Friday, September 6, 2013


“If you take material and filter it through me like a sieve, it’s gonna vaguely have my shape. I can’t hide that ‘signature’ any more than I can create it. It’s something that occurs. It’s DNA.”        
Robert Altman on the topic of directors subconsciously leaving their personal imprint on a film.

When Roman Polanski’s controversial film adaptation of Macbeth, William Shakespeare’s famously “unlucky” play (theater superstition has it that the play is cursed), flopped unceremoniously at the boxoffice, the director salved his wounded ego by complaining to any and all that the film’s poor reception was due to the public failing to believe his blood-soaked, graphically violent approach to Shakespeare's tale of a nobleman brought low by ambition and waning conscience, was in any way influenced by the Manson killings. Polanski felt his film was never given a fair chance because misguided critics and Freud-obsessed American audiences insisted on reading allusions to the brutal August, 1969 slaying of his wife (actress Sharon Tate) and unborn child into all those explicitly rendered, Shakespeare-mandated, stabbings, dismemberments, ambushes, beheadings, and infants from their mother's wombs untimely ripp'd. silly of us.
"It makes 'The Wild Bunch" look like 'Brigadoon'"
Or so one critic thought upon the film's release. Most of the bloodshed that traditionally occurs offstage in Macbeth is placed front and center in Polanski's adaptation. 

Polanski was right of course. Audiences at the time most definitely reacted to Macbeth as a film made by a director exercising questionable taste in drawing upon an unspeakable personal tragedy for artistic inspiration. But how could they not? His first film in almost three years, Macbeth was Polanski's follow-up to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and his first film since the cultural shockwave of the Tate/LaBianca Murders. I think it would be fair to say that at this point in his career, Polanski could have adapted The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore and audiences would still have scoured every frame looking for traces of what affect such a profound loss and personal trauma might have had on his work.

Roman Polanski is perhaps my favorite director of all time, but for him to have assumed it would be otherwise is not only naive, but smacks more than a little of a disingenuousness on his part. As one of the breed of filmmakers who greatly benefited from the “film director as star” cult that sprang out of the '70s "auteur movement," Polanski became the darling of both mainstream and avant-garde film by promoting his films as the creative end-result of his singular artistic vision. Whose fault is it then when audiences seek to detect traces of the director's DNA on the celluloid?
Jon Finch as Macbeth
Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth
Martin Shaw as Banquo
Terence Bayler as Macduff
John Stride as Ross
Both Polanski and co-collaborator Kenneth Tynan (the noted theater critic and literary manager of the National Theater Company) are terrifically faithful to Shakespeare's original text of The Tragedy of Macbeth, but make no mistake, this IS Polanski’s Macbeth. Good or bad, whether he likes it or not, Roman Polanski's cinematic fingerprints (not to mention copious amounts of blood) are all over this adaptation. Instead of denying it, perhaps it's time for Polanski to embrace it; for it is the infusion of one man's real-life fixations into the fictional story of another that wrests this Macbeth from its theatrical confines and brings it to vibrant, intensely compelling life. 
All the trademark Polanski templates and obsessions are in attendance: the bleak, empty vistas under ominous skies recall Cul-De-SacRepulsion's hallucinatory dream sequences are echoed in Macbeth's haunted nightmares; there's the coven of nude, elderly witches that hearken to Rosemary's Baby; and the coiled, masculinity-baiting tensions that exist between Lord and Lady Macbeth are not dissimilar to Knife in the Water's aggrieved married couple.
The Three Witches
Chaos, Darkness, & Conflict
So many familiar themes and motifs that later came to punctuate the entire Roman Polanski film oeuvre are present in fevered abundanceblunt, unsentimentalized violence; pessimism; a distrust of human nature; guilt; impotence in the face of destiny; black humorone might be forgiven for forgetting that Macbeth was indeed written by William Shakespeare in the 17th Century and not Mr. Polanski in the 20th.
Nicholas Selby as King Duncan

