Orson Welles made Othello—the first purely “cinematic” version of Shakespeare— between 1949 and 1952. The golden boy director of Citizen Kane (1941), Welles was, by age 34, in exile from Hollywood. Othello’s bizarre production history is like a microcosm of Welles’s career—an insistence on creative control which meant constant scrambles for financing that included acting gigs such as his memorable Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949).
Othello’s reputation was championed quietly over the years by film buffs, in a book, and in countless dissertations. Welles himself considered it one of his best works. Now, after an extensive restoration, re-tracking of the score, redubbing and synchronization, the film has been re-released. The shoestring budget and fitful three-year shooting still show in this legendary effort. (Film was shot on random pieces of newsreel stock and leftover bits from other Welles films. There was even less money for audio concerns.) Still, the painstaking restoration is a fitting tribute to Welles’s genius and, even more, to his determination.
Othello (Welles), an admired Venetian general, is madly in love with his beautiful young aristocratic bride Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier). Iago (Michael MacLiammoir), his aide, secretly resents Othello’s rise to power and is angered further when Cassio (Michael Laurence), a fellow aide, is promoted to a rank Iago covets. Iago finds a willing accomplice in Roderigo (Robert Coote), who desires Desdemona, and he puts an evil scheme into motion.
Welles’s performance accrues power obliquely—his Othello is at once more forthright and more changeful than some grander interpretations, making his corruption through an Achilles heel of vanity all the more engaging and pitiable. Cloutier gives Desdemona’s unconditional love a wrenching strength. With his classical shot-reverse shot sequences, Welles cuts back and forth to each of them in their most dramatic scenes, each of the doomed lovers isolated in a frame. Welles effectively evinces the core truth of the play that Othello is caught in a man’s world, military and political, defined solely by male authority, male counsel, and ambition. Love, reason, and honor become the victims. With his choice of lenses and angles, lighting and editing, the spatial mise en scene of the actors, Welles suggests that these two characters who might share so much are reduced to crying out to one another across a void created by a good-ole-boys’ jealous intrigue.
The weakest link in the production is the Iago—MacLiammoir is skilled and articulate, but his characterization finds merely the sourness in the role and only occasionally its seductive wickedness.
Unlike Olivier’s wartime film version of Henry V or his 1947 Hamlet—which held the plays’ theatricality pretty much intact and in frame—Welles’s film has the less composed texture of post-WWII neo-naturalism characteristic of films by Roberto Rosselini (Stromboli), John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo), and others who were searching for a harder-edged reality and more spontaneous energy on film.
The sun-shot Mediterranean locations afford viewers—who may be used to theatre and opera stagings designed in brooding, saturated colors—a fresh look at the text. More scenes than not are shot outdoors, and the harsh sunlight has a fine ironic effect. No dark colors declare Iago’s villainy, and Othello’s self-devouring doubt has no place to hide. The black-and-white photography picks out the human figures against the dazzling architecture, sea and landscape, and the wind-blown glare makes the eye insistent. The slightest shadows of a face and every inflection must be examined for nuances of character and motive. Welles recognized that Othello (not unlike Hamlet) is rife with challenges to classical storytelling, and is essentially a tale of shadings—of integrity turning on itself when infected with a virus of political hatred. The director doesn’t make anything easier for us. With a heightened sense of dread we lean into the story.
– Hadley Hury
(Available through Blu-ray, Amazon, and other select streaming sites)