OTHELLO (1952)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Orson Welles, Michael MacLiammoir, Suzanne Cloutier
Director:  Orson Welles
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Image
Features:  Documentary “Restoring Othello”
Length:  91 Minutes
Release Date:  August 31, 1999

Film ***1/2

Othello is probably William Shakespeare’s most disturbing play, and as such, certainly proved ripe fodder for the filmmaking genius of Orson Welles.  Welles, who had an extensive background in Shakespearean theatre, brought his version out of the talky, stagnant productions often associated with the Bard on the screen, and instead made it into so much of a visual experience, I wager you could watch the film with no sound and understand at the least the characters’ moods, motivations, and relations to each other.  Consider, for example, that even though sumptuous dialogue is the benchmark of Shakespeare, that five full minutes elapse in this movie before the first word is spoken.

What Welles has created, in other words, is not pure Shakespeare.  Instead, he drew inspiration from him to create something that is pure Welles.

Like his unforgettable Citizen Kane, Welles uses the end of the story to begin his film.  We see the bodies of Othello and his wife Desdemona being solemnly carried across the horizon, and the wicked Iago in a cage high off the ground.  This intriguing set up may give away the ending to those unfamiliar with the play, but Welles chooses to sacrifice that aspect in trade for the immediate intrigue that draws the audience into the story.

Welles plays Othello, the Moor of Venice.  He is a dark skinned man with a fair new bride in the beautiful Desdemona (Cloutier).  He is a noble man and a respected warrior who has defended Venice against the onslaught of the Turks.  All should, and would be, right for these good people, if not for the horrid scheming of his underling, Iago (MacLiammoir). 

What unfolds is very much like the dark side of Much Ado About Nothing.  Using a glib tongue and a few well staged set-ups, Iago convinces his master that his blushing bride has been unfaithful to him.  At first unbelieving, Othello soon finds himself consumed with rage and jealousy, and a desire to murder her.  Iago has always been looked upon as the most despised of Shakespearean villains, because there seems to be no motive for him to do such a terrible thing other than being purely evil.  There is no boundary he will not cross.  When Othello begs him for some poison to use in the misguided act, Iago convinces him to strangle her with his own hands. 

All of this leads to the murderous climax, which has to be one of the most visually striking sequences in film history.  Indeed, Orson Welles was perhaps the consummate American filmmaker in terms of visuals.  Like a writer uses words, Welles carefully composed his scenes with regard to every last detail—light and shadow, camera movement, depth of focus, spatial relations, and angle.  Every image on screen is a masterful composition, not only in aesthetic terms, but in the way he uses these elements to convey information about his characters.  I loved his final soliloquy, where the camera pointed down as he looked up into it, and it appeared as though his face was simply floating in a sea of blackness. 

But attention should be paid to Welles’ sense of sound, and he uses a full palette of music and effects here.  From the constant wind and waves outside the fortress, to the haunting, almost jarring score of operatic voices and dissonant instruments, the audio is always teeming with life, and works with the visuals to create stark and unforgettable images.

This film was released in 1952 and quickly won Best Picture at the Cannes Film Festival.  It was a remarkable accomplishment for Welles, who was struggling through his most difficult years as an artist.  He had been all but discarded by the American film industry, and forced to work essentially as an independent filmmaker for much of the remainder of his life, scraping together money the best he could, and trying to produce quality work under less than agreeable circumstances.  This film alone was made over a period of three years owing to constant interruptions because of funding.  Some of this inconsistency is evident in the film, but not much…the strong, clear vision of Welles held the project together.  At any rate, it certainly stands as a testimony that the genius behind Kane had been no fluke.

Disc Quality ***

A hefty restoration was needed to bring Othello back to life, and the results were extremely satisfying.  Though showing some effects of time such as nicks and scars, this largely is an excellent print, with striking clarity to Welles’ black and white photography.  There is some inconsistency evident in the source material, as the film sometimes goes from grayscale to sepia tones as it progresses from scene to scene, but often in a restoration, the best materials are spliced from different sources.  The soundtrack is a story though…because of poor post-production and budget constraints, there apparently never was a solid audio track to accompany the film.  The restorers, therefore, made a new recording of the score to go along, and revamped the sound effects.  The results are somewhat uneven.  For example, there is a scene of men sloshing through water, and you hear men sloshing through water…but it doesn’t sound quite right, as though you were watching one thing and hearing another.  But the overall presentation is probably as good as it has ever been, and this DVD will probably be thought of as the definitive version of Othello.

Features **

There is a short but detailed documentary on the restoration of the film.

Summary :

Othello is a grand cinematic achievement.  It may not be for the Shakespearean purists, but Orson Welles’ magnificent vision proves how well the Bard’s works can fire the imagination of other artists, and how a filmmaker of Welles’ stature could take so classic a play and reform it into his own creation, with amazing results.