Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Scottish Play by Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski's 1970 film, a nightmarish adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy is impossible to see without viewing the film through the prism of the Manson murders. It was Polanski's first film after the gruesome slaying of his wife Sharon Tate and the violence and oppressively morbid atmosphere of the film was greeted with considerable disdain by US critics who felt that the director was subjecting audiences to gore and images of death for the sake of exorcising his own demons. Polanski vehemently denied the charge claiming his decision to film Shakespeare's play was inspired by his own childhood memories of witnessing the brutal treatment of his family at the hands of the Nazis. It's difficult to say where the truth lies, but what is certain is the film is one of the director's most brilliantly realised works and a key film of the 70's.

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.

From hero to hell-hound - Jon Finch as Macbeth
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.

Stars hide Your fires, let not light see my black and deep desires
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?

Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble
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"

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?
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).

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
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.


  1. Great article - and it's funny that I come upon this, as I've been reading MacBeth lately.

    I was only vaguely aware of this adaption, but after hearing some of the details, I'm definetly intruiged.

    Admittedly, I haven't seen too much of Polanski's work, only Chinatown, I believe, and this would be a good oppurtunity to sink my teeth into his work.

  2. Not superstitious by any chance, Wes? :-) I remember seeing this at school before I had any idea of who Polanski was, and being completely taken a back by the brutality of it. Like you, I can't help watching any of Polanski's films without thinking about the darkness in his life and that makes watching them all the more uncomfortable. But I was always intrigued by the films he didn't make, like as you say, Day of the Dolphin. The Mike Nichols film is pretty forgettable I think, wonder what Polanski would have made of it? Also, Downhill Racer. Again, not one of Michael Ritchie's best, but how would Roman have done it? Great write up!

  3. Tumac, the film is well worth tracking down, it's my favourite Polanski, even trumping Repulsion which is a hard act to follow. I remember first seeing the film in school, when I was 15 and the screening was promptly abandoned, the teacher totally unprepared for the grisliness (which everyone loved). As I recall, it was hastily replaced by the BBC production of Othello with Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins (a fine production I might add)

    Jon, well spotted ! Just for fun I set myself the task of not mentioning the name of the actual play lest I invoke the curse and bring doom on the blog... I haven't seen the Mike Nichols film but I'm sure you're right, Polanski would have made something special of it. I must say I like Downhill Racer, I saw it a few years ago and I thought it was a great discovery. I liked it better than The Candidate...

    Many thanks for the great comments guys !

  4. Fantastic write up, Wes. This is one of the few Polanski films I have NOT seen. I remember our teacher in school debating whether she should let us see this version when we were studying the play. She opted for a toned down BBC production staring Patrick Stewart.
    I remember seeing Mark Cousins interviewing Polanski on Scene by Scene years back, and the director becoming rather outraged when Mark suggested that Polanski had channelled the grief of his wife's death into the film. This is all stuff I'll be bearing in mind when I eventually come to watch Macbeth.

  5. Many thanks James, I hope you see the film soon, I would love to hear you thoughts. You would imagine Polanski to be a tricky interviewee, especially with the business of the underage girl... But what a strange and fascinating life Polanski has led - whenever I see Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous I think the young actor who played Crowe's younger self was born to play Polanski - the resemblance is quite striking... I miss Mark Cousins, and Alex Cox and the fabulous run of Moviedrome - I saw some of the most important films of my life on BBC2. Didn't film programming on TV seem so much better before the DVD era ? I have the complete series of Cousins' Story of Film on the Sky planner but have yet to put aside time to watch them, something I must organize soon...

  6. I hate to admit it, but I ended up missing Cousins' History of Film series. I went to see him a few weeks back though, when he came to Belfast to screen 'selected highlights' from it. Remarkable stuff. I really want to see the whole thing now. And hearing him talk about cinema reminded me just how much of an influence he had on my taste in films back when I was just becoming interested in cinema - his Scene by Scene with David Lynch fuelled my later obsession with Lynch. Yup. I was one of those annoying film students with an Eraserhead t-shirt and *very important opinions* on Lost Highway. Thanks Mark Cousins! ;)

  7. Not to worry James, the entire series of Story of Film is out now on DVD. I must catch up with the series myself, recently I've found myself going thru something of a film slump, so a shot in the arm is required...