Jim Hemphill (The Trouble with the Truth) Talks Roman Polanski’s Macbeth

Newly out from Criterion, Polanski's take on "the Scottish play" is a work of troubled genius which has long been unfairly overlooked.

Twenty-three years ago, I began a passionate relationship, forming an unwavering bond that has continued without interruption or disappointment ever since. I write, of course, of my relationship with the Criterion Collection. My first Criterion was a LaserDisc of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and it was love at first sight — at the time, watching a film at home in its proper aspect ratio with commentary by the director was still a huge novelty. As dozens (and eventually hundreds) of discs joined Taxi Driver on my shelf, it really did become like a love affair — to the extent that one of my actual human relationships ended when the woman I was dating asked me point blank if I loved my LaserDisc player more than her, and I couldn’t answer.

Now, I feel like my love for the Criterion Collection has grown stronger than ever before; we’ve been together for so long that the object of my affection is moving beyond the obvious charms of youth to reveal other, more profound satisfactions. Thanks to its age, Criterion has worked its way through a lot of the cinema’s acknowledged classics and thus has gotten more and more adventurous in recent years, putting out lesser-known but in many cases richer and more audacious works by the company’s favored directors. A case in point is their indispensable new edition of Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, which joins earlier Criterion releases of more widely acclaimed Polanski efforts like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. To revisit the film via Criterion’s exquisite new transfer is to rediscover a masterpiece — the greatest Shakespeare adaptation in the history of the cinema, and as perfect a film as Polanski (one of the most precise of all directors) ever made.

Macbeth has never taken hold of cinephiles’ imaginations in the way that Polanski’s other films of the 1960s and 1970s have, possibly because it was one of his few movies that wasn’t particularly appreciated in its time. There was never any doubt about the greatness of Knife in the Water or Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby or Chinatown — they were all sensations upon release, and their reputations have never changed. Macbeth, on the other hand, met with a mixed — and largely ignorant — critical response that had little to do with the content of the film itself, and from which the picture has never fully recovered.

A number of factors led to the movie’s critical dismissal by American reviewers, first and foremost being the circumstances of its financing. Macbeth was the first movie backed by Hugh Hefner and his Playboy empire, and many commentators of the time saw this as an indication of the film’s lack of seriousness. Why receiving funding from Playboy should have made Polanski any less serious than directors who were being financed by parking lot and sugar companies (the owners of Warner Bros. and Paramount, respectively), I have no idea, but the irony is that it was precisely because Polanski only had to answer to Hefner that he was able to pull off one of the great artistic triumphs of his career. Hefner, a lifelong movie buff and a huge admirer of Polanski’s, was a hands-off financier who left the director alone — enabling Polanski to unleash his imagination without fear or inhibition, creating a work of startling intellectual ambition and unbridled emotional and physical savagery.

That savagery is perhaps another reason why Macbeth was underrated in its own time. Although its graphic violence wasn’t a completely isolated phenomenon in the film culture of 1971 — The Wild Bunch was already a couple of years old — I do think there was something extremely unsettling about such brutality being thrust onto screen by a director who, as everyone knew, had recently lost his pregnant wife to a horrific, ritualistic murder. Even now, one flinches at the impalements, throat-slashings and decapitations that litter Macbeth, alongside images of dead children and a baby literally being ripped from its mother’s womb; it’s virtually impossible to watch the movie without thinking of Sharon Tate, and I have no doubt that’s exactly what Polanski wants us to do. He has always seemed the most fearless of filmmakers when it comes to facing the most horrible moments of his life head-on through his art, and the most unblinking when it comes to portraying evil and weakness.

Again, the early critics of Macbeth had it exactly wrong, dismissing Polanski’s film on the very terms that made it great — the violence has a fevered immediacy because it’s the work of someone who has been wrestling with the knowledge of just how brutal humans can be towards one another (a subject in which, as a Holocaust survivor, he’d already notched up a lifetime’s worth of education by the time he was 11). Besides, what was Polanski supposed to do, make a romantic comedy? His Macbeth is possibly his most personal and most wrenching film next to The Pianist; it incorporates many of his key themes (man’s thirst for power in all its grandeur and pettiness, the absolute horror and absolute absurdity of evil, etc.) and marks the apex of his visual mastery. I’m constantly surprised by how many of Polanski’s best films, including this one, are stage adaptations, since he’s such an expansive visual stylist with such rich widescreen frames. Yet it is precisely this tension between a constantly probing, dynamic camera and characters trapped in constricted spaces (both emotional and literal) that gives his work its power.

It goes without saying that a great deal of Macbeth’s impact comes from Shakespeare’s words, but all one needs to do to appreciate Polanski’s achievement is look at other adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, even those by great directors like Welles and Kurosawa. As fine as those films are, none has the visceral thrust of Macbeth, nor do they excavate the layers upon layers of meaning that Polanski and co-screenwriter Kenneth Tynan derive from their material. By casting Jon Finch and Francesca Annis as a young, attractive Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Polanski adds a whole new level of critique (and maybe self-critique?) to the play, conveying the intensity and pathos of misguided ambition and youthful overreach. Just as it’s impossible not to think about the Manson Family murders and the Holocaust during the film’s scenes of carnage, it’s difficult to watch Macbeth’s moral deterioration without looking forward to Polanski’s own abuse of power a few years later in the rape case that exiled him from Hollywood for good.

Thinking about all of this while watching Macbeth made me slightly more sympathetic to the movie’s critics, for while my admiration for Polanski’s films and their craftsmanship is unyielding, his value as a director is inextricably bound to what makes him, from some perspectives, abhorrent. It would be an understatement to say that Polanski is a guy with a very complicated psyche and a very distinctive perspective on morality; as a man who has been both victim and perpetrator of violent crimes (and as a cinematic technician beyond compare), he’s probably more qualified than any other major filmmaker to take on material like Macbeth.

Macbeth just might be Polanski’s greatest work of all, in the way that it expands upon a classic text and brings it to fiery, confrontational life. Let’s hope that the Criterion Collection’s coronation will inspire the widespread reevaluation the movie deserves.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker magazine, American Cinematographer and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.