Orson Welles’s 1952 Othello is one of the lesser-known of Shakespeare films, partly due to its chequered history. Made over several years whenever Welles could scrounge up enough money to do some more work on it, it suffered from poor sound design, the lack of a final cut, and inadequate copy distribution that gave only a butchered view of what it might be. Fortunately, in 1992 Michael Radford spearheaded a restoration of the film, which involved not only clearing up the image but reworking the entire soundtrack, recreating audio effects to replace the inadequate original ones, and completely rerecording the score, to produce not simply a clear version of a massacred film, but something as close as possible to what Welles would have done had he had the means. (The restoration was approved by Welles’s daughter.) Thanks to these efforts, we can finally see Othello for what it is, and what it was meant to be.
When Orson Welles made a movie from a Shakespeare play, he did not simply take a production from the stage and rearrange it for bigger, more realistic sets. He radically altered the text for the sake of filmic effect, in essence translating plays into movies rather than adapting them, just as Giuseppe Verdi translated the plays into operas. (Intriguingly, both Welles and Verdi used the same three characters – Macbeth, Othello, and Falstaff – as the basis for their works.) Unlike Laurence Olivier, who like Welles directed and starred in three Shakespeare films, Welles tirelessly asserts the primacy of the visual when making a film, and nowhere more clearly than in his film of Othello.
There is scarcely so much as a single shot in the film unworthy of attention. Watching this film is like attending an art exhibition where every painting on the wall rivals the next for attention, with hardly time enough to completely take each one in. It is Welles at his most expressionistic, the screen a nest of shadows and bars, producing an inescapable feeling of enclosure and imprisonment. The world of this Othello is as much a prison as Denmark is to Hamlet. The aesthetic is almost that of a horror film, but one crafted by the eye of a master. Beginning with the funeral processions of Othello and Desdemona, the film’s solemn opening is disrupted as Iago is dragged in the opposite direction at the end of a chain, hauled through a howling crowd to be locked in a cage that is hoisted into the air, there to be left to starve as he watches the funerals. The inescapability of the plot is accentuated by this framing: we know from the start there is no chance that the story will turn out differently, no hope for a happy ending. The characters are trapped in their story as much as in their surroundings, which are framed by high walls and iron grills; even in the outdoor scenes there is no escape: the lagoons of Venice are overlooked by buildings whose height blocks out the sky; Cyprus is rounded by a raging ocean that offers no refuge.
In this claustrophobic setting the characters go about their ordained lives. Welles is excellent as Othello, imposing in size and voice, his unmatchable bass rolling out the famous ‘Othello music’ with both power and unexpected moments of grace. Physically he dominates the screen, effortlessly communicating the Moor’s authority – at least until Iago’s poison begins to work, when Othello is suddenly seen off-kilter at skewed angles, a small man lost in a massive fortress (an effect similar to a famous shot in Welles’s Citizen Kane). From then on Othello’s size becomes menacing, as the physical power ideal for a soldier is suddenly seen as being also the brutal threat of the wife beater and murderer. But at the same time there is a deep uncertainty in him, hidden behind the image he projects – the crack that Iago uses to destroy him. There are moments when Welles’s acting comes across as hammy and overdone – the ‘Roast me with sulphur’ sequence especially comes to mind, though it is admittedly difficult to play otherwise – but in the main it is an impressive performance.
Suzanne Cloutier, as Desdemona, suffers from the radical surgery that has been performed on her part. With her role amputated of most of its lines, she is reduced to a cipher, a white-and-blonde apparition drifting through the gloom. Cloutier is a deeply dignified Desdemona, but she is not permitted to come to life; it is not even that she is objectified, but simply that Welles seems to have no feeling for the possibilities of the role. She is given only a snippet of the Willow Song which she hums as she stops Emilia from completing her disquisition against men. Yet even so, she is deeply affecting in the final scenes, particularly as she lies in bed with her eyes open, listening to Othello’s approach, knowing full well what is to come, before closing them suddenly when he opens the bed-curtains.
As Iago, Micheál MacLiammóir gives an extraordinarily dark performance, so dark in fact that it can stand as an example of just how Welles has arranged things to realise his gothic interpretation. Iago is no doubt a villainous psychopath, but shorn of all his humour, it is impossible to believe that no-one else would realise what he is. Even Roderigo (an exceptionally fatuous Robert Coote) should have been able to see through him. What is truly fascinating about MacLiammóir’s performance, however, is the sense one gets that he does not fully understand himself any more than does anyone else. When in his final line he tells Othello ‘What you know, you know’, there is an unexpected realisation that he does not claim to know more himself. Imprisoned in his cage, his face is blank except for an odd hint of curiosity – as though he is not entirely certain why all this has happened either.
As a film, then, Othello is an unmistakeable success. Its consistent aesthetic is matched by an extraordinary score well in advance of its time by Alberto Barberis and Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, anchored by a descending series of piano chords and moved forward by a wordless chorus. The opening funeral procession is a remarkable set piece, and Iago’s murder of Roderigo must rank as one of the creepiest moments in all of filmed Shakespeare, as Roderigo cowers beneath the planks of a bathhouse and Iago, in complete silence, stabs repeatedly through the slats with his sword, searching for his victim.Welles’s vision is powerful enough that the inescapable goofs that mar a film made in stages over three years do not detract from it, not even the un-synched lips or Iago’s magically disappearing and reappearing facial hair. It is a stunning piece of art. As an adaptation of Shakespeare, however – well, that’s a slightly different matter.
All productions of Shakespeare have to make choices, often involving cuts to the text, and this is even more so with screen adaptations. Welles’s choice to favour his own vision over Shakespeare’s text is a valid decision, but will make for uncomfortable viewing by purists. While Verdi simply cut the first act from his opera, Welles retains it, but rushes through it as fast as he can, narrating it as though it were a fairy tale with the more famous scenes acted out in full. Perhaps it is only that Welles did not have enough time to film it properly, but as an example, the line ‘Put up your bright swords’ is delivered so quickly and inconsequentially that one is left feeling he simply didn’t dare leave it out. As indicated, the cuts to Desdemona’s part leave her little more than a cog in the works of both Iago and Welles at once, while Iago himself becomes even more of a mystery. Complexity is ironed out, and the play becomes little more than a gothic melodrama, albeit a spectacularly written and filmed one. It is a beautiful film that richly rewards repeated viewings, but while film buffs with little interest in Shakespeare will love it, teachers of the play searching for a production to show their students, or those unfamiliar with the play seeking an introduction to it, would likely be better off looking elsewhere first.