Hamlet and Macbeth
Gothicus Maximus

To begin with, Hamlet and Macbeth are Shakespeare at his most gothic, replete with dank castles, dire predictions, and depressed ghosts. And, of course, an unstoppable momentum toward revenge. Lawrence Olivier's Hamlet and Orson Welles' Macbeth were both released in 1948, when noir was flourishing and a mordant creepiness was all upon the land. A variety of gothic-tinted movies such as Lewis Allen's The Uninvited, Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase, and Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast were out and about.

Both Olivier and Welles came to their respective projects well primed. They were Shakespearean insiders, on the one hand, and, on the other, serious manipulators of film - not only as actors but also as producer/directors.

Their gothic credentials were impeccable, both having done service on behalf of the hallowed Brontë sisters, Olivier in 1939's Wuthering Heights and Welles in 1944's Jane Eyre.

In '48, Olivier was an artist of high standing, admired and supported by people who mattered, and his Hamlet is what they call "handsomely mounted," even though he did complain about J. Arthur Rank's stinginess. Welles at the time was seen as the wunderkind gone to seed, not much admired and even less supported. His Macbeth is what is referred to as a "poverty-row production."

But in the context of this Dark Energy take, Welles' effort is special. Here we have the great ship Shakespeare with the wind of Lewtonian aesthetics at its back and Mario Bava's Black Sunday as well as Roger Corman's House of Usher peeking over the far horizon. *

I don't insist that these are the the ultimate presentations of Shakespeare on film or that Welles would be flattered to hear that someone considered his Macbeth to be a terrific link between Bedlam and Black Sunday, only that I love these two films - Olivier's Hamlet and Welles' Macbeth - and that they make for a perfect overlap between The Bard and Dark Energy.

The contrast in production values that separated the Olivier and Welles pieces don't seem as significant today as they did at the time. Given the advance of technology, even a well-financed movie of the '40s looks more like its poverty-row contemporaries than it does most popular movies of recent vintage.

I like Olivier's Hamlet and Welles' Macbeth equally; the matter of production values isn't a tie-breaker one way or the other. Robert Rodriguez's tousled El Mariachi and Anthony Minghella's well-groomed The Talented Mr. Ripley are on a par in this shadowy little universe. * There are fans who like grunge for its own sake, and there are fans who like slickness. I don’t admire or disdain either of these qualities on principle. Give me the mood, the tone, the atmosphere, and I’ll go just about anywhere.