So this is what a Playboy-produced film used to look like. You know, back before they modeled themselves after their brainless FHM style spawns and were still at the very least attempting to inject some cutting edge material in between the shots of naked women with badly feathered 1970s hair. I know the joke is old and tired, but you know there used to even be something worth reading in that magazine. Not so much these days, from what I can tell. I have many vices, but Playboy ceased to be one of them round about the time it forsook that dapper jet-set lifestyle and became just another frat boy publication. And Playboy films? Don’t even get me started. Yeah, I’ve seen one or two. They’re awful erotic thrillers, which I know seems like a silly criticism to level at Playboy films until you consider for a moment that there, for a brief spell in the 1970s, Hugh Hefner decided to throw the Playboy name and money at Roman Polanski’s stylish, intelligent, and grim adaptation of one of Shakespeare bloodiest plays.

I have no idea what moved Playboy to finance Polanski’s dark vision of Shakespeare, but we’re all the better for their temporary foray into the world of gory arthouse cinema. Macbeth is a dazzling film, one of the best in the filmography of a director who seems to have an inordinate number of high points in his cinematic career, even if his personal life has been somewhat, shall we say, more questionable. This particular film comes fast on the heels of Polanski’s then-wife Sharon Tate being murdered by that crazed bunch of hippies calling themselves the Manson family. I think we’ve mentioned this somewhere before. Oh yeah, most likely in our review of Wrecking Crew the Dean Martin spy caper that starred Sharon Tate. If you don’t know the basics of the story, get yourself to a library (they still have those, right?) and look up the facts. All-around madcap guy Charles Manson sends a bunch of his freaks out to commit some murder, and it would seem when you string everything together, that they got the wrong people. That’s what happens when you send a bunch of blessed-out hippies to do your murderin’.

Manson’s grudge was against music producer Terry Melcher, who aside from being the son of Doris Day, was a music producer who had rejected a bunch of demo recordings Manson sent out to him when Chuck was trying to become a musician. The house in which Sharon Tate and other party guests were attacked by Manson’s band of loonies had belonged to him up until just a few months prior, so the general idea is that Manson was looking for some artistic revenge and just didn’t know the guy had moved.

So it’s pretty obvious that when Roman Polanski started working on Macbeth a short time after his wife’s murder, he wasn’t in the best of moods. It certainly shows in the final product, a film so relentlessly grim, bleak, and full of corruption and evil that it almost crushes the viewer with its gloomy weight. Even Shakespeare’s original play, itself already a macabre and darkly violent tale, pales in comparison to the ferocity of Polanski’s version. Beneath the grimy, enraged exterior lurks what may be the director’s best film, however, a movie of shocking brilliance and beauty despite the ugliness on parade.

Polanski sticks closely to the source material, or closer than is usual for an adaptation of a Shakespearean play. Jon Finch stars as Macbeth, the Scottish warrior who receives a telling prediction about his future as ruler of the land and so is driven into an increasingly violent cycle of madness as his own ambitions result in a self-fulfilling prophecy he does not even understand until it is far too late. Really, you should have read the thing by now. I’m not exactly the greatest fan of Shakespeare, but the man did pen some wonderful tales and Macbeth is one of his best. If you haven’t read it, then all I have to say is, “How the heck did you graduate from high school?” Teleport City is a firm supporter of literature and the classics, just as we are a supporter of the classics of film. So get thee to the bookstore and pick up a copy, and get A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Titus Andronicus while you’re there. The latter isn’t exactly good, but you’ll simply revel in what has to be one of the most shockingly violent and over-indulgent plays of its time.

When he encounters a group of witches one fine, rain-soaked and overcast Scottish day, Macbeth is told he will become king. When predictions start coming true, Macbeth is encouraged by his equally ambitious wife (Francesca Annis) to help fate along a bit by murdering the current king of Scotland, Duncan. One murder becomes several as Macbeth attempts to use bloodshed to control the increasingly out-of-control spiral into madness that consumes both him and his wife. Before too long, his own madness results in a revolt being mounted by the rightful heir to the throne and Macbeth’s one-time friend MacDuff (Terence Bayler). But since the coven of witches ensure Macbeth that no man born of a woman can harm him, he remains as cocky as he is stark raving mad even as armies amass outside his castle walls.

Cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare are often tricky. People tend to either want to “adapt it to modern times” a la the ten billion or so adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, or they stick so slavishly to the play that they might as well just have made a play instead of a film. Polanski was one of the first directors to really find that balance between play and film (Franco Zeffirelli had accomplished much the same thing in 1968 with his wonderful true-to-the-source adaptation of Romeo and Juliet). He sticks to the proper setting and costumes, and the dialogue is from the play. But he also makes terrific use of the scope format, only his second time working with a widescreen presentation. The windswept, overcast landscapes are suitably gloomy and overwhelming. The bubble with mist and menace and almost become a character unto themselves. Desolate beaches, muddy moors, decaying castles – the Dark Ages never quite looked so dark. But just as Polanski is really sinking into all this bleakness, he’ll do something unexpected with a vibrant splash of color and a rich purple-orange sunset which, combined with the medieval-meets-experimental music of the Third Ear Band, lends the film the surreal, macabre atmosphere that is imperative to its success.

