Francesca Annis and Jon Finch

In 1971, less than two years after his wife, Sharon Tate, and unborn child had been murdered by Charles Manson and his mad followers, Roman Polanski went to work on his version of Macbeth (aka The Tragedy of Macbeth). “Exorcising the demons” is how the result is often described. Whether you buy into the pop psychology or not, this commercial flop is a bloody and brutal film, and a remarkably powerful one – direct, cinematic, taut and… yes… bloody.

Polanski got in Kenneth Tynan – at the time the UK’s most famous critic, the literary manager at the National Theatre and infamous as the first man to say “fuck” on British television – to help him adapt Shakespeare’s play. Together they produced something that’s faithful to the original but also modern and sleek, which takes pains to keep the audience abreast of the salient plot points by repeating them (count the number of times Dunsinane is mentioned, and the “no man of woman born” twist on which Macbeth’s fate hinges).

But I’m getting ahead of the plot, which remains essentially the same. Macbeth, Thane (ie Lord) of Glamis, is told by three witches he meets on a “blasted heath” that he will in time become Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland, but that his children will not be kings. That honour will go to his companion, Banquo. Macbeth’s interest is instantly piqued but, after tossing the wild notion around for a while, he comes to the conclusion that the witches are most likely talking nonsense. And then he gets back home to his castle and discovers that the King has indeed made him Thane of Cawdor. Realising suddenly that fate has his back, Macbeth embarks on another, much more furious, debate with himself. He could just let events take their course – the kingship will surely come his way anyway. But irrationality has soon barged reason out of the way. Egged on by his wife’s taunts that he’s too “full of the milk of human kindness” (© William Shakespeare) and isn’t man enough to do the job, Macbeth kills King Duncan and seizes the crown before turning his attention to Banquo…

It does not end well, and in the Tynan/Polanski realisation, much blood is shed on screen in scenes that horrified many cinemagoers. Crew members too. When one questioned the director’s bloody take on Shakespeare’s play, Polanski apparently replied, “I know violence. You should’ve seen my house last summer.”

There are echoes of the Manson murders everywhere, not least in the skew that Tynan and Polanski have put on the Macbeth/Lady Macbeth relationship. Gone is Lady Macbeth as the driving force behind Macbeth’s murderous spree. Here Macbeth is a weak man driven into a kind of psychosis by the voices in his head (Shakespeare’s soliloquies brilliantly repurposed). Psychology trumps the supernatural.

This is a film that gets just about everything right. The casting is perfect, with Jon Finch, in his late 20s at the time, the right age to play a man in a hurry who feels he’s paid his dues and now it’s time to collect. He’s a handsome and petulant Macbeth, a silly and insecure man who goes so far as to aping the vocal timbre of the dead king after assuming the crown, because that’s how kings talk, right? Martin Shaw as the steadfast but not stupid Banquo, Nicholas Selby as the noble and gracious (and soon to be dead) King Duncan, Terence Bayler as the believeably tough Macduff, the man not “of woman born” who will prove to be Macbeth’s nemesis. Francesca Annis’s Lady Macbeth, a woman with a sexual hold over her husband, eyes aglow with ambition.

Terence Bayler as Macduff
Macbeth’s nemesis Macduff

Polanski works hard to open the play out. Shooting in castles in Northumberland, or out on wild moors and the mountainsides of Wales, he keeps the camera moving and fills his frames with armies receding in the distance, or pigs rummaging in the dirt in the foreground. In dialogue-heavy scenes filled with characters constantly in motion, he anticipates Aaron Sorkin’s “walkie-talkie” style by decades.

Polanski is abetted by the brilliant cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, whose CV ranges from Ice Cold in Alex and A Hard Day’s Night to Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy and Star Wars – yeh, not bad. Gilbert puts a spin on standard British historical drama with lighting that’s bright (like A Lion in Winter or A Man for All Seasons, say) but not over bright. There’s nuance, shadow, murk.

If the lighting is Gilbert’s, many of the camera positions are Polanski’s own. He apparently had a habit of grabbing the camera off his director of photography and repositioning it, which must have been infuriating, but there’s always been something magical about Polanski’s ability to create drama from his camera positions and lens choices.

The music is again an inspired choice, with Third Ear Band mixing the hey nonny nonny generic medieval noodling spoofed so well in Monty Python and the Holy Grail with bagpipe-inspired synth drones loaded with foreboding. They even appear, up in the minstrels gallery, in a scene of feasting before the blood-letting gets going in earnest.

