The man who made “the greatest movie of all time” — Orson Welles — and the man who made “the worst movie of all time” — Ed Wood — had at least a little bit more in common than might be immediately apparent. In the era of the studio system in Hollywood, both men were outsiders who wouldn’t or couldn’t play ball, and struggled to get their movies made as a result. Let’s not push the comparison too far; there’s a gulf in talent between the two gentlemen bigger than Xanadu. But if we take a look at two films back-to-back, one from each director, we find some delightful similarities. Both movies were made on the cheap. Both are disreputable, to one degree or another. One was described by its director as “a perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and The Bride of Frankenstein,” while the other is essentially Frankenstein and Dracula meet The Day the Earth Stood Still. These films represent a collision between high and low culture — lessons about the state of the world wrapped up in some apocalyptic hell-raising.
Today, the idea of Orson Welles adapting Shakespeare sounds like just about the most prestigious thing happening in Hollywood in 1948. But his commercial and critical success had been in decline since Citizen Kane, to the point where he had to make Macbeth with “B-movie” studio Republic Pictures, reusing sets from some of the studio’s westerns. The film was shot in 23 days. The commercial and critical response was overwhelmingly negative. Welles would have to go to Europe to make his next film. As with practically all of Welles’ pictures, Macbeth has risen in stature over the decades. We’re much more willing now to praise a Shakespeare adaptation for reflecting the filmmaker’s unique vision; we’re also more willing to forgive a certain lack of sheen and uneven performances by the actors as long as that vision is there.
As a matter of fact, Orson Welles’ noir sensibility is nicely matched with a story like Macbeth. The misty wasteland of medieval Scotland, arena for a clash between paganism and Christianity, serves as an appropriately gloomy setting for a tale of murderous conspiracy and revenge. In his play Shakespeare was exploring the nature of tyranny and the implications of predestination/fate, but his story has its pulpy elements too. Welles produced a simplified version of that story, chopped down to under two hours, but the essential scenes are all there, and I believe all the most famous lines are included. The most interesting change comes in the tenor of the ending: where Shakespeare saw Macbeth’s downfall as a positive step toward the modern era, Welles closes his film with the three witches’ ominous pronouncement, “The charm’s wound up.” As Aaron Cutler of Slant Magazine and Tony Williams of Senses of Cinema have pointed out, this indicates that Malcolm’s reign may be just as much a disaster as Macbeth’s was — like World War II segueing into the Cold War, with the atomic age threatening to turn the whole world into a wasteland.
Of all the Double Features we’ve seen here, this one offers the most seamless transition from one film to the next. One (set of) prognosticator(s) gives way to another: Criswell, the perfect emcee for the mind-bending experience that is Plan 9 from Outer Space. Uttering lofty, bewildering, and completely redundant voice-over narration, Criswell guides us through Ed Wood’s strange tale of Martians raising the dead in order to stop humanity from developing a universe-destroying bomb. Ever since Michael and Harry Medved declared Plan 9 to be the worst movie ever made in 1980, its notoriety has only grown. Not unlike Welles, Wood has been given a reappraisal since his death. There is considerable oddball charm to be found in his films. Gary Morris writes for Bright Lights Film Journal, “Surely any lousy, boring mainstream movie is worse than the constantly surprising, intensely weird, totally personal, never dull Wood films.” Plan 9 is probably the ultimate example of these traits.
After all, let’s face it: this film has a crackerjack B-movie premise (certainly no worse than “water spouts filled with sharks hit Los Angeles,” say). There are times when the viewer catches a glimpse of the exciting science-fiction thriller Wood was trying to make. With alien ships that are impervious to all our most advanced weapons while the aliens themselves can be defeated in hand-to-hand combat, this movie is basically Independence Day without the budget. Wood made Plan 9 for only $60,000; that makes the budget for Macbeth look positively regal. I think part of the film’s appeal is that it takes the illusions of filmmaking that are meant to be invisible and it lays them bare. We see Bela Lugosi in stock footage (he died before work on this film was officially begun), intercut with Tom Mason playing the same role with his cape held over half his face, and we’re led to wonder about the extent to which all performances are chopped up by film editing. There’s a childlike earnestness to the film that’s inspiring. Of course, “childlike” is a double-edged description. The movie’s script could have been written by a child, and one wonders why none of the adults involved were able to improve it. On the other hand, without its bizarre dialogue, the movie wouldn’t be nearly so memorable.
I’d always taken a sidelong glance to the scene in Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood in which the title character meets Orson Welles. I saw it as an arch little daydream, the notion that these two might happen to meet in a bar one night and have a meaningful conversation. But when I finally saw Macbeth recently, I understood. These men shared the kind of frustrations that all filmmakers face to some extent; namely, the gap between the idea for the movie in one’s head and the limited resources available for bringing it to life. Regardless of the obstacles in front of them, they were determined, and they made fiercely unique movies that are still seen and discussed today. Granted, Welles’ worst movie is better than Wood’s best, but Welles wasn’t snobbish about B movies. On the contrary, he introduced Shakespeare to them. These two movies are not among my favorites, but they’re enjoyable to watch and I’m very happy they exist.