Directed by Orson Welles. 1952 (European version)/ 1955 (US/UK version.)
Starring Orson Welles, Michael MacLiammoir, Suzanne Cloutier, Michael Coote, Dors Dowling and Michael Laurence. Black and White. Out on two-disc Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection
The traditional line taken by any dramatic piece that seeks to expose the horrors of racism is that we are all the same deep down, and colour is only skin deep. This is certainly illustrated in Orson Welles' interpretation of the Moor which is black only on the outside, and even then not consistently so. His face may be daubed in varying layers of black paint but this is pure, classic Orson, a classical actor delighting in performing the verse with no concession to ethnicity. You may choose to view his blackface as a piece of hideous racial insensitivity but it does lend support to those of us that suspect that the work of the bard is peopled not so much by carefully drawn characters but a selection of declamatory windbags who are largely interchangeable.
His Chimes At Midnight may or may not be the best Shakespeare film ever, but if nothing else a Welles take on Shakespeare always comes with the advantage of knowing he's not going to hang about. His Othello slashes the play down to a nippy hour and a half: a little bit less as it is nearly five minutes before any spoken word is heard. He opens with a wordless depiction of the funerals at the end of the story before Welles himself is heard, rather needlessly I'd say, telling us that this is a motion picture based on the play by William Shakespeare and then reading out the credits. Or at least that is what happens in the 1952 version I saw, but more on that later.
Now no doubt this abridged take loses much of the play's richness and at this length, the mechanics of the plot are a little exposed – the Moor seems to have his head turned against his bride Desdemona (Cloutier) mighty quickly and on the flimsiest of grounds. So much so, you rather suspect that he was just waiting for her betrayal. But by cutting down the yap, Welles shapes the language to have maximum screen impact – nobody talks for so long that you lose interest. By not being precious about the text he retains its value. Visually this is one of his more restrained efforts but the use of the locations (an oddly tourist free Venice and a Moroccan castle) and his trademark low camera angles, that from their humble vantage point frame our protagonists against vast skylines, are all beautifully done.
Welles loves the bard but it is tough love, he knew sacrifices had to be made to bring him to the big screen. But he earned the liberties he took. His devotion to the project is phenomenal. The original producer went bankrupt and production was frequently halted while the director/star went off to do an acting job to secure funds to carry on with it. One of the acting jobs Welles took to support it was Harry Lime in The Third Man.
As a result, this is a spit and paste production. Othello and Desdemona's quarters resemble an ornate sewage works. In places still photographs are used and the soundtrack is all dubbed, meaning words and lips rarely correspond. I'm not going to pretend any of this works in the film's favour but it does give it a manic intensity; the suggestion that this was a project clinging on by its fingertips and fueled by demented obsession
The two versions.
Among the disc supplements is a piece by François Thomas outlining the story of how there came to be two director's cuts and the difference between the two. Visually the two are very similar with a few minor adjustments - the spoken word credits aren't in the later US/UK version – but the big difference is in the performances. In the second version, he redubbed his performance and replaced Cloutier's vocal performance as Desdemona with those of Gudrun Ure who had played the role opposite him on stage after he had shot the film.
New, restored 4K digital transfers of two versions of the film, the 1952 European one and the 1955 U.S. and UK one, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray
- Audio commentary from 1995 featuring filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and Orson Welles scholar Myron Meisel
- Filming “Othello,” Welles’s last completed film, a 1979 essay-documentary
- Return to Glennascaul, a 1953 short film made by actors Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards during a hiatus from shooting Othello
- New interview with Welles biographer Simon Callow
- Souvenirs d’“Othello,” a 1995 documentary about actor Suzanne Cloutier by François Girard
- New interview with Welles scholar François Thomas on the two versions
- New interview with Ayanna Thompson, author of Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America
- Interview from 2014 with scholar Joseph McBride
- PLUS: An essay by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien
More Welles reviews:
Too Much Johnson
The Immortal story
The Lady from Shanghai