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Joe MacBeth
Theatrical release poster
Directed byKen Hughes
Written byKen Hughes
Philip Yordan
Based onthe play Macbeth
by William Shakespeare
Produced byM.J. Frankovich
George Maynard (executive producer)
StarringPaul Douglas
Ruth Roman
Bonar Colleano
CinematographyBasil Emmott
Edited byPeter Rolfe Johnson
Music byTrevor Duncan
Film Locations
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release dates
  • 18 October 1955 (1955-10-18) (UK)
  • February 1956 (1956-02) (USA)
Running time
90 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

Joe MacBeth is a 1955 British–American crime drama, directed by Ken Hughes[1] and starring Paul Douglas, Ruth Roman and Bonar Colleano.[2] It is a modern retelling of Shakespeare's Macbeth, set in a 1930s American criminal underworld. The film's plot closely follows that of Shakespeare's original play.[3][4][5] It has been called "the first really stand out movie" of Hughes' career.[6]

A similar adaptation, Men of Respect, was released in 1990, starring John Turturro, Rod Steiger and Dennis Farina.


Mob trigger man Joe "Mac" MacBeth assassinates Tommy, second-in-command to crime boss "Duke" Duca, on Duke's orders and then proceeds to his own wedding, where his bride Lily scolds him for being two hours late. As they celebrate their marriage that night at Duke's nightclub, fortune teller Rosie declares that Joe's destiny is to become the kingpin of the mob. The ruthlessly ambitious Lily is convinced of the fortune's inevitability, but Joe brushes it off. Almost immediately after Rosie leaves, however, Duke arrives and rewards Joe with a promotion to Tommy's old position and his prized lakeside mansion.

Duke's mob soon goes to war with a rival outfit run by the gluttonous Big Dutch. After Big Dutch's men turn the tables and make inroads on Duke's territory, Joe pays the rival boss a personal visit at a restaurant and secretly poisons a dish. Once Joe departs, Big Dutch devours the tainted food, then dies on the spot.

During an overnight party at the lakeside mansion to celebrate Big Dutch's demise, Lily continues to goad Joe into going after Duke, but Joe hesitates. The festivities end with Duke inviting Lily to go for a swim. Once in the water, Joe stabs his boss in the back and holds him under until he is dead, but he is shaken by the act and fails to remove the knife, forcing Lily to dive in and recover the murder weapon. In the morning, when Duke's bodyguards come to pick him up and he cannot be found, Lily claims to have discovered Duke's robe by the lake and suggests he drowned while swimming. Joe is immediately elevated to kingpin and he promotes his friend Banky to his right-hand man.

Banky's son Lennie resents Joe's rapid rise, asserting that his father served Duke long before Joe came along. He also openly casts suspicion on Duke's death. The loyal Banky beats Lennie for the insubordination, but urges Joe to set his son up with a small business so that his family can leave the criminal life. Later, Joe and Banky come across Rosie again, and she claims Joe is being overshadowed by his friend. The men laugh off Rosie's words, but shortly after, Joe hires a pair of hitmen from out of town to eliminate Banky and Lennie; Banky dies, but Lennie escapes, and Lily berates Joe for not doing the job himself.

At a banquet where Lennie unexpectedly shows up, Joe begins to be haunted by nightmares and visions of the men he betrayed. Lennie entertains plans of usurping Joe as the latter's erratic behavior disturbs the rank-and-file members. Meanwhile, Joe sends the hitmen to kidnap Lennie's wife, Ruth, and their daughter to rein the upstart in, but they botch the job. Lily discovers the bodies when she visits Ruth's house and is traumatized. The brutal act also alienates Marty, Joe's last ally in the mob.

That night, Marty warns Joe that Lennie is coming for him. Joe orders the hitmen to guard the mansion while he tends to Lily, but the mercenaries decide to make a run for it and are gunned down by Lennie. Panicked and paranoid, Joe closes himself in a dark room with a machine gun and starts shooting wildly at the slightest movements. When the doors to the room open, he fires at them and kills Lily. As Joe rushes to his wife's side, Lennie then personally executes Joe. Angus, the mansion's longtime butler, suggests that Lennie is the new master of the mansion and therefore the mob, but Lennie disagrees and tells Angus to look for a new job.



In 1941, it was announced Philip Yordan had written a play Joe MacBeth which updated Shakespeare's play to the Chicago gang wars. Arthur Vinton was considering producing.[7]

In February 1942, director William Dieterle said he was trying to finance Joe MacBeth.[8] The following month, Yordan announced Dieterle would direct the stage version, which would open in New York on 25 August.[9] The production did not happen.[why?] In March 1946, Yordan was still discussing it as a possibility.[10]

In February 1947, it was announced that United California Productions, a company formed by Robert Cummings, Philip Yordan and Eugene Frenke, had bought the rights to Joe MacBeth, based on an original screenplay by Philip Yordan. Yordan wrote the film as a vehicle for Cummings. The movie would be distributed by United Artists.[11] By April, Cummings had dropped out.[12] Frenke was discussing producing the play at the Pasadena Playhouse.[13] In September 1947, Cummings announced he had shelved plans to make the film so it did not have to compete with the Orson Welles film of MacBeth.[14]

In June 1948, James Nasser announced he had acquired rights to Joe MacBeth for filming under his deal with United Artists. It was to be directed by Lloyd Bacon and star Lew Ayres and Audrey Totter with filming to start in August.[15] Filming did not happen.[why?] In January 1949, Yordan said the film had been unable to get off the ground due to troubles finding the right cast.[16] In August, William Bacher[who?] was reportedly seeking Shelley Winters to play a lead.[17]

