You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
This week Andrej Trbojevic looks at Orson Welles’ 1952 classic, his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello.
Though we may doubt the sincerity of the confession, Orson Welles claimed in later life that he regretted pursuing a film career because it consisted of only 2% movie making, and 98% hustling. The 3 years of donkey work required to finance his adaptation of Othello, scoffed at by Hollywood executives, is a case in point. But how thankful we may now be that Welles’ prodigious pneuma, which delivered us Rupert Murdoch’s prototype in Citizen Kane at the age of 26, was enabled by some serious big pimpin’. For here we have quite simply a mesmeric and masterful adaptation of the Bard’s tragedy of the Venetian Moor, to rival Peter Brooks’ King Lear, and dare I say even Shakespeare’s coruscating oeuvre itself.
Welles’ protean genius, the kind that truly deserves the threadbare epithet of “auteur”, is evident throughout every micro-second and frame of this film, for his gravelly baritone dons a blackface in the eponymous tragic lead, and he directs the screen’s flickering eye for all riveting 90 minutes. But it is not the fastidiousness of an egocentric, keen to impress his stamp on cinema history and coveting the box-office harvest, but of one undergoing the agony and love of paying homage to the work itself, of the characters and diction that were life-long refuges for Welles, forsaken when orphaned at the age of 15.
The opening sequence is enthralling. Welles takes the liberty of fiddling with Shakespeare’s dramaturgy and instead provides an introduction reminiscent of the Chorus’ grim overture in Romeo and Juliet: the silent cadavers of Othello and Desdemona, and as such the ephemeral, tenuous love that animated them, are hoisted through Venice by the disturbed, disbelieving throng of hoi polloi. The sweeping landscape shots of this fucking fairy tale city reveal a beauty that in its teetering, architectural grandeur seems to sniffle in stoic lament at the folly of its creators. A hammering and dissonant piano theme from composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino pierces through the demented Gregorian chanting to inform the whole dreary business, as an unrepentant, menacing Iago writhes in a cell for the Public’s consumption of Evil. The black and white shots of the funeral procession, of the mourning monks hidden in their cowls has strong connotations of the Crucifixion, lending a humanist hermeneutic to this archetypal myth by suggesting it was not only Christ himself that died for our sins, but the deceased lovers as well. However the tragedy is never over-wrought; there is an appropriate elegiac tone that plants firmly within the viewer’s mind the axiom shared by all us actors on the world stage that all things move toward their predestined end.
A review of this type is too short to properly laud the chiaroscuro texture of the film and the verity of its Baroque recreation, all the more incredible given that it was filmed in such disparate places as Morocco, Tuscany and Rome, besides Venice itself. The sumptuous black and white, far from being some kind of fetishistic stylistic choice (a la Leni Riefenstahl and the crypto fascists of the fashion industry), instead brings a psychic intensity and depth to the Manichean tussle that ensnares our hapless lovers. Never have I seen the absence of colour and the suzerainty of tone deployed with such metaphorical force. This is true in particular for Othello’s soliloquies. In one of the most memorable, a high-angle shot veers in on his salient, pallid visage, rent by his Moorish doubt and jealousy, craning out of the thick black, the black of Original Sin, of ingrained folly, mercilessly fantasising about murder.
Welles himself is flawless. The gravitas in the Moor’s countenance, depicting the wrestling of pride and hurt in a close up after the Venetian senator Brabantio hurls the racist slur “such a thing as that”, is monumental. He displays true romantic sensitivity when murmuring “we must obey the time” in a close up of his tender kiss with Desdemona prostrate on their conjugal bed, her golden curls like eddies filling the shot, giving us a glimpse of love that shines through the constraints created by words and belief. The immediate cut to a tempest, with quick edits of canons and forks of lighting effectively sets up a portentous mood, suggesting that their love never had a chance, and that Othello, recently returned from vanquishing the harrying Turks, could brave the belligerent elements but not his own doubt.
If, as the Jewish Philosopher-Mystic Philo claimed, “ a good man is free”, then the character of Iago is the paragon of the unfreedom born of moral pestilence. Michael MacLiammoir, a friend of Welles’ from their early Dublin theatre career, is exceptional in capturing how cool, calculating and petty such maleficence can be, ranking alongside Kenneth Brannagh’s fine take on this classic villain. The superimposition of a dagger manically stabbing Roderigo as Iago tries to eradicate his little bitch is unforgettable. So is the composition of the shot when Iago gazes nefariously into Othello, whose agonised visage is reflected in a mirror, as Iago drives the dagger of his baseless propositions concerning Desdemona’s infidelity right into Othello’s soul.
Desdemona herself, performed by Suzanna Cloutier, is restrained as the victim increasingly encircled by the conspiracy of unchecked darkness. Her innocence is poignant, believable and as such lends weight and pathos to the partly unconvincing virginal purity of Shakespeare’s character. An intimate scene between Othello and Desdemona, retiring to their chamber is brilliantly depicted by solely portraying their shadows that flicker on the wall, cast by the light emanating from the hearth, suggesting their love shares in the source spoken of in Plato’s cave analogy.