But hey, we’re not talking Roger Vadim here, who was all visual and nothing else. Polanski not only commands the visual composition of his film; he turns in a superb script and some incredible performances from his cast, lead most notably by Jon Finch as Macbeth. He allows his character to teeter on then plunge into madness without ever allowing him to go over the top or chew the scenery. His performance lacks any sense of the cartoony or ham-fisted. He is, instead, desperate, lusty, and increasingly frantic and detached from reality. Matching him step for step is Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth, and the supporting cast though sometimes difficult to keep track of (owing to the armor, bushy hair, and dirt all over everyone) is wonderful. But then, they’ve given a near flawless script with which to work, one that manages to deliver pure Shakespeare without sounding stilted or phony. Even the more flowery passages of prose that they have to deliver sound completely natural. And viewed within the context of the year in which it was made, Macbeth’s reoccurring criticism of the corruption of political power, of cover-ups and deceit and the suffering of the people so a few bigwigs can extend their overlong period of political power, seem especially potent. The violent, almost apocalyptic turn the so-called Summer of Love took must have also influenced Polanski’s approach to the film just as it was reflected on a microcosmic scale by Manson’s murderous hippies. Luckily, our politicians these days are much more forthcoming and open and honest, and so I’m sure the biting and angry political commentary of Macbeth is outdated and even quaint.

Sets and costumes are also wonderful. Perhaps someone more informed about such things could point at a particular piece of armor and scoff at the fact that a Scottish king of this particular era would never have worn that particular breastplate, but for my money, everything was absolutely stunning. The castles and landscapes are as gorgeous as they are monstrous, and Polanski’s attention to detail is admirable. Nnote, for example, the opening scene of the witches on the beach. As they walk away, they leave no footprints. It’s almost something you don’t notice, but is ultimately another fine example of the amount of work Polanksi and his crew put into creating this sinister and supernatural nightmare. And, to be frank, one can’t help but see shades of Macbeth’s look and feel in 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It was there, however, used for creating a slightly less intense and dark atmosphere. Just, you know, slightly.

Being Macbeth and all, it’s a fairly violent affair. There’s a fair amount of gore on display, and for once, no one can trot out that “tame by today’s standards,” especially given how bloodless so many modern films have become, addicted as they are to flashy MTV visuals and cartoon style violence and CGI trickery. Macbeth’s bloodshed packs an impact even today, and although influenced not just by the play but also by Polanski’s own foul mood, this level of violence was just part of a greater pushing of the envelope for both sex and violence in a mainstream, intelligent film that occurred in 1971. It was the same year we saw the release of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, among others. Macbeth isn’t exactly full of violent conflict, but violence remains a character constantly onscreen even when it isn’t overtly exerting itself. There are, as in the play, several gruesome murders and Polanski’s lens does not flinch in showing the deeds. It must have been almost cathartic for the man in a way. And the ghastly finale as Macbeth and Macduff hack mercilessly away at one another (but then, is there a merciful way to hack away at someone?) culminates in some truly grisly stuff, but you have to expect that in both the play and this movie.

Sexually speaking, Polanski’s film is quite tame. Perhaps having Playboy and Hugh Hefner as executive producer required him to inject some naked female flesh into the proceedings, but given the way in which he accomplishes this possible contractual obligation, those looking for cheap titillation will be confounded. Of the film’s two nude scenes, one involves a coven of dirty, aged, and often deformed witch hags. The other involves a nude sleepwalking/dream scene with Lady Macbeth, who for the most part remains artfully cloaked in her own long hair. Then, I guess the nudity wasn’t all that out of the ordinary. Zeffirelli had shown rear nudity in Romeo and Juliet much to the delight of me and my entire 8th grade English class when our teacher showed us the film and forgot about the nudity. Of course, nowadays that would be national news and various blowhards would have “Talking Points” soundbites about it. Back then, it was just sort of, well, it’s a well-respected film and work of art so who cares about a bare bum? I think of things like this any time people trot out that “tame by modern standards” nonsense, since we’re far more restrictive and timid now than we were in the 1970s and even 1980s. From what I’ve read, some English classes also watched Macbeth in school, and that must have really traumatized the kids, more because of the violence than the sight of a bunch of naked old women. Maybe this movie is why Playboy decided from now on they’d stick to thrilling films like, The Girls of Spring Break, 2002.