Orson Welles’ Othello:

A True Masterpiece

Orson Welles’ Othello, now doing a victory lap around the world in a “restored” version, is one of the boldest and most singular of all the adaptations of Shakespeare to reach the movie screen. I would argue that one has to look outside the English language, to the adaptations of Kurosawa, to find comparable artistic energy and vision. It’s a dizzy, emotional, experimental and powerful distillation of Shakespeare’s play, cut down to something even less than a theme, but a mood, an unsettling, anxious emotional uncertainty. It twists and cuts and shots spin off into unusual directions and angles as characters whisper to each other both in shadows and light and finally erupt into deadly violence. There’s little joy or hope to be found here, as the ringing, descending piano notes signal right at the beginning. This is fully, completely, the “tragedy” of Othello.

Coming as it did in 1952, it’s unlike any American film made at the time, ands certainly unlike any previous Shakespeare film. The closest parallel would be something out of psychological horror cinema or pulp cinema. Welles’ use of real locations, combining short cuts with long tracking shots and an almost amateurish fragility about the whole affair lays the groundwork for Kubrick and borrows from silent film and contemporary Italian cinema. But it’s not an “American” film in any meaningful sense of the word. That was new for Orson, but it established the patterns of his professional life for the next two decades.

Orson’s previous two films, the last he would make for Hollywood for many years, The Lady From Shanghai and Macbeth, seem in retrospect to anticipate Othello and build up the vocabulary of the film, thematically and visually. The Lady From Shanghai has the love triangles, the petty jealousies, the impotent, meddling scoundrel and the dizzying camera work, but the story itself is pure 1940s pulp fiction. Macbeth, released in 1948 after Welles had set sail for Europe, was the first opportunity many outside the world of theatre had to see his brave, decisive Shakespearean style, using the original material as mere clay for his expressionist staging and emotional acting. But Macbeth was shot in a studio (for Republic pictures, as it happens, the company that made John Wayne westerns) and was compromised in the editing and dubbing. Othello, for all its flaws, was Shakespeare on film the way Orson wanted it be.

Welles and Shakespeare went back a long way with each other. In 1927, at the age of 12, Orson published the first in a series of richly annotated Shakespearean texts called Everybody’s Shakespeare. He had performed plays at school, and later, at the ripe old age of 16, in the Dublin Gate theatre, run by Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir. The two men, lovers then and to the end of their lives, took young Welles under their wings and taught him some basic theatre techniques. With that minimal training, Welles returned to New York in the early 1930s and became, in quick succession, a star in the theatre, on the radio and finally in film. Othello was partially Orson returning the favour, now directing MacLiammoir as Iago and bringing Edwards onto the film in a small acting role but a larger off-screen advisory position.

In terms of pure performance, MacLiammoir easily walks away with the film. He was about fifty years old at the time, constantly to be seen with an ill-fitting hairpiece and corset, wearing enough makeup and having enough man-on-man sexual dalliances off-screen to serve as something of a proto-Lou Reed. Besides respecting him as an actor (even though he could be famously difficult, particularly when he seduced the wrong man and wound up beaten up or in jail), Welles was intrigued by the notion of an older Iago. Shakespeare’s oily villain, as if often the case in the plays, is given no real motivation for doing the things he does. Iago seems to bring down Othello for no reason other than it is possible, all racial politics aside for a moment. For many, there’s no need for a motivation but for this production, Welles and MacLiammoir settled on sexual jealousy and frustration. Their Iago is an impotent old man, furious as he watches Othello with a beautiful young woman, so he manipulates the hapless Roderigo and plants seeds of distrust and evil jealousy all over the Cyprus fortress. None of this is openly stated in the film, and what comes across is an oily, lying but oddly seductive and sexually ambivalent character, properly and wonderfully evil and upsetting. This Iago wouldn’t be out of place in Game of Thrones or any other modern re-telling of court intrigue. It’s a powerhouse of a performance, whispered and yelled, with the perfect voice control of a veteran stage actor. MacLiammoir’s costume and emphatic codpiece emphasize his physical awkwardness, but next to the huge, lumbering Orson Welles he seems small, fey and tremendously unsettling. The performance is all the more impressive in that it was MacLiammoir’s only on-screen role. He lived long enough to discuss the part with Welles some 25 years later over lunch (captured in the 1978 documentary Filming Othello) but he never made another film.

As Othello, Welles plays Shakespeare’s only major explicitly black role with the minimal amount of “Africanization”, just a tan, a curly hairdo and his usual false nose. (Orson almost never played a role without a false nose. A curious exception is his star turn in The Third Man, made while he was filming Othello.) Although it had only been ten years since Citizen Kane, he was quite large, but his size at this point added to his power in the Othello role, with the right flattering fit of armour and costume making him seem burly and muscular. Orson’s large fingers (always perfectly manicured in those days) and hands seem slightly out of proportion, only adding to the unsettling atmosphere of the film. Although he plays most of the role in a deep baritone register, he acts mostly with his eyes, reacting to Iago’s bits of rumour, gossip and innuendo until his spirit, as his seemingly unshakable faith in his new wife, Desdemona, is eroded bit by bit. Othello spins off into feverish madness, and the pounding soundtrack only echoes his anxious heart as he feels compelled to savage cruelty. Shakespeare’s tragedy is on full display.

