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The opening credits are preceded by the scene of the three witches burying a hand in the sand. The title credit reads, "Roman Polanski's Film Macbeth," after which the words "The Tragedy of" and "by William Shakespeare" are superimposed around the word Macbeth. The opening and closing cast credits vary slightly in order. Although the film spells the character name as "Caudor," in Shakespeare's play the name is spelled "Cawdor." Much of "Macbeth's" and "Lady Macbeth's" soliloquies are presented as voice-over narration by the respective actors. During the scene in which Macbeth, as king, visits the witches' coven, the witches are naked, as is Lady Macbeth during the scene in which she sleepwalks.
As noted in studio press notes and a June 1971 feature in Show, in 1970 director Roman Polanski approached Kenneth Tynan, the literary manager of the British National Theatre, to collaborate on a script for a screen version of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Polanski stated in the Show article that he first made a deal with a studio, identified in Polanski's autobiography as Allied Artists, but they reneged. He and Tynan, who was a contributing editor to Playboy magazine, then showed their screenplay to Playboy Enterprises' Victor Lownes, who passed it to Playboy magazine owner Hugh Hefner [credited onscreen as Hugh M. Hefner]. Hefner then approved Macbeth as the first production for his recently formed feature film company, Playboy Productions. Playboy and Columbia were announced in contemporary sources as co-producers, and Polanski noted in his autobiography that he then formed the independent production company Caliban Films, Ltd. with his producing partner, Andrew Braunsberg.
Much of the play's original text was excised for the film version. In addition, the filmmakers added the silent sequence at the end in which Donalbain seeks counsel from the witches. Special effects were used to portray "Banquo's" ghost as well as Macbeth's dream sequences and hallucinations. During the production, Polanski stated in many news items that he had specifically cast young leads in order to heighten the sexual power that he felt Lady Macbeth had over her husband.
Polanski stated in his autobiography that he considered Victoria Tennant and Tuesday Weld for the role of Lady Macbeth. Press notes state that the film was shot on location in Snowdonia National Park in Wales, with Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland providing the exteriors for King Duncan's castle, and Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island standing in for Macbeth's castle. As noted in the closing credits, interiors were shot at the Shepperton Studios. According to the Show article, the production was originally planned to start in early fall 1970, but after Allied Artists dropped out, the schedule was pushed back to Nov. As a result, the winter months' freezing and stormy weather plagued the crew and caused delays.
In February 1971, Hollywood Reporter reported that London bonding company Film Finance, Ltd. was so concerned about budget overages that they brought in director Peter Collinson to watch the production, hoping to replace Polanski with him. In response, Hefner flew to the set and agreed to finance the debt personally. According to a July 1971 Variety article, Columbia, the film's global distributor, "wasn't on the hook for any additional expenses that might accrue." Polanski added in his autobiography that Film Finance had forced him to replace Braunsberg with David W. Orton; Braunsberg receives onscreen credit as producer, while Orton is credited as production advisor. Martin Shaw made his feature film debut as "Banquo." A modern source adds John Ireland as dialogue editor and Russ Jones as stunt double,
Macbeth marked Polanski's first feature since the brutal murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by Charles Manson and his followers. On August 9, 1969, four of Manson's followers invaded Polanski's home while he was away and murdered Tate, who was eight months pregnant, and three friends. The press coverage of the subsequent arrests, as well as the bizarre behavior of the Manson "family" members at their trial, aroused the fascination and curiosity of the public (for additional information on the murders, consult the entry above for The Other Side of Midnight). Interest in the murders, coupled with the fact that Tynan's previous project had been the play Oh! Calcutta!, which shocked theatergoers with nude actors onstage, led many reporters to speculate that Macbeth would feature excessive violence and nudity. Polanski remarked in a January 1971 Time article: "It's ridiculous, but because of the association [with Tate's murder], there's a feeling that whatever I come up with here will be quite grotesque." Although some critics guessed that Hefner's influence inspired the nude scenes, Tynan stated in the Show feature that the decision to include nudity had predated Playboy's association with the production.
A November 1970 Variety article stated that the script had been approved by the PCA before shooting began. As noted in the Variety review, the film was edited to obtain an R rating for its world premiere in America. It opened in New York on December 20, 1971 at the newly built Playboy Theater. Many reviewers once again referenced the Manson murders, commenting on the possible connection between Polanski's personal life and the film's gloomy, violent tone.
Macbeth won the National Board of Review award for Best Motion Picture. Despite its accolades, however, the film was a box-office disappointment. Hollywood Reporter reported in September 1973 that Playboy Enterprises was anticipating a $1.8 million loss write-off for the film, precipitating a general drop in earnings for the company. For a list of other films adapted from Shakespeare's play, see the entry for the 1948 Orson Welles film version of Macbeth.