Othello

It probably goes without saying that Orson Welles is one of the few directors who could lay a legitimate claim to being the best or, at least, the most important filmmaker in history. It’s all the more shame, then, that so much criticism of his films has to be tempered by sighs of what could have been. After the commercial failure of Citizen Kane, Welles never regained full control over his films, endlessly struggling for financing and creative power with studios who had labeled Welles as box office poison. Studio interference and the disruption of Welles’ vision can be seen in almost every post-Kane Welles film, from the butchering of The Magnificent Ambersons (resulting in the “Holy Grail” of lost film footage; nearly one hour worth), to the multiple releases of Mr. Arkadian. His financial contemporaries certainly didn’t make it easy for us to fully appreciate Welles’ genius in posterity.

Othello was certainly another Welles film fraught with its own problems, though more so in the filming than in post-production. The film’s Italian backer went bankrupt early on, and from then on Welles was constantly in search of financing. The result was a film that was shot on-and-off for three years, and one in which Welles frequently had to come up with creative solutions for its problems. Like so many of Welles’ post-Kane films, watching Othello is a bit staring through the proverbial darkened glass; his directorial genius is omnipresent, but only organicistically. Othello is a film in search of a coherency. It’s a film that only works in parts, but when those parts work—like in so much of Welles—they work transcendental wonders.

Othello was one of Welles’ cinematic Shakespeare adaptations, standing alongside his MacBeth and Chimes at Midnight, and is a testament to his great love of the Bard’s works. But Welles was also a lover of cinema who understood (perhaps before anyone did) the distinct differences between film and literature; Welles understood that it wasn’t enough to simply film a stage play and have it work as cinema. So Othello bears all the trademarks of Welles’ iconoclastic style: high-contrast black & white, pervasive oblique angles (most commonly high or low), dynamic editing, expressive mise-en-scene, and an ability to manipulate light and shade to dizzying aesthetic effects.

But such itemizing fails to capture just how visually inventive the film is. In discussing Welles’ visuals, a critic finds him or herself in the same position as a kid in a candy store, having such a wealth of tasty treats to choose, but knowing that picking too many will make them sick. So where does one start with Othello? Maybe with the stunning opening which shows the funeral procession of those involved, vividly bringing to mind the “Dance of Death” that closes The Seventh Seal, but in an even grander mode. The murder of Roderigo in the Turkish bath transforms the shafts of light into blades that cut through the scenes as sharply as the actual murder weapon. Elsewhere, the backlit catacombs bring to mind Reed’s rendering of the Venice streets in the third man. The final scenes, which bathe the screen in blackness, using directed lighting to cast the characters’ features in deep shadows, has an almost Bergman-like chamber drama feel to it (if Welles being ahead of his time was ever in doubt).

Welles’ directorial pyrotechnics have often been front-and-center when discussing his films, but his Othello he has finally convinced me that he could be an equally talented actor. Welles has often been negatively criticized for being hammy and overly theatrical, and while I’ve always agreed with that criticism, I also thought Welles’ acting was made tolerable—even enjoyable, at times—by his gregarious charisma. While he never managed to bring tremendous substance to a role, he did manage to play just about every role with a conviction and vigor that many technically better actors couldn’t achieve. But Othello is a revelation; here, Welles is almost subdued. Even in blackface his interior transformation excels his outward one. His Othello is one of organic naturalism, full of pathos without being sentimental or grandiloquent.

Welles’ performance is so good that I’m tempted to say words I never thought I’d utter: Orson Welles has out-acted Olivier in a Shakespearean role. Olivier’s ’65 performance is everything that Welles’ isn’t. From a sheer technical standpoint, Olivier is superior; indeed, his Othello is a monolithic acting masterclass, one in which shows his supreme ability to transform himself to a role. But Olivier misses the humanism in the play, drowning it in histrionics. Welles is precisely the opposite: quiet, reserved, introspective, substantial, and incredibly forceful when needed. His Othello is free of Olivier’s affectations, but it’s all the more emotional and powerful because of it.

Welles’ spectacular performance and equally spectacular direction make the film’s failures all the more obvious, and all the more sad. As good as this Othello is, it still fails to present any kind of definitive version of the play. The film’s primary flaws rest in its jumbled first act. Of course Welles has taken great liberties in reducing Shakespeare’s near 200-minute play to a mere 90 minutes, but Othello is one of Shakespeare’s play that could, conceivably, withstand (and perhaps even improve with) judicious editing. The problem is that Welles’ truncation has done so at the expense of narrative comprehension; though it’s unclear whether the confusion is Welles’ or the editing of the studio. Given Welles’ prodigious understanding of cinematic narrative construction (anyone who doubts should read his notes to the studio on Touch of Evil) I’m inclined to think the mess isn’t his fault.

Thankfully, the film improves as it progresses and gains momentum. The second act is better than the first, but it’s truly in the third act—which perhaps can be said to begin proper after Othello is convinced of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness—that contains the ultimate rendering of those scenes. As Othello’s increasing brutality and the play’s insidious undertones of jealousy, anger, and the ambiguous relationship between truth and belief begin to climax, Welles’ direction galvanizes the drama to an extreme boiling point. Simply stated, these are some of the most overpowering and poignant Shakespearean scenes ever put on film.

But the film is hurt by other negatives; like so many Shakespearean adaptation that opt to trim the language and supplant it with expressive visuals, the text itself is quite marred. Those approaching this film would do better to approach it from a love of cinema rather than Shakespeare. What’s hurt most is the supporting cast, and this is, indeed, one of the few Othello’s where Othello and Desdemona outshine Iago. Micheál MacLiammóir is an underwhelming Iago—certainly falling short of Branagh’s portrayal in Olivier Parker’s inferior adaptation—, though I’m inclined to think he’s hurt more by the editing than by any flaws in his performance. Suzanne Cloutier is a lovely, if icy, Desdemona who succeeds in bringing out her angelic qualities at the slight expense of her dynamic relationship with Othello.

Ultimately, Welles’ Othello achieves on a similar scale what Peter Brooks’ King Lear did, and that was to cast one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies as a cinematically expressive chamber drama. While Brooks’ film offers greater coherency, Welles’ is more cinematically satisfying, while both deliver superbly on a dramatic level. I’ve always had mixed emotions towards Othello, as it was easily my least favorite of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Part of my frustration with it was that no adaptation brought out the humanity in the play or the characters. So it goes without saying that I was shocked to find that perhaps the most humanistic Othello resides with Orson Welles, whose typical mode is almost antithetical to Shakespearean nuance and pathos.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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