“Almost four years passed between the premiere of Orson Welles‘s first adaptation of Shakespeare for the screen, Macbeth (1948) and the premiere of his second, Othello (1952),” begins Brian Cady, writing for TCM. “It was originally intended for release a year after Macbeth but the delay the film suffered made for one of the strangest stories in the history of moviemaking.” Cady tells the story of how Welles found himself, in the director’s words, with “a company of fifty people in North Africa and no money,” and how, after several stops and starts, he managed to piece together a film that would go on to share the grand prize at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival. A new restoration of Othello opens today at New York’s Film Forum and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago before traveling on to other cities through mid-June.
“I first encountered Welles’s Othello in the early 1980s,” recalls the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips, “via a film programmer’s bootleg copy made from a 16mm version projected on a bedsheet. The movie… underwent a controversial restoration in the early 1990s. The re-recording of the musical score and the sound effects gave the picture a strange, dislocating vibe, a mismatched quality which remains in this new digital cinema package version. But the film’s often striking beauty more than compensates. The miracle, really, is that any catch-as-catch-can Shakespeare film utilizing several different cinematographers and editors could retain a unified style, stark and full of doom.”
Phillips recommends Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “excellent” Discovering Orson Welles, and in 1992, Rosenbaum argued that Othello is “more significant to Welles’s work as a whole than Kane, because it leads to much more in his subsequent oeuvre… In retrospect, I think I can see now what made Welles’s first unambiguously independent film an act of even more courage and defiance than Citizen Kane. In Kane he was bucking only Hollywood and Hearst; with Othello he was defying both Hollywood and academicians—not to mention the whole institutional setup for picture making itself… Properly speaking, he had entered the treacherous domain of the avant-garde—probably against his own conscious wishes—and a substantial portion of the American intelligentsia never forgave him for it.”
Time Out New York‘s Keith Uhlich notes that this “dynamic, masterful adaptation… starts at the close with our tragic hero (Welles) and devoted love Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) laid to rest while the treacherous Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir) is hoisted in a hanging cage for all to see. From there, we flash back to a time when Iago was a friend and confidant, whose pronouncements against Desdemona’s virtue (purportedly she’s been stepping out with Othello’s trusted lieutenant, Cassio) carried the weight of absolute truth rather than vengeful deception.”
The Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek finds that “Welles locates the humanity in Shakespeare’s characters by finding the proper visual setting for each: A rejected wife is dwarfed by the vast, chilly emptiness of the marital bedroom; an embittered underling schemes and fumes as sinister black flags ripple in the wind around him, as ragged and tatty as the hair of witches. How did Welles take such a seemingly delirious clash of visual patterns—the slender, pointed windows of Venice, the all-work, no-play parapet of a mighty Moroccan fortress, the vertigo-inducing swirl of mosaic tile floors, and more varieties of iron grillwork than you’d think mankind could dream up—and synthesize them into such an expressive, visually vibrant whole?”
But in 2004, Elliott Stein, also writing in the Voice, found that “while the film succeeds visually, it ultimately fails as drama. Even Welles couldn’t do everything.”
For Roger Ebert, writing in 1992, watching Othello was “a strange experience, always visually interesting but sometimes difficult to follow. A close familiarity with Shakespeare will help, even though Welles, as usual, takes great liberties with the original play. Othello is essentially a tragedy based on words that lead to misunderstandings; Welles films it more as classical tragedy, with processions, poses, ceremonies and dramatic visual compositions.”
But in 2010, Ben Sachs, writing for Cine-File (via Critics Round Up), argued that Othello is “a watershed in both Welles’s career and the history of independent filmmaking, but what of the movie itself? To cite Jack Jorgens’s Shakespeare on Film, it is ‘one of the few Shakespeare films in which the images on the screen generate enough beauty, variety, and graphic power to stand comparison with Shakespeare’s poetic images. [Welles’s] visual images compensate for the inevitable loss of complexity and dramatic voltage accompanying heavy alterations in the text.’ Some of the most powerful images include centuries-old Moorish architecture (found in Italy and Morocco), shot in ever-surprising Expressionist angles, and the looming faces of the cast, which brings a silent cinema intensity to the characterizations.”
Update, 4/26: “The sexual drama of Othello, the poisoning of the mind against the bonds of the body, was already on Welles’s mind,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, who notes that “the movie is the natural follow-up to his 1948 film noir The Lady from Shanghai, in which Welles stars as a rugged and virile young writer who wins the love of a beautiful woman (Rita Hayworth, his wife at the time) with his courage and loses her to the persuasive wiles of a brilliantly scheming lawyer. In Shakespeare, Welles found a refracted form of confession, self-doubt, and self-accusation.”
Update, 4/29: Cloutier was the third actress Welles cast as Desdemona, and at Movie Morlocks, R. Emmet Sweeney tells that story, and adds: “Despite the stressful, ad hoc circumstances, the film is remarkably single-minded in its visual scheme.”
Update, 5/3: Welles “spotlights the irony that it is actually the Moor who betrays Desdemona by deceiving himself,” writes Aaron Cutler for Film Comment. “Welles does so primarily by placing Othello and the other characters within a tightly bounded premodern environment, which he would later refer to in his insightful documentary Filming Othello [1978, below] as ‘a whole world in collapse.’ Imprisonment looms over the characters in the physical form of pillars, bars, gates, closed doors, and nets. These images echo Iago’s vow to ‘make the net/That shall enmesh them all,’ but they more closely reflect the fatalistic mindset of Othello, and his double-edged declaration to his servant, the ‘honest’ Iago: ‘I am bound to thee forever.'”
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