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Macbeth (1971)

William Shakespeare may be the most successful screenwriter in Hollywood history, but his 1606 tragedy Macbeth had only been shot once in the modern film era — by Orson Welles — before Roman Polanski offered his rendition in 1971. Welles's film is widely regarded to be a small masterpiece, but Polanski's has since become one of the most lauded in the Shakespearean canon, in particular for its location shooting and blood-soaked realism. And Polanski didn't exactly choose the project at random either — forced to abandon The Day of the Dolphin after the brutal murders of his wife Sharon Tate and her houseguests by the Manson Family in August 1969, the Polish-born director left Hollywood and drifted through Europe for several months, battling depression and teaming up with screenwriter Kenneth Tynan to adapt the famous story of one man's "vaulting ambition" and colossal downfall. Jon Finch stars as Macbeth, the Scottish noble who is told by three witches that he will soon become the king. Macbeth dismisses the premonition, but he soon learns that he has been granted a greater title by King Duncan (Nicholas Selby), and that the monarch plans to visit the Macbeth household to stay an evening. Macbeth is pleased by his good fortune, but before long his wife Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) encourages her husband to slay the king and incriminate his sons — an act that leads to Macbeth becoming the ruler of all Scotland. However, both Macbeth and his wife find themselves wracked with guilt, visions, and creeping insanity, while opposing forces plan to remove the new king from power. After the Manson murders Roman Polanski had a hard time finding new projects in Hollywood, and Macbeth was an especially difficult project to earn financial backing until Hugh Hefner's Playboy enterprise signed on — Polanski's reputation seemed to fit Hefner's desire to expand his publishing empire into larger, more artistic arenas. Unfortunately, the film — shot in Wales and Northumberland, as well as at Shepperton Studios — went far over budget, and it did not connect with audiences who, in 1971, were enjoying the blossoming of New Hollywood directors. But time has been kind to the picture, and today it can be seen as a significant development in Shakespearean cinematic realism — launched by Franco Zeferelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet and fully realized by Kenneth Branagh's 1989 Henry V. Macbeth is a violent tale, and key moments here (the murder of Duncan, Banquo's ghost, the final battle) are bathed in blood and gore, leading up to a violent conclusion and a somber denouement. The days of Laurence Olivier's set-bound costume dramas were gone, and it was because of Zefferelli and Polanski that Shakespeare became a fully modern cinematic experience. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Macbeth features a strong anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby 2.0 audio, and the digital English subtitles are a must for fans new and old alike. The print, while intentionally a bit dark, remains in remarkably good shape. Trailers for Macbeth and Sense and Sensibility. Keep-case.

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