I’m not much on Shakespeare. The language is beautiful, I’ll grant you that, but the image I have of Shakespeare on film is one of lugubrious dramas with British actors in love with the sound of their own voices staring off into the distance delivering speeches. In tights, yet.
There are exceptions of course. I'm fond of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet – (1996), Titus (Andronicus) - (1999), and this, Polanski’s Macbethwhich is my favorite screen adaptation of a Shakespeare work. Macbeth, with its exceedingly high body count and concern with such relatable, base emotions as guilt, envy, and revenge, is a particularly impressive translation to film, not only because Polanski is a perfect ideological match for a tale about the poisonous imprint of ambition (Lord Macbeth and Rosemary’s Baby’s Guy Woodhouse would have a lot to say to one another), but as one of cinema’s great visual storytellers, Polanski’s command of the language of cinema enlivens the story by creating images as poetic and dramatically evocative as the words that accompany them.
As though summoned by Macbeth's own brooding temperament, dark clouds
 gather in the skies above Inverness castle as King Duncan approaches to meet his fate

Polanski takes the naturalistic approach to Shakespeare’s play, an approach that forges a psychological intimacy to the story, making the characters life-size and rendering their faults not ones born of evil natures, but of human weaknesses. The tragedy of Macbeth is that the darkness within him is only unearthed after his fortunes have taken an upturn and his future success ordained. Lord and Lady Macbeth are only truly unhappy with their lot after it has been prophesized that it is to be improved. It’s like the “entitlement” sickness that grips Americans today. People seem to have lost the knack of being happy with what they've got because everywhere you look they're being told that they should want more, that they deserve better…and worse…as citizens in the “land of plenty”, are entitled to it. Ambition for ambition's sake is the madness that grips Macbeth.
Lord and Lady Macbeth: Thwarted by vaulting ambition
Polanski, who knows all too well the corruptive allure of ambition and its close kinship to guilt, makes Macbeth’s conflict of conscience one disturbingly personal and frighteningly real.

In spite of Polanski's well-documented technique of micromanaging the hell out of his actors (which, given the level of performances he gets out of his actors, may well speak to the efficiency of the technique overall), naturalism dominates. His actors appear liberated and unfettered, their performances effortlessly lifting Shakespeare's characters from the printed page.
Macbeth’s boxoffice prospects were greatly diminished by the lack of star names attached to it (beyond Polanski’s, of course), but in Jon Finch (the late actor who starred in Hitchcock’s Frenzy) Polanski has an actor capable of tapping into the man behind the monster. Finch, whose dark, anxious eyes reveal more about the demons plaguing his character’s mind than any monologue can adequately capture, makes for a persuasively vulnerable, down-to-earth Macbeth. A performance refreshingly devoid of theatrical posturing and the arch striking of surface attitudes, Finch’s Macbeth is a man driven to malicious madness by weaknesses within him that he allows himself to be convinced are strengths.
Jon Finch's Macbeth is no speechifying protagonist. He's a man suffering
the disintegration of his soul in pursuit of ambition he scarcely knew he harbored.

Gender, sexual politics, and women as possessors of the only true power, have been recurring themes in a great many of Polanski's films (Cul-De-Sac, The Ghost Writer, Bitter Moon, Knife in the Water, Carnage, and his forthcoming Venus in Fur). Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth is tailor-made for Polanski's usual upending of gender roles in the service of dramatizing the subtle gynophobia that lies behind the uneasy alliance known as sexual relations in his films. 
In Francesca Annis, Polanski happily departs from the usual depiction of Lady Macbeth as natural femininity perverted by the "masculine" pursuit of power, and presents her as something of an intellectual barbarian equal to the physical barbarism displayed by the men. She is no better nor worse than those around her who plot and scheme, but hampered by the medieval limitations placed upon her gender, she operates within the only sphere allowed her: covert puppetmaster to her husband's implicit will.
Few critics in 1971 were able to get past her nude-sleepwalking scene, but Francesca Annis gives a very fine, understated performance as Lady Macbeth, both her fevered desire for the crown and eventual decline into madness are quite affecting.
"What, will these hands ne'er be clean?"
From his childhood eluding the Nazis in his native Poland, to the loss of his family to the Manson madness, one attribute of Polanski's real-life acquaintance with the naked face of horror has been his inability to see the need to paint evil as anything more than human, and anything less than something that resides within each of us.