But Orson starts and ends the film with a scene that’s entirely original, the funeral procession of Othello and Desdemona, with Iago suspended above them in a humiliating, torturous birdcage, anticipating such later horror films as The Wicker Man. He cuts scenes, plots, changes the order of lines, pulls lines from other scenes and generally savages the original text, without apology. Welles, like Kubrick and Hitchcock, was a master of adaptation, and one of the few artists of his day to really understand how to do it. Shakespeare is no shrinking violent. His texts can “take it”, if they are rearranged and reorganized for dramatic purposes by an intelligent and sensitive artist, but one who understands what adaptation really means. In the book of interviews published by Peter Bogdanovich after his death, Orson fiercely defends adaptation, stating that Verdi can change everything in Othello for his opera, so why can’t he for a film? This is a great expression of the fundamentals of adaptation theory, and highlights how, perhaps unconsciously, some still place film at the bottom of the artistic heap. If it’s okay for an opera to adapt Shakespeare, to suggest that the same right isn’t afforded a film is to place film below the original text in priority, to suggest that film isn’t a mature or elastic enough art form to accommodate the ideas in the original play. This, of course, is so obvious as to almost be silly, but try arguing that the next time someone complains about a movie, “Well, it wasn’t like the book!” It isn’t hard to imagine Orson’s response… no doubt one of his famous elaborate put-downs, sometimes cruel, delivered in absolutely grammatically perfect English in that thick, butterscotch voice.

The fractured, fragmented style of the film suits the material perfectly and propels it along with an editing ferocity that seems very much ahead of its time. Orson wouldn’t edit like that again until F For Fake, some twenty years later, although in that case he would be editing documentary footage rather than narrative drama. The style was, in fact, simply driven by necessity, as were some of the adaptation’s boldest moves. At this point in his career, Welles was very much at the mercy of some shady and unreliable European financing conglomerates. Though he claimed later that he had a signed contract and all the money he would need guaranteed before they started shooting, as soon as the cast and crew arrived in Morocco (where many of the scenes were shot), the producers pulled the plug. So, Orson was left in a great location, with a great cast and a great script, cameras, lights, the whole deal, except for costumes. He set about getting the costumes from Italy (which eventually did arrive) and shot for three weeks with the actors nude, except for bath towels, in an old fish market repurposed to look like a Turkish bath house. An innovative solution to the sort of problem that would have derailed a lesser filmmaker. But there was no smooth sailing ahead: although he poured his own money into keeping the cast and crew paid and fed in Morocco, Orson was not a rich man. He was forced to take long breaks in the filming to go off and shoot other roles in other films, eventually returning with enough cash in hand to keep Othello in production. (One of these films was The Third Man, a film for which he was offered a salary or “points”, a percentage of the profits. Needing cash for Othello, Orson took the money. The film went on to make more money than any other European film to date, he ruefully noted later.) They moved production to Venice for more scenes but problems continued, as MacLiammoir and Edwards had to return to Ireland to open their theatre season. Even when MacLiammoir was present and accounted for, things never went quite as smoothly as they should, and he wound up in jail, soaking wet, one night in Venice having tried to seduce the wrong gondolier. Welles went through four Desdemonas (only three were ever filmed), finally settling on Suzanne Cloutier, a Canadian actress who lets her huge eyes do most of the work.

All through this tortured, stop-and-start process, it was only Orson who kept the film in his mind. Shooting with no regard for sequence and continuity, with scenes often starting in one location and ending in another, sometimes in mid-sentence, Orson shot for the visual poetry of the scene, which his editing later knits together into a highly effective extended montage. But this approach left him vulnerable in the period of post-production, and there was no getting around the fact that the soundtrack was a disaster. With all the parts being dubbed later in a studio (Welles himself not only dubbed Othello but much of Robert Coote’s role as Roderigo), the lip sync was often quite soft, like an Italian movie of the period. And the musical score, masterful though it was, was over modulated and distorted on the soundtrack.

The film won the 1952 Palme d’Or at Cannes, a significant achievement for Welles and a great validation that his new approach was working with European audiences. But it was rarely seen in theatres in the years since, and the messy soundtrack continued to be a problem. In 1992, the film received a major overhaul, as technicians applied the then-new technique of digital correction to clean up the prints visually and did significant work on the soundtrack. Cutting every line, sometimes syllable-by-syllable, out of the soundtrack, they re-synced it to the picture and created an entirely new picture-to-sound match that even Welles never saw. Rather than digitally clean up the music, they simply re-recorded it all in 1992 with a small group of musicians, and re-did many of the sound effects. This “restored” version was not without controversy when it was released to theatres, but it did give many people, myself included, the opportunity to see and appreciate the film for the first time.

This new print of Othello, which I saw this weekend here in Vancouver, is a subtle but significant improvement on the 1992 work, with the sound and music and dialogue being much more seamlessly integrated into the great-looking film print. Yes, it’s obvious that the dialogue was re-synced and digitally filtered (the level of background noise and hiss varies considerably from scene to scene, and sometimes line to line), but it was all more intelligible than it has ever been, and I enjoyed being able to savour MacLiammor’s dialogue as never before. This is the version that is touring the world at the moment, and if it comes to your neighbourhood, see it. And bring a young person if you can, so they can ask those magical words we in Welles fandom and scholarship love to hear, “Wow – what else did he make?”

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


1 Comment

  1. Great to know! Another of my favourites. Hope they release this new version on DVD with “Filming Othello”, which unfortunately I never saw.

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