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Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Charmed Life

I found a treasure the other day.
Miss Moneypenny?
I had heard many years ago about a CBC television production of MacBeth starring the world's most famous Scotsman, Sean Connery, in 1961. This would have been just before he became a huge international star as James Bond in Dr. No (1962). however, since it was a television production and I hadn't even seen so much as a production still with Connery in the role. In fact, for all I knew, he didn't even play the title role. After all, his most notable role up to this point had been as Michael McBride in Disney's fantasy-musical Darby O'Gill and The Little People. Also, there existed the possibility that he wasn't very good. Why else would it be so difficult to come by, right?
I dismissed it as one of those things that I would never get the chance to see unless someone who was a much bigger movie nerd than I had a recorded copy on VHS or something.
Well, recently I stumbled across a collection of old movies on DVD while I was at a Ross department store. (And when I say "stumbled," I mean it. Why does that store always look like it's been hit by a tornado?) These films are usually ones that have fallen into public domain, but are not necessarily bad films at all. In fact, this collection contained Of Human Bondage (1932), which, if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend. Anyway, this collection also contained the elusive 1961 MacBeth starring a bearded Sean Connery as - if the packaging was to be trusted - Mackers himself. So, for a couple of dollars I had solved my dilemma of some years ago. There, in my hand, was the film I had resigned to obscurity.
I really have no idea what I'm doing.
However, my earlier concerns about the quality of Mr. Connery's performance arose again, and I did not watch it right away. Why had this been kept from public eyes for so long? Connery had a huge resurgence in popularity in the 90s. People were voraciously consuming his performances from other eras like Zardoz and Outland. How had the iconic notion of the famously Scottish Connery in the Scottish play not been immediately offered up to the new generation of Connery fans? Had a younger, less-experienced Connery struggled with the Bard's verse? Surely the CBC would not have cast him in the lead if that were so. It wasn't like he was a big name at that point.
Well, I am happy to report that Connery was more than up to the task. His approach is unexpected at times and even a bit jarring at points, but ultimately satisfying. During the dagger speech, I was baffled at first, but soon realized that he was approaching it very naturalistically, and I think it added another dimension to the scene. I found myself thinking that many of the elements that make Connery such a great action hero added to his performance as Mackers. Connery is a man of great passion and charisma and his heroes are led more by their hearts than their intellect. Let's face it, Bond wasn't exactly a planner. He usually got caught by the bad guy at some point, he seldom used the high-tech gadgetry as it was intended, and women in bikinis are his Achilles, um, heel. Also, James Bond is incredibly lucky. That's what makes Bond so much fun. The bad guys are smarter and more organized, but 007 still always manages to somehow get the better of them. So, portraying a man whose ambitions exceed his machinations winds up being near-perfect casting for Connery. Also, it's fun to hear those lines spoken in a true Scottish brogue.
But not stirred.
The production itself is a bit of a curiosity. I would describe the set and costume design as art-deco-meets-middle-ages. It suffers from some of the limitations of television in the 1960s (including the occasional visible boom mic), and yet it presses against the conventions of television as well. Murders occur out of frame, but the moments leading up to them are quite harrowing - particularly the murder of MacDuff's family. (Oh. Spoilers? If you've read this far, surely not.) Banquo's ghost is a bit gorier than one might expect from 1960s televison, too. With a running time of only 85 minutes, it is also curious that not the knocking scene nor either of the scenes with the the three murderers were excised for time.
I think the real treat here, however, is not even Connery's performance. It is the rare filmed performance of the legendary stage actress Zoe Caldwell as Lady MacBeth. The four-time Tony-award-winning actress has a long and varied career, but has made very few appearances on the silver screen, and she does not disappoint as the conniving Queen-to-be.

1 comment:

Prof. Jenn said...

That is SO weird you post this today--I just yesterday watched some of the special features on my Dr. No blu-ray, and he mentioned Macbeth in an on-set interview. I was surprised to hear about it too.