Nether Regions 08.31.10: Orson Welles’ Othello
Posted by Chad Webb on 08.31.2010
Citizen Kane slaps on the make-up to play the Moor of Venice in this artsy 1952 adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy. Is it worth seeking out? Click to find out…
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
ORSON WELLES' OTHELLO
Starring: Orson Welles, Michael MacLiammoir, and Suzanne Cloutier Directed By: Orson Welles Written By: Orson Welles and Jean Sacha (Williams Shakespeare - play) Running Time: 93 minutes Release Date: June 1955 Missing Since: 1999 Existing Formats:VHS and Region Free DVD Netflix Status: Available Availability: Rare
During his interviews with Orson Welles over a period of many years, covering numerous projects, Director/Biographer Peter Bogdanovich talked with Welles about Othello. At one point, Welles comments that Shakespeare never made tragedies, but rather melodramas. Indeed some melodramatic elements are incorporated in this version of Othello, one which is different from most, but that's what makes it effective. The approach most adaptations use is to shoot the play in a standard, straightforward way that adheres to the spirit of the stage. Thankfully that is not the result here. You can find these interviews in the book/audio cassette called This is Orson Welles. They are intriguing and informative and offer Welles' account of certain aspects of the Othello filming process.
Othello gets carried to his grave in the opening shot.
The central problem for Welles at this time was lack of cash money. After the Citizen Kane/William Randolph Hearst debacle Welles would regularly have trouble finishing his projects the way he wanted. Othello was filmed sporadically from 1948 to 1951 because he rarely had the funds and frequently was forced to improvise. In 1949 he starred in The Third Man and Prince of Foxes, and subsequently used his payments from those to help Othello. But that was how dedicated Welles was. He was quite egotistical and stubborn, but also passionate and intelligent. It was shot in Morocco, Venice, Tuscany, and studios in Rome. Apparently the Italian backer went bankrupt early on during production and so it became a stop-start production. Many scenes begin in one city and finish in another. This led to frenzied editing for some scene transitions.
It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1952 and won the Palme d'Or, but Welles spent a lot of time after that re-cutting and re-dubbing the picture. Many cast members' voices had to be filled by Welles himself, or in the case of Suzanne Cloutier, who portrayed Desdemona; she was replaced entirely by Gudrun Ure, who played the role alongside Welles on stage. Eventually the originally titled The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice was released, but only in New York and Los Angeles, and it drew negative reviews in light of the technical faults. The prints were difficult to watch as the poor audio transfer was glaring. Decades later, in 1992, Beatrice Welles-Smith aided in restoring a 35mm copy of the film that was located in a New Jersey warehouse. It looked good, but needed a complete overhaul in terms of dialogue, music, and sound effects. Many people contributed to improving Othello, and the cost was reportedly over $1 million.
The version that now circulates is undoubtedly much better than the first one, but the dubbing issues and the quality of the video is still very poor. One has to give Welles credit though because the dubbing is masked due to skewed camera angles and the actors having their bodies turned to the side or other odd positions. It could have been more conspicuous. Most have said that if Welles possessed the kind of money it cost to restore the film when he initially made it, there would have been no complaints today. "If" is a common word when referring to Welles and his lost projects. We must accept the film as it stands. After the US edition was released on laser-disc in 1995, it was legally challenged by Beatrice Welles-Smith and then withdrawn from shelves. Some sort of DVD release occurred, and it does turn up on TCM every now and again, so you can find it. I assume the rights battle have still not cleared up completely as no future release is planned.
Othello is not my favorite Shakespeare tragedy, but it does contain fulfilling entertainment and well-defined characters. What I have trouble swallowing is the black face commonly employed. Unfortunately two of the most popular film adaptations feature a white man in black make-up, and personally I can count on one hand the number of times blackface was used appropriately. Two men who were practically born to play the Moor of Venice, and have received awards for their efforts, have only performed Othello on stage: James Earl Jones and Paul Robeson. They were never filmed, but an audio CD of Robeson can be found on iTunes. Laurence Olivier's 1965 version was a nice length, but his affinity for barebones set design and exaggerated acting damaged his depiction. With that I moved on to Orson Welles, which was wonderfully dissimilar and decidedly superior.
Iago feeding lies to his Lord and master.
The order of events is re-arranged slightly as Welles commences his Othello with the funeral procession of the Moor (Orson Welles) and his bride Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier). The funeral was an example of one of the many liberties Welles took with the source material. During that funeral, the individual we soon learn is Iago (Micheal MacLiammoir) is being strung up in a cage. It all starts when Desdemona, daughter of a Venician aristocrat, elopes with the Moor Othello. Her father objects due to Othello's skin color. Iago, the servant of Othello, sets out to ruin his master by making him think that his wife is having an affair with Cassio (Michael Laurence), Othello's second-in-command and handpicked lieutenant. Iago is angry that he was passed over for the promotion. Othello becomes increasingly jealous and gradually starts believing Iago's lies. He is manipulated rather easily when the hard evidence of a handkerchief falsely points to the adultery. Iago obtained the hanky through his wife (Fay Compton), who eventually sees what her husband is up to, but it's too late.
