Perhaps the most celebrated aspect of Orson Welles’s Othello is its genesis and the impact its chaotic coming into being had on its aesthetic character. Following World War II, Welles, having abandoned the United States in the conviction that there he was paid but not understood, opted to live in Europe where, by and large, he felt understood but seldom paid. While working in Italy on the 1949 film Black Magic, which Welles believed would be a cash cow but which failed to make him wealthy, he encountered the Italian film producer Michele Scalera. Scalera had long entertained the idea of producing a cinematic Othello and he wanted Welles to play the lead role. Welles had grander ideas and he convinced Scalera to hand him the reins as director of the film in which he would star.
Welles envisioned a carefully wrought, methodical approach to this Othello, which Scalera claimed would be a coproduction between Italian and French companies. They planned to shoot the film in a studio in Nice, both Venice and Cyprus to be imaginatively recreated through set design. Soon the French connection dissipated and before long Scalera announced that he was bankrupt and would be unable to fund Othello. Welles was bereft of financial backing but overcome with inspiration and emboldened by undaunted determination. He elected to finance the film as best he could through random donations and his own funds derived from his various acting engagements. In lieu of a prolonged stay at the studio, Welles was forced to direct and shoot his film in the fugitive moments when he was able to assemble his cast on any location he was able to secure.
This meant that there were huge gaps in time between shoots and the locations constantly shifted, even though the film’s narrative only really called for two (Venice and Cyprus). The production was beset with constant pressures. The perpetual lack of reasonable costumes forced Welles to create armor out of pressed sardine cans and to set Rodrigo’s attack on Cassio and his subsequent murder in a Turkish bath. While no such setting exists in Shakespeare, that environment allowed Welles to shoot a scene that seemed authentic without requiring anything beyond some towels his crew supposedly filched from their hotel rooms.
Owing to the discombobulated and radically discontinuous nature of the shooting, the film had to be constructed through the editing process. This involved a confrontation between two hallmarks of Welles’s directorial approach. On the one hand, Welles meticulously structured his camera setups. He first established the position of the camera, setting it in some stable but intriguing place that could capture the scene while also interpreting its import (the camera rarely pans and there is only one extended dolly shot in the entire film). In the case of Othello (as in his earlier films) this often resulted in oblique angles, shots from above or below, light and shadow raking across the characters, signifying perhaps the obscurity of their motives or their unwillingness to show themselves fully to onlookers.
Micheál MacLiammóir (IMDB)
Once the camera position was established, Welles built up the scene in the manner of a painter. Welles’s initial visual influence for the film was the great Renaissance Venetian painter Carpaccio. It was from Carpaccio’s paintings that Welles developed his costumes and he even chose the breed of dog that follows Rodrigo around in the film on the basis of the work of the Venetian master. However, the visual effect of the film is more Caravaggio than Carpaccio. Welles found an analogue to Shakespeare’s themes of the obfuscating power of Iago’s deception and Othello’s desperate desire for establishing truth in his manipulation of shadow and light. This is made brilliantly manifest in the scene when Iago and Othello walk along the ramparts of a fortification, the beach in the background, the sun shining brightly upon them. Othello, distraught and disgusted by Iago’s noncommittal insinuations, grabs his subordinate by the lapel and pushes him backward so that Iago leans precipitously over the edge. Othello demands some kind of demonstrable proof on the threat of Iago’s demise. Iago, the creator of shadow, is now emblazoned by the light of the unflinching sun, but Othello, hovering menacingly over his prey (not realizing that Iago is truly the predator here) is almost fully obscured by shadow. Iago’s dark thoughts, written across his face owing to the placement of the sun, are, however, countermanded by the yearning, pleading gaze he directs at his tormentor.
On the other hand, the second hallmark of Welles’s approach here involves an abrupt and drastic editing style. Welles once quipped that whenever you see the back of a character you can almost be guaranteed that the person you are actually seeing is a stand-in for the actor that portrays that character. Welles’s players were often unavailable owing to the unpredictability of his shooting schedule. Scenes that start from shots filmed in one location are intercut with scenes shot in another, but edited in such a fashion to hide that discontinuity. For Welles, the director is “the man who presides over accidents but doesn’t make them” and never were there more accidents over which to preside for Welles than in Othello. One of Welles’s primary strategies from hiding the discontinuity inherent in this awkward manner of shooting was to construct an editing style that revels in disconnection.