No one would finance this film, until the Playboy organisation stepped in. Hugh Hefner (as Hugh M Hefner in the credits) lost a fortune on the movie but to his credit he’s not trying to turn this into a showcase for his soft porn empire. The much discussed moments of nudity are hardly “Here it is, boys” moments – Lady Macbeth’s naked sleepwalking scene makes tasteful use of Francesca Annis’s long, long hair and the roomful of naked “hags” Macbeth encounters when he goes to consult the witches again are hardly centrefold material either. Props to Hefner. If only Penthouse Magazine had taken note when they were financing Caligula later in the decade.

Er… brilliant, in short, and clearly a massive influence on Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Perhaps Kurzel is even more brutish, but Polanski is bleaker.

Incidental point. In what’s usually known as “the Scottish play”, not a Scottish accent to be heard. Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth was hardly awash with them either. And the upcoming Joel Coen-directed The Tragedy of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, looks like it’ll not be genuflecting in that direction either.

Macbeth – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Jack Nicholson bears the scars of combat in Chinatown


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



24 June


The Aqua Traiana inaugurated, 109

On this day in 109, the aqueduct the Aqua Traiana was put into service. Built on the orders of the emperor Trajan, it supplied Rome with fresh water. Rome’s appetite for water was huge and among the things the Aqua Traiana did was: help deliver drinking water for Rome’s one millions citizens; water for countless public baths including the massive Baths of Trajan overlooking the Colosseum; spectacular fountains; and other leisure uses including the Naumachia of Trajan, a huge basin used for staging naval displays; not forgetting the importance of water as the motive force in Rome’s many flour mills. Running 40 miles from the Lake Bracciano area to the north west, running overground on spectacular aqueducts and underground in brick tunnels lined with waterproof cement, it was a prime target for those wishing to attack Rome. The Ostrogoths cut the supply in 537 when they laid siege to the city. However, it remained in service for centuries. It was the last great aqueduct built in Rome and its remains can be seen to this day in the city. Indeed there are special “Aqua Traiana” tours.




Chinatown (1974, dir: Roman Polanski)

Chinatown is an old-school film noir about a good guy in a bad world trying to get to the bottom of some murky business. It matters not what the murky business is, pretty much, in the same way that it wasn’t very important what animated Raymond Chandler’s detectives, as long as they were out in the world, righting wrongs and cracking wise. But in this case it’s water – in Los Angeles, a town built in a desert, the person who controls the water supply is going to make a lot of money. Jack Nicholson plays JJ Gittes, the besuited private eye hitting resistance at every turn as he tries to find out why someone has turned up dead with his lungs full of water in an otherwise bone-dry area. The resistance comes mostly in the shape of John Huston’s Noah Cross, an old school patriarch given to thundering, quick with the blandishments, a powerful man with a biblical name for a reason. As many people have pointed out, one of Roman Polanski’s triumphs with Chinatown is to have made a film that (now, at least) looks to be of a piece with the famous noirs of the 1940s – The Maltese Falcon, often credited as being the first noir, was Huston’s directorial debut in 1941 and Polanski surely took a few stylistic notes off the great director whose casting is something of a coup. And yet it’s also clearly a movie from the early 1970s – Nicholson in a suit, wearing the hat, driving the big jalopy you’d expect from a man doing virtue’s work back in the day. The drama is propelled by Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray, a damsel in distress, with Nicholson’s Gittes the white knight (when we meet him he is wearing a white suit, in fact) hoping to protect her reputation, but finding that in trying to fix something in the here and now, he’s unearthing something far grubbier back in the past.
Small details take on huge significance in this film – the way that a gangster (played by Polanski himself) sticks a knife up Gittes’s nose and slits his nostril, the fact that Noah Cross can never quite remember Gittes’s name, Evelyn Mulwray’s strangely fluttering behaviour, always nervous; what she’s nervous about we only discover right at the end of the film.
In any assessment of Nicholson’s career, this period, from Easy Rider in 1969 to The Shining in 1980 will always be seen as key: when he did his best work; before the mannerisms set solid. Chinatown was made about halfway in, a year after The Last Detail, a year before The Passenger (when he played a mysterious journalist on the run from something). Chinatown is Jack as a human first, an inquisitive operator second, a principled guy third, the last one jostling with the first two for position. Nicholson’s line readings are courtly, and it’s a logical yet different way of expressing the same character that Humphrey Bogart played – “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero”, as Raymond Chandler once put it. Chinatown is 1974’s definition of chivalry.
As with the man, so with the place: Polanski chooses his Los Angeles locations as carefully as costume designer Anthea Sylbert dresses her actors, with an eye for the ancient – in LA ancient means a few decades – with Nicholson driving through the last remaining art deco relics in a city that is always presented as dry, harshly lit, the sun baking its wide streets.
It is in short a beautiful, desperate and almost languid mood piece, Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne dropping in just enough exposition and colour to keep the thing moving along. Its ending, when everything unravels at breakneck speed, comes as something of a shock, yet it makes total sense – all the masks are suddenly removed and everyone is revealed for what and who they are.