Perhaps because I've never been partial to medieval costume dramas full of derring-do, pageantry, and heroic swordplay; I’m crazy about the squalid, gloomy look of Macbeth. Polanski gives us one of Shakespeare’s most unrelentingly bleak and depressing plays and serves it up with extra dollops of rain, murk, and medieval filth. There’s nothing romantic or even remotely cheery about it, and the effect is to ground Shakespeare’s larger-than-life themes of wrongs corrected and order restored into a cynically circular tale where suffering is as ceaseless and bleak as the horizon.
The graceful, romanticized fencing duels of the typical Shakespearean film are replaced by clumsily brutal bouts that highlight the awkwardness of the armor and the sense that what we are witnessing are not heroic battles, but lowly brawls and acts of aggression.

Although I dearly wanted to, I wasn't allowed to see Macbeth when it was opened. Not because my parents thought it was too violent for my tender age (I was 14), but because of all the pre-release publicity surrounding Lady Macbeth’s nude sleepwalking scene (so tame by today’s standards, the film could be shown in high school English classes) and the guilt-by-association tarnish of Macbeth being the premiere entry from Playboy’s newly-formed film division. (It’s reported that Polanski’s somber film got off to a bad start at press screenings when the title card, “A Playboy Production” was greeted with snorts of derisive laughter.)
The Macbeths find their nights plagued by sleeplessness
In any event, I’m grateful for having been spared seeing this film at a time when the horrors of the Manson case would have still been too fresh in my mind. As Manson's trial had only ended that same year, seeing the film just would have been too painful and depressing an experience. Now, with neither its nudity nor violence the incendiary focus they once were, it's possible to see Macbeth as one of the screen's more successful Shakespeare adaptations. A fact that remains even though time has yet to fully eradicate the cloud of sadness hovering over the violent events it recalls.
Polanski's Macbeth was released the same year as Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Ken Russell's The Devils. As you can imagine, the entertainment world was up in arms over what it perceived at the time to be the "new permissiveness" in films gone completely out of control. 
Both in interviews and in his memoirs, Polanski has spoken of how happy he was during the making of Rosemary's Baby; a fact easily attested to by Polanski delivering an ingeniously dark thriller that is nonetheless buoyed by a delicate black humor and obvious love of moviemaking. By comparison, Macbeth, as riveting a dramatization as it is, has an unshakable air of sadness about it (the real reason I think the film fared to score well with audiences), and feels at times like an act of hostility directed towards the audience. It's as if—in choosing to make the violence so graphic, gruesome, and in-your-facePolanski is enacting revenge on those who blamed him and his films for attracting the violence of the Manson crimes.
Critics like Roger Ebert took issue with Macbeth's wanton barbarism and the unfortunate resemblance of many of the knights to Charles Manson and his minions
Armed with the rejoinder that all of the violence depicted in Macbeth is Shakespeare’s, not his own, Polanski, subconsciously or not, decides to rub our faces in it. Outdoing any film he’s done before or since in terms of the depiction of savagery (even going so far as to provide a startling view of jeering crowds from the point of view of the already beheaded Macbeth), Polanski, perhaps feeling he would be damned by the public no matter what he did, opts for showing us a vision of a world the press had claimed he'd inhabited all along. A world of unremitting bleakness and hopelessness.

"When you tell a story of a guy who’s beheaded, you have to show how they cut off the head. If you don’t, it’s like telling a dirty joke and leaving out the punch line."
                                                                                                 Roman Polanski 

The suggestion that artists cannot help but leave behind a patina of some aspect of themselves on their work is a concept to which I strongly adhere. And in the case of an artist as gifted as Roman Polanski, such a belief only stands to further enrich the viewing experience. For me, his Macbeth, a film of haunting images both beautiful and horrificstands as a towering achievement in terms of one artist adapting the work of another (in this instance, a story ofttimes told) and fashioning it into something uniquely, exclusively...and to Polanski's regret...revealingly, his own.

Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009 - 2013


  1. As is always the case, I enjoy reading your reflections on a film even if I have never seen it (or may never!) You provide so much insight and food for thought about your movies and their context, impact, place in the scheme of things. Always a pleasure. As I was once overheard saying in the lobby of a theatre doing Shakespeare set in the old west, "If I'm going to sit through Shakespeare, I want some tights and codpieces for my trouble!" Always deep.... not!

