Review by Michael Jacobson
Orson Welles, Michael MacLiammoir, Suzanne Cloutier
Director: Orson Welles
Audio: Dolby Stereo
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Features: Documentary “Restoring Othello”
Length: 91 Minutes
Release Date: August 31, 1999
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.
There is a short but detailed documentary on the
restoration of the film.
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.