Welles drew upon expressionist film techniques deriving from such directors as F.W. Murnau but further imbued Othello with a palpable anxiety revealed by the mosaic-like quality of the editing. Pieces of stock are compiled additively, like repairing a shattered vase, in order to create a film that directly manifests through cinematic technique the off-kilter, vertiginous world that Othello experiences. The film makes a virtue of necessity by exploiting its odd construction to highlight its artificiality, thus enacting a metaphor for the unreliable artificial world that Iago erects in the mind of Othello. The bizarre camera angles, the unexpected cuts, the fussiness of certain scenes—these do more than signify the fraught situation in which Othello finds himself; they provide an entrée into the increasingly disturbed manner of Othello’s understanding of a world to which he fears he never really belonged and over which he can exert no reliable control. In doing so, Welles effected a cinematic approach to Shakespeare that is not simply a filmed adaptation of a play but rather an engagement (indeed, a confrontation) with the Bard on terms set forth by the filmic apparatus. This is Othello as seen through the condition of film.
Welles openly disparaged the Laurence Olivier approach to Shakespearean cinema insofar as Welles saw these films as little more than setting a camera unartfully before a staged production; hence, in Welles’s estimation, they were not films at all. For Welles, the essence of a film was altogether different from a stage play, even when the content of that film derived from William Shakespeare, whom Welles regarded as the finest playwright of all time. Indeed, anyone coming to Welles’s Othello to see—and more to the point, to hear—a faithful rendering of Shakespeare’s text will come away sorely disappointed. Welles slashed the Bard’s words with a ruthless red pen, hacking away pages of dialogue and some of the most renowned lines of theater history. Moreover, given the actor’s famously rich baritone delivery of text, Welles’s Othello often rushes through his lines, focusing on the affective impact of the emotion rather than the semantic profundity of Shakespeare’s imagery. Often it is difficult to discern precisely what is being said.
The key to Welles’s filmic Shakespeare—and this is as true of Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight (the Falstaff film) as it is of Othello—is its rhythmic quality, the emotional quality of its pacing. There are times when Welles allows his mellifluous bardic recitations to linger over the contours of Shakespeare’s words, but most of it would work just as well as a silent film. The tale is told not through words, but rather, in full reliance on the restrictions and affordances inherent in film, through its visceral visual presence. The indelible moments of Othello derive not from the famous closing soliloquy (mercilessly chopped in the script) but rather from the panicked look on Othello’s face as reflected in the mirror, the beguiling smile on Iago’s as he tempts Cassio with wine, the haunted desperation in Othello’s eyes as he mounts the stairs toward a Desdemona he no longer trusts, his visage a mere mask laid over the void that expands at his core.
Welles shoots this film in a manner that causes us to constantly feel the ground slipping from beneath Othello’s feet. We witness the inability of the clever soldier to recognize the cunning machinations of an envious rival; instead Othello soldiers on, determined to march inexorably toward truth, convinced he can manage love in the manner of warfare. Welles’s Othello may not be the most sympathetic realization of Shakespeare’s doomed lover but it may be the finest exemplification of the inevitability of his fall.
Suzanne Cloutier (IMDB)
The Criterion Collection has recently released a beautiful restoration of Welles’s underrated masterpiece replete with several special features. There are two versions of the film itself: the 1952 European version shown at Cannes and the 1955 version released in the US and UK. The latter differs from the former mostly with respect to the opening. An audio commentary is available for the 1955 version, featuring Myron Meisel and Peter Bogdanovich; it includes some fascinating (but eventually repetitive) observations by Meisel and then the usual reminiscences one expects from Bogdanovich (and so one’s enjoyment of the latter will entirely depend on one’s patience for Bogdanovich’s Orson schtick). The edition also presents a short film, Return to Glennascaul (1953) by Micheál MacLiammóir (who plays Iago) and Hilton Edwards (who plays Desdemona’s father) that features Welles in a minor role and the last film Welles (nearly) completed, an essay-documentary entitled Filming “Othello” (1979). There are interviews with Welles biographer Simon Callow, film scholar Françoisn Thomas, theater scholar Ayanna Thompson, and Joseph McBride. Finally there is the documentary Souvenirs d'”Othello” (1995) by François Girard about Suzanne Cloutier (who played Desdemona). In sum, there is no shortage of material here to savor, contemplate, and enjoy.