    1. Ha! Well, I'm a bit with you on that one, Poseidon. I'm not sure you can get me to sit through Shakespeare on stage. Not without some kind of stunt casting like Cate Blanchett as Lady Macbeth, or a Hamlet with Charo as Ophelia.
      But Shakespeare in the hands of Polanski is another matter. He's like a psychologically aware Ken Russell. He has great visuals, but they're never just for show and he shakes off all the cobwebs of theatricality. I must also say, it helps a great deal to have that subtitle option on the DVD. Shakespeare's words aren't always so easy to make out in naturalistic settings.
      And I so appreciate that you find in my posts something interesting even if the film isn't one you personally have interest in. That's a great compliment! Thanks, Poseidon and good hearing from you!

  2. The film has a fascinating background, what with Polanski's experiences of violence and Playboy magazine producing it. The fact that it has no stars and is grim and violent makes it one of least seen Polanski films. I've seen it and what I remember most is Lady Macbeth trying to get rid of the spots and the floating luminous sword. I will watch it again. Thank you for your very informative review of the film and on Polanski's themes.

    I read Marianne Faithfull's follow-up to her great autobiography. In it she states that she auditioned for the part of Lady Macbeth. I think she would have been good, too.

    1. Hi Wille
      Polanski was a little prickly about how this film went over (his ego isn't small) but your sentence: "The fact that it has no stars and is grim and violent..." I believe is the real reason why the film didn't do well. Without some kind of big name star attached to the project, I honestly don't know who he thought was the audience for such a gloomy undertaking. Even Franco Zefferelli had the good sense to get Liz and Dick for "Shrew", and sold "Romeo and Juliet" as a youth-culture love story.
      "Macbeth"s odd association with Playboy was almost its sole drawing card.

      I'm reading a Polanski book now, and in addition to mentioning Marianne Faithfull, he states that his original choice for Lady Macbeth was Tuesday Weld (!) but she balked at the nude scene. Given that Weld was also his first choice for "Rosemary's Baby", I'd say Polanski harbored a bit of a Tuesday Weld fixation (and who can blame him?)
      Ah yes, that floating dagger...a critic said it looked like a video game.
      Cool that you actually saw this film though. As you say, it's one of Polanski's least seen films next to "What?"- which even I won't watch. thanks, Wille!

  3. Oh, you must watch "What?" which I have a soft spot for. It's nuts. You could not make such a film today or ever again. ("Nor would you want to" as many would say). It has some disagreeable aspects but also some good ones. I love Sydney Rome! It is an odd film without a following. It would be nice to read your opinion of it and to see if it has any of Polanski's themes.

    How could Tuesday Weld say no to starring in a Polanski film? Her loss, I guess.

  4. Wille!
    You're really the first person I know of who has actually seen it! It just sounds so awful. And because I thought "Vampire Killers" so very unfunny, I just avoided out of respect for my own time. Maybe I should give it a try...

    And as for Tuesday working for Polanski, boy, I wish that had happened at some point.

  5. "What?" is a little like a topless Alice in Wonderland. It has some Polanski moments in it, so I really think you should see it. Maybe you have to be in the right frame of mind first. See it as crazy dream you have while falling asleep on the beach on the Riviera on a hot summers day.

  6. I wasn't aware that Jon Finch passed away late last December. Just last year, I'd been fortunate to catch a couple of his films on the big screen at the Astor, namely "Frenzy" and "The Vampire Lovers"--excellent films. I thought that in "Frenzy", he was rather exceptional.

    "I never wanted to be a big star. I usually do one film a year, so I always have enough money to enjoy myself and keep myself out of the public eye. It's a very pleasant life, not one of great ambition." -- Jon Finch.

    1. Hi Mark
      Yes, regrettably, Jon Finch passed away very young. He was very good in "Frenzy" and indeed keep a low career profile. And from the quote you posted, it sounds like by doing so, he kept his sanity.

  7. I must agree with you, Ken, about the Fearless Vampire Killers. I do wonder what you think of The Tenant, one of my favorite movies, and one which dear friends of mine still haven't forgiven me for showing them.