The acting ability of Orson Welles is usually not questioned, and it won't be here either. This is a brilliant, sufficiently reserved, and haunting performance of the Moor of Venice. It is everything the Olivier approach wasn't. Welles never ventures too deep into theatrics, but when he shouts, it represents a momentous moment. The stride in his walk and the distinct facial expressions are significant portions of his portrayal. Take for instance the scene where he overhears Cassio and Iago laughing with his eyes darting back and forth anxiously. As for the blackface, Welles understands that it is not pretty to stare at, so he places Othello in dark spaces, with his face to the side, or from afar so as not to draw attention to any makeup flaws. Welles also supplies necessary narration and dubs in for Roderigo.
Dublin actor Micheal MacLiammoir, who founded the Gate Theater, hands in his only on-screen performance as Iago, and it fits commendably with Welles' Othello. I feel that the dubbing affects MacLiammoir most, but it is evident that he is a fine thespian, who should have been in more films. One of the underlying reasons for his malicious deeds was his impotence, which Welles did not emphasize heavily, but it does exist for those that notice. Frank Finlay had time to stretch as Iago in the Olivier film. MacLiammoir is pleasing, but not as spectacular. His Iago has genial attributes on the surface and wickedness underneath, which is not as comfortable to gauge. MacLiammoir wrote a book about the shoot called Put Money in Thy Purse that is hard to find, but well worth the time.
Suzanne Cloutier marked the third and final Desdemona. Welles had incessant trouble keeping the same cast around. She is striking and innocent, but since someone else dubbed for her, the depiction is not as polished as it could have been. Still, she does shine towards the conclusion as Othello grows more agitated. Michael Laurence is a terrific Cassio, one who proves his lieutenant status and stands out as fervent and calm in each sequence he's in. His proclamation that he is not drunk is hilarious, as is his swift punch when Roderigo tries to apply a hit and run. Robert Coots plays Roderigo as more of a clumsy fool, often aiming for laughs. Fay Compton is underused as Emilia, but satisfactory nonetheless. The competence of the acting can never measure up to the splendor of the direction. An extra 30 minutes could have accomplished wonders for this group.
Desdemona waiting in bed for her troubled husband.
In my review of Richard Burton's Hamlet, I stated that I preferred Branagh's full-text version of that tale. I would not say the same for Othello. It does not need to be 3 hours long. Certain chunks can be excised, but Welles takes that too seriously. 93 minutes is hardly enough time to adequately unravel motivations and plot points. His Othello is at times tricky to follow and sprints along without ever stopping to breathe. This serves as a superb account for those who are already familiar with the play. For them, this is more accessible and absolutely never dull. On the other hand, if this is your introduction to Othello, you might wonder what all the fuss is about, and you might be left with some questions.
What saves the speedy pace from thoroughly damaging the film is the exceptional direction from Welles and the music from Alberto Barberis and Angelo Francesco Lavagnino. So many segments reek of Welles' film noir style, and it truly is marvelous in this universe. We are conscious of his trademarks and gleefully embrace them. The masterful compositions compliment his filmmaking perfectly. One famous behind-the-scenes story that arose was that costumes were not available on time. Whether they were late or whether Welles failed to pay for them is up for debate, but to improvise he transported the attack on Cassio into a Turkish bath where the cast wears only towels. It is through these twisted and bizarre turn of events that Welles' genius is displayed. It is one of the best moments in Othello, and would not have had the same impact in regular period costumes. In another scene, when Othello and Desdemona are in the bedroom for the last time, the camera faces the Moor as he walks towards Desdemona from the head of the bed. From her perspective, the viewer observes how scary her husband can be.
On a visual level, no Othello comes close to this one. The army of cinematographers achieve countless gorgeous shots with lingering shadow and light. This way, the surroundings and the environment, not just the dialogue, are highlighted. The majesty of the castle and the thunderous crash of the waves are captured with sheer beauty. A documentary called The Filming of Othello that was made in 1978 and not shown in the US until 1987 is available for those curious. Welles hosts as fellow cast members share memories and random anecdotes. Seeing the film in its entirety is what's important. The hurried tempo obscures many pieces of the puzzle, but Welles concentrates on his vision ahead of Shakespeare's, and it succeeds because no matter how many financial dilemmas he encountered, his priorities were always where they needed to be.
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