hollywood icon.  Here he talks his close friendship with Orson Welles.  He talks their first meeting, the kind of personality he had, and squashes longtime staples of his personality calling him one of the most “economical” directors as Welles is always referred to as spending lots of money (But, honestly, Bogdanovich has a good point on it).

Restoring Macbeth (HD, 8:22) – An interview with former UCLA Film & Television Archive Preservation Officer Robert Gitt.  He goes over the challenges in putting back together the original 1948 version

Free Republic: Herbert J. Yates and The Story of Republic Pictures (HD, 6:35) – With archivist Marc Wanamaker talking about the producer and how Republic Pictures came to be and their style of releasing genre a b-westerns.  This is the same featurette that Olive Films included on the Johnny Guitar Signature Edition.

Orson Welles’s Macbeths” (HD, 10:02) – An essay by critic Jonatahn Rosenbaum. The same one featured in the booklet.

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Orson Welles’ Macbeth is an interesting little experiment.  I rather like his additions and think the photography is lovely to look at.  Olive Films’ new Signature Edition Blu-ray is made easier to look at by a great transfer and your ears hear it quite well with a terrific mono track.  The film is now loaded with some good, educational extras that garner a better understanding and appreciation for it.  Currently, a film in the Signature series is a safe bet, and Macbeth is no different.


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