    On Shakespeare adaptations, have you seen Ethan Hawke's Hamlet, set in 1990s New York? It features Bill Murray as Polonius, in the role he was born to play, and except for Liev Schreiber is very good all round.

    1. Hi Allen
      I am a huge fan of "The Tenant"! I rushed out to see it the day it opened in LA. I loved it (without fully understanding it) and always consider it a part of Polanski's unofficial "Apartment Trilogy": Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant.
      I've heard of the version of Hamlet you speak of. Maybe i should check it out. I've avoided Ethan Hawke after a bad experience with "Great Expectations" (didn't like him in it at all), but a Hamlet update with Bill Murray sounds promising! Thanks!

    2. That's _exactly_ how I describe those movies to friends. Anybody can make a horror movie about creaky old houses. Polanski makes them about apartment buildings. Hell is other people.

      I'll email you about my favorite scene in The Tenant, rather than spoiling the innocent.

  8. I was actually very lucky to see this at school of all places! Our very liberal open minded English teacher Mr Wells (a hero) allowed us to see both this and Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet because we were reading and studying both for our English GCSE's. As such all blood guts and nudity were available to our teenage eyes and minds. And Mr Wells took the time out to tell us how besotted he was with Olivia Hussey when he saw R+J in his formative years too.

    1. Hi Mark
      That's a terrific story about seeing Polanski's Macbeth in school! Given what an interesting adaptation of Shakespeare this is, I think it has a more responsible depiction of violence than your average PG-rated superhero movie. That teacher sounds pretty cool (anyone besotted with Olivia Hussey can't be all bad).

  9. The reason La Faithfull didn't get cast is that she was out of her mind on smack when she "auditioned". She also lost a role in Fellini's Casanova for the same reason (an audition she actually *shared* with a friend of mine -my housemate at the time- Fran Fullenwider, who played the Hogarthian Transylvanian in the fright wig in Rocky Horror Picture Show.

    Pity you haven't allowed yourself exposure to Shakespeare on the stage, perhaps as a child of the 50s growing up in Essex and London I was unusually lucky to be at the theatre most weeks when I wasn't in fact at the movies. And I had superb English O and A Level teachers. But it makes me a little sad that you've missed out on so much sheer theatrical pleasure. Ecstasy, even.
    Perhaps you might allow yourself to see Derek Jarman's interpretation of The Tempest. A real treat, although the DVD currently available hasn't been fully restored, and those gorgeous saturated colors have become quite muted.

    I can't understand the general hostility towards Fearless Vampire Killers; I adore that movie, and it seems obvious to me that it isn't actually supposed to be a comedy at all.

    1. Hi Iain
      That's some great background info on Marianne Faithful's audition history. Nice to know the truth and her reputation match up so well.
      I understand your feelings regarding my lack of fondness for Shakespeare. In fact, you sound a good deal like me when i encounter young people who express a disinterest in black and white or silent films.

      It's natural to wish that others would avail themselves of the myriad gifts and pleasures one finds in a favored art form.
      But in lieu of pitying them or feeling sad about any perceived emotional lack in their lives, I just harbor a hope that everyone finds for themselves the same level of soul-fulfilling joy I've discovered in dance, film, and theater. It doesn't matter that they find it in the same fields that I like, when it comes to the arts, I think it only matters that people care enough to allow themselves to be made to feel anything deep and personal about whatever art form they choose. Even if it's a form of art I don't particularly hold to be valuable.
      And thanks for the recommendation of Jarman's The Tempest. I loved the updated, 1982 Paul Mazursky version.
      Thanks very much for commenting and sharing your thoughts on the topics of Shakespeare and Polanski.

