Shakespeare Is Cinema: Film Forum’s “Stratford on Houston”

Orson Welles in Welles’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1965). Courtesy Janus Films. Playing January 1-12.

Stratford on Houston
January 13-21 at Film Forum

As long as there were movie producers who needed to legitimize the mongrel Seventh Art with the finer things, Shakespeare has been close at hand. His relationship with pictures precedes Chaplin’s Little Tramp and The Perils of Pauline, and goes at least as far back as Frankenstein’s monster and Sherlock Holmes.

His cinematic practitioners were legion, but it was Orson Welles who towered over them all. Contrary to a persistent but thankfully increasingly unfashionable misperception of his career, the Citizen Kane wunderkind not only didn’t decline after his 1941 debut, but was arguably at the peak of his powers when he directed and starred in Chimes at Midnight in 1965, its script a suture of five Shakespeare plays, but focusing largely on the jovial knockabout Falstaff and his pal Hal, the latter of whom would eventually transform into the sober King Henry V. As he never stopped inventing and imagining after Kane, Welles’s masterpiece will blindside viewers expecting the staid, sexless treatment often reserved for the Bard onscreen. Broadly a story of politics and warfare stealing youth and absorbing vigor, Chimes teems with explosive movement and energy, bracketed on both sides by sad remembrance.

Fast on the heels of a new restoration of Chimes at Midnight, Film Forum is running eleven of the best-regarded English-language adaptations of the Bard’s work, all made between 1948 and 1971. Their pedigree ranges from Welles’s hardscrabble proto-indie pluck, subsidizing shooting days with acting gigs sometimes a little less dignified, to US/European coproductions of the 1960s, to high-gloss Hollywood prestige productions—i.e. Stratford-on-Metro.

It isn’t any contest that Welles’s two entries in the series, Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), outstrip the other films in terms of visual panache and low-/no-budget ingenuity. With money or without (Macbeth was a threadbare production for Republic, a studio primarily known for economical westerns and serials; Othello became Welles’s own baby after Italian production money pulled out in 1949), Welles’s mastery of illusion extended to his ability to spin elaborate production design out of little more than lighting and suggestion. Othello was shot over years and continents: the seams may sometimes show, but the vortex of Welles’s imagery exerts a hypnotic force, all in the service of delivering a potent adaptation of the tragedy of the Moor of Venice.

After A Streetcar Named Desire assured his ascension, Marlon Brando’s newfound stardom was put to use in two decidedly non-intuitive projects, the second of which was a high-caliber adaptation of Julius Caesar at MGM. The director was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, still fresh from back-to-back Oscars for directing All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives. Less talked about today than some of the more visually distinctive directors to work at Metro during this period, Mankiewicz had a knack for making language and gesture instruments playing together in time—a true master of the ensemble. You might not remember what his Julius Caesar looks like, apart from its silvery sheen, but the unity of its cast, hunched and feverish by the increasing desperation of the Bard’s politically-conscious tragedy, is undeniably impressive.

Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Franco Zeffirelli’s ROMEO AND JULIET (1968). Courtesy Film Forum. Playing January 17 & 18.

As the reign of the studio system began to draw to a close in the late 1960s, intrepid producers found money abroad. Franco Zeffirelli enjoyed a brief vogue with two consecutive adaptations, the first (The Taming of the Shrew) given a leg up by the star power and funding of legendary power couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Warmly remembered, Shrew’s success was eclipsed by Romeo and Juliet, his follow-up a year later. The tragedy of the star-crossed lovers had already been adapted several times before (most famously in 1936, with George Cukor at the helm), but Zeffirelli’s version, shot in Italy with a cast of players who would hardly be recognized by American audiences at the time, somehow struck a chord and experienced Minions-caliber box office. A shower of Oscar nominations followed (including two wins), and the prestige costume genre, with money from anywhere, had its second wind.

Not too many years after, the haunted Rosemary’s Baby auteur Roman Polanski made his own Macbeth, a strange bird that might well be credited for kickstarting the “gritty reboot”; his take on the Scottish play is bloody, grimy, and reeks of all manner of bodily effusion. If it could smell, it would smell bad. It’s all the more impressive that Polanski’s Macbeth is equally redolent with atmosphere and troubled emotions: guilt, paranoia, bloodthirst. It’s among the earthiest of movie Macbeths.

Possibly the greatest film in the series is Throne of Blood, a continent- and period-shifting adaptation from Akira Kurosawa, who worked on the script with three frequent collaborators (Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryûzô Kikushima), relocating the Scottish play was to Shogun-era Japan, with Toshirô Mifune in the lead. Memorable for rendering the soothsayers who seal Macbeth’s fate into one pale ghost in the deep wood, Throne of Blood counterbalances haunting and foreboding with enormous scale in gesture and production design. One of the most meticulous of the major directors, as well as one of the most painterly, Kurosawa is in peak form here, disciplining his broad canvases with precisely choreographed movements that blast emotion even in silence.

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