In October 1954, Mike Frankovich announced he had purchased the screen rights. Frankovich and writer Philip Yordan had previously collaborated on Anna Lucasta. Filming was likely to be done for United Artists with Joanne Dru and John Ireland, then married, as possible stars.[18][19] Frankovich ended up making the movie under a deal he had with Columbia and in April 1955, Paul Douglas, not Ireland, agreed to star.[20] Douglas arranged this as the first of a two-picture deal with Columbia, the second to be The Gamma People (his wife, Jan Sterling, signed to make 1984 in England at the same time). Filming on Joe MacBeth would start 1 May 1955.[21] Ruth Roman signed to play the female lead.[22]

French actor Gregoire Aslan was cast as a gangster.[23]

It was the last film Mike Frankovich made as independent producer before running Columbia's British operations.[24]

Hughes later said he "enjoyed" making the film. "I was terribly young, only 22. The cheek I had to be directing old timers like Paul Douglas and Richard Conte. Still, I think they liked that and I tried never to be arrogant. And it was one of the few scripts I picked up in my life that didn't require a great deal of work."[25]


Critical response

Critical reception to the film in England was harsh.[26]

Author Geoff Mayer wrote in his book Historical Dictionary of Crime Films: "Although this bizarre gangster film was an attempt to update William Shakespeare's play to contemporary America ... less-than-subtle alterations to the play with name changes..."[27]

The staff of Variety wrote in their review: "Joe Macbeth is far removed from the famous Shakespearean character, but there is an analogy between this modern gangster story and the Bard’s classic play. Although made in Britain, the film has an American setting. It is expensively mounted, expertly staged and directed with a keen sense of tension."[28]



  1. ^ Shakespeare & Williams 2006, p. 29.
  2. ^ "BFI | Film & TV Database | JOE MACBETH (1954)". 16 April 2009. Archived from the original on 17 January 2009. Retrieved 12 November 2012.
  3. ^ Jackson 2007, pp. 310–311.
  4. ^ Mayer 2003, p. 216.
  5. ^ Hatchuel, Sarah; Vienne-Guerrin, Nathalie; Bladen, Victoria (2014). Shakespeare on screen : Macbeth (in French). Rouen: University of Rouen Press. ISBN 979-1024000381.
  6. ^ Vagg, Stephen (14 November 2020). "Ken Hughes Forgotten Auteur". Filmink.
  7. ^ IN THE OLD TRADITION: Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre Returns to a First Love IN THE OLD TRADITION Ruch, Walter W. New York Times (1923-Current file); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]05 Oct 1941: X1.
  8. ^ DRAMA: New Brenda Marshall 'Constant Nymph' Star Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]23 Feb 1942: 9.
  9. ^ A MYSTERY PLAY IS DUE HERE SOON: New York Times 31 Mar 1942: 28.
  11. ^ NEW FILM CONCERN PLANS FIRST MOVIE: United California Company to Offer 'Joe MacBeth,' Drama Starring Robert Cummings By THOMAS F. BRADY New York Times 6 Feb 1947: 29.
  12. ^ Looking at Hollywood Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963); Chicago, Ill. [Chicago, Ill]18 Apr 1947: 25.
  13. ^ DRAMA AND FILM: Colorful Clown Role Planned for Fitzgerald Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 29 Apr 1947: A3.
  14. ^ Looking at Hollywood Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune 23 Sep 1947: 27.
  15. ^ NASSER ACQUIRES 2 SCREEN STORIES: 'Joe Macbeth,' by Yordan, and 'Caesar the Great,' by Brown, to Be Filmed This Year By THOMAS F. BRADY Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES. 16 June 1948: 37.
  16. ^ Dorothy Comingore Set as Gambler With Gable; Rathvon in Financing Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 7 Jan 1949: 13.
  17. ^ Rank May Star Niven; King Will Direct Peck; Grandma Saga in Dicker Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 3 Aug 1949: 19.
  18. ^ Macbeth Gets Wise To His Pals in Chi The Washington Post and Times-Herald (9 Nov 1954: 35.
  19. ^ SIRK WILL DIRECT UNIVERSAL MOVIE: The New York Times.28 Oct 1954: 47.
  20. ^ COLOR IS REQUIRED FOR CINEMASCOPE: New York Times 5 Apr 1955: 33.
  21. ^ RITA HAYWORTH SUES FILM STUDIO New York Times 9 Apr 1955: 8.
  22. ^ 'Vanishing American' Will Star Scott Brady Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune 23 Apr 1955: 17.
  23. ^ MOVIELAND EVENTS: Noted French Actor 'Joe Macbeth' Heavy Los Angeles Times 24 May 1955: b6.
  24. ^ FILM FILE ON A BUSY EXPATRIATE: Quick on the Draw Productions Galore Amicable Parting Prime Promoter By STEPHEN WATTS LONDON. New York Times 11 Mar 1956: 134.
  25. ^ MOVIES: Hughes' 'Cromwell' Was Made With Malice Aforethought SHIVAS, MARK. Los Angeles Times 20 Dec 1970: m30.
  26. ^ NOTED ON THE BRITISH FILM SCENE: Moviemakers Undaunted By TV--Modernizing 'Macbeth'--Items By STEPHEN WATTS. New York Times 20 Nov 1955: X5.
  27. ^ Mayer 2012, p. 233.
  28. ^ Variety Staff (31 December 1954). "Joe Macbeth". Variety. United States: Variety Media, LLC. (Penske Media Corporation). Retrieved 6 April 2020.