    2. After Rosemary's Baby my appreciation for Roman Polanski dwindled, with Chinatown he was back in my book again and after Bitter Moon I never wanted to see a Polanski film again.
      His Macbeth was the first one misfiring with me, but then, I'm not a Shakespeare fan. Saw the movie only once and I remember the scene where the children are found murdered - at the time there was a docu showing Roman meticulously pouring pig's blood, worrying if the goo might be too cold for the nude actors... Roman has always been too sensitive.
      The only other thing I remember from Macbeth is how the castle lord and his wife, woken up by the guards, walk barefoot into the court to greet the king, muddying the hems of their gowns as if the noble garments were nothing but farmer's overalls. Ah you were so right Roman, these were truly filthy, barbaric times.
      Then came the nonsensical What? I disliked Sydne Rome (a sorry excuse for a Mia Farrow clone, wasn't Mia's sister Tisa available?) and fortunately never saw her again. I also had no idea what the movie was about. Don't let me leave the movie theater with an empty head, never.
      Next came the monstrous Tenant, with too many Bramford references. Polanski himself is a remarkable actor, but what he did to his character seemed senselessly cruel to me.
      Pirates, rubbish. Frantic; how can anyone sign on Harrison Ford. Oliver Twist; another wrung out 'shakespeare'. come on! The Pianist was quite okay, but after watching ten minutes of Venus in Fur I clicked away vehemently.
      And all during the seventies I had been waiting for Polanski helming The Stepford Wives! The Boys from Brasil! This Perfect Day! with in between the sweet but utterly boring Tess, okay, Sharon had wanted him to do that one.
      So I'd rather remember his undiluted creative output between 1962-1968, and of course the brilliant Chinatown.
      Hum, just my personal taste, fans.

    3. Hi Willem
      Nice to see you checking out so many older posts!
      I'm with you in finding Polanski's "What?" - a film I took a long time to get to see - a mess. I just didn't enjoy it at all. And I really wish he HAD been involved in "The Stepford Wives."
      Had to laugh at the Tisa farrow line!
      I like that your opinion of Polanski is one arrived at from having actually seen so many of his films. It all does come down to personal taste, but the interesting thing is reading the particulars of how Polanski doesn't make the grade for you in his post-"Rosemary's Baby" films. Thank you for sharing your opinions so thoughtfully!

  10. Macbeth was always my dad's favourite Shakespeare play... So, when the Polanski film came out, my mum and I invited him... but when we got to the box office, he insisted on paying for the three of us (which made mum and me somewhat nervous).

    I think the opening zooming shot of the bleak beach caught our attention -- which never let up. Mum and I were relieved to hear dad's judgement -- that it was the best version he had ever seen.

    I wonder now, decades later, whether it was because battles were so unsentimentally depicted; my dad having survived WWII...

    All that aside, thanks for the insightful commentary.

    Just today, some Anglophone film lovers were talking about RP's latest, titled in France as J'Accuse (of course), and taking exception to the Cesar awards walkout. Roman Polanski is an exceptional director and, as you point out, has had an extraordinarily horrific personal history.

    And he knows how to horrify and scare us, too! I could hardly bear to watch Repulsion -- and Rosemary's Baby was really disturbing... I was worried when I heard he was going to make Tess... but he pulled it off.

    As always, a work or art stands or falls by it own merits. The backstory might inform one's sentiment, one way or another; but the work must stand on its own.

    And Chinatown is a masterpiece!

  11. Hello Elaine -
    What a splendid memory you shared of seeing MACBETH with your family. And it's certainly saying something that your father was so impressed with this screen adaptation of a favorite Shakespeare play.
    I just became aware of the latest Polanski film and the Cannes controversy due to your comments. No easy answers there.

    But MACBETH is a major achievement, and it's bleak, realistic vision holds up remarkably well after all these years. Putting the man aside, Polanski's work has always got to me...perhaps more than any other filmmaker. The artist has to come through in the art, and I think it's important that it does. But what that leaves for us viewers/audiences/listeners...well, I think that's for us of to parse out for ourselves.
    As you say, art ultimately has to stand or fall on its own merits.
    Thank you very much for reading this post, and taking the time to comment in a personal and very thoughtful manner. Your personal MACBETH story is really wonderful. Much appreciated!

  12. The greatest rendition of the "sound and fury signifying nothing" speech on film, period. Matter-of-fact, simple, true.

    "The Tenant", which I consider his greatest film with it's ferocious central Polanki performance and it's surreal allusions and metaphors of innate cultural anti-semitism, The Holocaust, and to Polanski himself led directly, in my opinion, to his 1977 arrest(and much debated about miscarriage of justice) in which that film played an unacknowledged and frighteningly reflective role to what actually played itself out in real life.