January 23, 2022


Macbeth as Film Noir Thriller : The Tragedy of Macbeth uses the sharp angles, intense close-ups, and geometric lighting of film noir to convey the dread of a tormented soul. (Mark Judge, 1/14/22, Law & Liberty)

In its newest film adaptation, the Scottish play also has another influence: film noir, the postwar style of filming that featured crimes, shadowy, morally compromised characters--including nasty, duplicitous women known as femme fatales--and often violent, bloody endings. Directed by Joel Coen in a rich black-and-white that seems to have come from the 1950s, Macbeth uses the sharp angles, intense close-ups, and geometric lighting of noir to tell the story of the ambitious 11th-century Scottish warrior who killed his own king in order to take the throne. Macbeth's mind unravels as he tries to control the fallout from his evil act. He is militarily defeated, then beheaded and replaced on the throne. It's like a medieval precursor to Double Indemnity or Body Heat. [...]

After the King, Duncan, hears the news that his best generals, Macbeth and Banquo, have defeated two invading armies, Macbeth is named the thane of Cawdor. Yet--as is the case with most politicians--it's not good enough. Macbeth has heard a witches' prophecy that he himself will be king and becomes possessed by reckless ambition. The Macbeths plot to murder Duncan in his sleep so that Macbeth himself can gain the throne. The sets on this Macbeth are very spare, like a modernist stage mounting of the play. There is an intentional artificiality to the sets, which ironically intensifies the realism. Just as the more abstract film noir settings can tap into an archetypical consciousness with sharp lines separating good and evil, Macbeth seems to live in a world outside of any particular time but deep within the human soul and its primal knowledge about evil.

At first, Macbeth has doubts about the plot, but when he expresses them, he is taunted, belittled, and ridiculed by his power-hungry wife. Lady Macbeth taunts her husband, telling him he's not a man unless he murders the king: "When you durst do it, then you were a man; And to be more than what you were, you would be so much more the man." When, after the regicide, Macbeth begins to imagine he is seeing ghosts, Lady Macbeth attacks: "You do unbend your noble strength, to think so brainsickly of things." Then she calls him a coward: "My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white."

Many of Shakespeare's female characters are strong-willed, witty, and able to match language with their male counterparts--yet they are also imperfect, flawed, and fully human.

In film noir, bad guys are often women: Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past, Gilda Mundson in Gilda, Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. The 1960 noir Gun Crazy was originally titled Deadly is the Femme Fatale. These women are not the sinless saints of modern #MeToo movies. They are brilliant, conniving, sarcastic, and sometimes downright evil. In other words, much more like real people.

Shakespeare didn't need the Production Code to tell him that the MacBeth's had to end up destroyed and dead.

Posted by at January 23, 2022 12:00 AM