Following the success of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, and prior to what is arguably still his greatest film, Chinatown (1974), Roman Polanski made three curious filmmaking choices. One was the international coproduction and rarely discussed What? (1972), one was the racing documentary Weekend of a Champion (1972), and the third, which actually came before these two, was Macbeth (1971). It is obviously not that a Shakespearean adaptation in itself is unusual, but rather that it so seemingly diverted from the films that were garnering the young Polanski his worldwide acclaim: taut thrillers like The Knife in the Water (1962), Repulsion (1965), Cul-De-Sac (1966), and Rosemary’s Baby. Yet in Macbeth, there are a number of characteristic Polanski touches — in story and style — harkening back to these previous works and in many ways pointing toward those to come.
Once the deed is done, an unceasing snowball of violence begins to roll, as Macbeth grows anxious and paranoid and he and Lady Macbeth both begin to mentally unravel. While Lennox speaks of “strange screams of death” the unruly night of Duncan’s murder, nothing could prepare the region for the conspiratorial turmoil that follows. Macbeth aggressively does all he deems necessary to secure his position, wiping out any and all potential adversaries, not the least of which is friend and fellow general Banquo (Martin Shaw).
Even before he goes on the warpath to his own destruction, Macbeth is shown to be prone to visions, seeing the dagger that directs him to enact Duncan’s demise, but as he descends into grief-stricken and murderous madness, his visions intensify. Haunted by Banquo’s death, he falls victim to delirious dream states of surreal panic. And as his breakdown progresses, he becomes more and more insular and suspicious, seeking refuge within the confines of his castle. In these sequences, we see prominent elements from many of Polanski’s finest films. The depiction of one’s progressive mental instability, intensified by paranoia and a sense of claustrophobia, revealed in Macbeth’s delirium and accompany delusions, and in the restrictive setting. Macbeth’s isolated castle is itself perched high on narrow mountaintop and within that, Polanski stages the drama to be even more withdrawn and visually tightening.
What is given considerable attention in these additions is a comprehensive account of the film’s tumultuous making (over budget, Polanski rumored for replacement) and its generally poor critical and commercial reception and meager release (the connotations of the Playboy name somewhat of a hindrance for “serious” filmgoers). There were, however, many positives, and that much of the production is discussed in a Dick Cavett interview with coscreenwriter Kenneth Tynan and in “Two Macbeths,” a 1972 TV episode with Polanski and theater director Peter Coe. The Polanski Meets Macbeth documentary contains some fascinating and revealing behind the scenes footage, including of the superbly realized movement of Birnam Wood. And Toil and Trouble: Making “Macbeth,” a documentary featuring interviews with Polanski, producer Andrew Braunsberg, assistant executive producer Victor Lownes, and Annis and Shaw, neatly covers the film’s gestation from beginning to end.
Though I’m by no means a Shakespeare film aficionado (or even a big fan), on the whole, Martin Shaw’s declaration in this latter documentary is reasonable. Given Macbeth’s visual accomplishments, the first-rate performances from all players, the excellent use of setting, and the overall production design, it very well may be the “best Shakespeare film that’s ever been made.”