A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, May 29, 2017

Othello (Orson Welles, 1951)

Orson Welles and Suzanne Cloutier in Othello
I watched Orson Welles's film version of Shakespeare's Othello twice last night. The first time was a recording on my DVR of the recent showing on Turner Classic Movies of the 1992 restoration supervised by Welles's daughter Beatrice. The images are crisp and beautiful but the soundtrack is muddy and sometimes unintelligible -- a grave fault when the speeches and dialogue are Shakespeare's. So I decided to check out Othello on Filmstruck's Criterion Channel. It appears to be based on the 1952 European release* that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Though the images are less sharp than those on the TCM restored version, the sound is superior, so I sat through the film again. I don't think it's the masterpiece that Welles's admirers call it, but it's certainly one of the few filmed versions of Shakespeare that succeed in turning what's essentially theater into cinema. The story of the three-year making of Welles's Othello has been often told: the long hiatuses when Welles ran out of money and had to take on acting work in other films to finance his own, the fight scenes that began filming in Morocco and ended in Italy, the striking improvisations like filming the attack on Cassio (Michael Laurence) and the murder of Roderigo (Robert Coote) by Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir) in a Turkish bath because the costumes had been held up by the supplier after the bills for them weren't paid, and so on. It's true, too, that the film is full of distracting continuity gaffes: Welles's makeup darkens and lightens within a single scene; MacLiammóir's beard seems to wander about his face; in the scene in which Othello confronts Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) about the handkerchief, he sometimes holds her hand with his right hand, while in the reverse shot it's his left hand. And so on. Would Welles's Othello be greater if he had had all the money and support in the world? I'm not sure that the hunger of Welles's imagination could ever have been satisfied. Moreover, he seemed to relish the role of wounded genius, to enjoy showing off what he could do in the face of adversity. We could ask for a more skillful actress than Cloutier (dubbed by Gudrun Ure, who had played Desdemona opposite Welles on stage), for a film that paid as much attention to Shakespeare's verse as it does to the spectacular settings in Italy and Morocco, for subtler and more original interpretations of the characters. But what we have is Welles at his most creative, always looking for and finding the most expressive way to bring a scene to life, and perhaps that's precious enough. Welles's Othello is no more Shakespeare's Othello than Verdi's is, yet all are touched with some kind of genius.

*In the 1952 version, Welles spoke the credits in a voiceover, but the on-screen credits that were added at the request of American distributors are retained in the 1992 restoration.