Why Watch?


  • Noir, or neo noir, at its best
  • One of Jack Nicholson’s defining performances
  • The Oscar for Robert Towne’s screenplay (of 11 nominations)
  • Anthea Sylbert’s great costume design


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Chinatown – Watch it now at Amazon





The Pianist

Adrien Brody as Wladislaw Szpilman in The Piano


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



11 March


Roman Polanski charged with rape, 1977

On this day in 1977, the film director Roman Polanski was arrested on a charge of rape by use of drug. He was also charged with perversion, sodomy, a lewd and lascivious act on a child under 14 and with furnishing a controlled substance to a child under 14. Samantha Gailey was the victim, a 13-year-old he had been photographing as part of an assignment for French Vogue. The shoot took place at the actor Jack Nicholson’s house. Nicholson was away skiing. Polanski pleaded not guilty to all charges but later as part of a plea bargain deal changed his plea to guilty to the lesser crime of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse (ie statutory rape – sex with a minor who is sexually mature and “willing”). Polanski agreed to undergo psychiatric evaluation at a state prison for 90 days. But first he went to Europe to finish shooting on a film. He returned, spent 42 days at Chino State Prison, then expected to be put on probation, as the prosecuting attorney had been suggesting. When Polanski learned that the judge seemed to be inclined to jail him, he fled the US and has never returned.




The Pianist (2002, dir: Roman Polanski)

Roman Polanski’s films often deal with guilt. But in The Pianist he confronts the subject head on, in a film that’s personal in more than one sense. Polanksi was born in Paris but returned aged four with his parents to their native Poland in time to become embroiled in the invasion by the Germans. His city, Krakow, was ghettoised and his Jewish family were ultimately taken away to concentration camps, where they died. Roman survived.
The Pianist tells the story of a gifted artist, a pianist, who suffers a similar fate, his life, family, friends, city, everything is destroyed around him but he survives. The city is Warsaw, not Krakow, but the parallels with Polanski’s own life can’t be swept aside. Nor does the pianist (Adrien Brody) survive by wit, cunning or heroism. It’s just blind luck, for the most part, a touch of common sense, the determination to carry on – everyday human attributes, nothing special. It’s this that marks The Pianist out as different; it’s not a war film about the good people doing the heroic thing. It’s about flawed people, proud privileged people, getting by. It even introduces a decent German (played here by Thomas Kretschmann). For this reason the book on which the film was based – by pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman – was suppressed by the Soviets when they took over in Poland. Not simple and direct enough to serve as propaganda.
To make a drama work from so little in the way of heroics, we really to be invested in this character of the unheroic Szpilman. And we really are. Because Polanski has spent time detailing Szpilman’s solid bourgeois mitteleuropean life in Warsaw before things get nasty. He’s helped by the expressiveness of Brody’s face, a canvas of emotions, though it’s often more a bewildered “why me?” that’s painted on there than anything else. Polanski is also working at a philosophical level, his central figure being an artist – “the antenna of the race” as Ezra Pound put it – art at the time of the Second World War being one of the moral barriers between humans and animals. So much for that idea. And as Szpilman scrambles through the ruins towards the end of the film, after almost all of his city has been reduced to rubble, the look on his face is not the triumphal look of the survivor, but the troubled guilty look of the man who has lost everything, and yet is still here, a man whose ambition is still to play the piano on the radio even though playing the piano now means nothing beyond the prettiness of the notes.



Why Watch?


  • Polanski’s most personal film
  • A unique war movie
  • The remarkable scenes in the ruins of Krakow
  • Adrien Brody’s Oscar winning performance


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Pianist – at Amazon