The closing scenes, as you’d except, are expertly handled. The sense of inexorable loss, as Lavagnino’s piano theme re-emerges to accompany Othello’s frightening shadow, is excruciating. The crescendo in the music halts on cue as Othello rents the curtains, and we see Desdemona’s face up front, wincing towards a feigned sleep. The presentiment of sacrifice is particularly acute here. The juxtaposition between close ups of Othello’s accusatory, benighted mind and Desdemona’s helpless, well-lit face is as intense and effective as tragedy gets. The depiction of the murder itself, as Othello declaims “it is too late”, is chilling, as we see in a close up the mad eyes of Othello transmute the kiss of purity into the necrophiliac’s kiss, his lips touching the asphyxiating face of Desdemona shrouded by their marital linen.
Her limp body, snuffed by the rich, regal drapery, and captured in a daguerreotype-like still, is the very embodiment of life squandered by the insane preoccupations of men, preferring the death of the beloved than mercy. Welles’ Othello, initially shown in close-up squirming to justify his actions behind the literal and symbolic iron bars of psychological degeneracy, is, as you’d expect from the true artist’s vantage point of eternity, reduced in a long shot to a sorry, unredeemable corpse, willed to nemesis by his own sabre and pride. He is framed by the towering perfection of a stone archway, of pure form unattainable by men. We share in the grim sigh of the Venetians as the dead are viewed in first person-perspective from the oculus of their chamber.
Welles’ reverential use of pathetic fallacy is one of the more indelible features of the film that tarries in the mind long after viewing. Notably employed when Othello dangles Iago over the edge of the known at the fort in Cyprus as it is hewed by a preternatural storm, this use of one of the Bard’s fav tools is as gripping a cinematic externalisation of unconscious distress as it gets. Although we hear refrains of Othello’s line “if such calm follows such tempests, may the winds blow until they awaken death”, we realise that the pounding ocean is the past “that is never past” as Faulkner put it, the slumbering grim reaper that encountered the “Anthropophagi” and finally cannibalises his sanity and gratitude for the love he received in earnest.
To say the film is without its flaws would be disingenuous. It’s unsurprising the film was cut from an epic 3 hours to just one and a half hours for its release; there are some clumsy edits and overdubs in the dialogue, and there is a rushed, brisk pace to the film unsuited to the usually insidious, slow diegesis of tragedy. However, this touch of botched anarchy is a testament to the passionate commitment of Welles, who overcame the limitations of logistical hurdles, producer obstinacy and a tight budget by turning them into an opportunity for cinematic alchemy. In a sense the frenzy in editing and narrative development suits this film that is so superbly imbued with the psychological foment that is the undoing of all involved. This battle at the psychic level is ingeniously depicted in a few startling and unmatched scenes where the actors deliver their lines with their backs to the camera, letting the mind’s schizoid pulse (“damn her!”), disembodied from any one person, let loose.
Welles’ adaptation is remarkable for how faithfully the film preserves the profound questions and themes so scorchingly explored in the play. If Othello really did love Desdemona, why was he so easily, and eagerly, swayed by his ensign and not the being he swore his faith to? At the end of the film, with the return of the monks in procession, Othello’s demands to “Give me ocular proof” seem insincere. How much did he really need before his “love” turned to murderous intent? The possessive nature of Othello’s passions are just as dubious as the ones that make Iago, whose perfidy goes beyond gaining the position of lieutenant in rational self-interest and into the wanton enjoyment of death-drive. The final to-and-fro between these mutual parasites, where Othello asks “Why didst though ensnare me, body and soul?” and Iago retorts “Demand me nothing, what you know you know” seems to assert the impossibility of either of them absolving themselves of responsibility for their criminal intent. It is a film that captures the cannibalistic potential of desire impeccably. As Emilia, Iago’s long-suffering wife states in a rare moment of lucidity – “they are but stomach, and we but food, they eat us hungrily, and when they are full, they belch us”. But perhaps the defining image of the film is the close-up of Othello peering through wrought-iron, unable to realise that the sliver of light bordering his face like a bashful aureole – “Farwell tranquil mind, farewell content” is pushed away by his own self-made torment and nobody else.
The film is less interesting because of the controversy surrounding its re-release. Ironically of an almost Shakespearean nature, a scramble for royalties lies at the heart of what versions are available. The 1992 DVD version, released by Beatrice Welles, the daughter of Orson, and berated for its inconsistences and flaws is now out of print (although I managed to find a copy), however all of Welles’ original versions, including a 1994 Criterion re-release, were legally blocked by Beatrice. Nevertheless, the 1994 version is mercifully available on youtube and is the recommended one.
While timeless in its execution of this beloved play, the reason you have to see this classic is condensed in one fun fact, which speaks tomes about the Bard’s most talented hustler: Welles ordered a mink-lined coat for his performance in 1951’s The Black Rose. The producers, puzzled over the disappearance of the coat at the end of shooting, would have had their query answered had they seen Welles’s grand adaptation of Othello the following year.
Ivan Cerecina: I was lucky enough to see this in cinemas recently in a newly-restored digital version that’s making its way around Europe and North America (and will probably never make it to Australia!). It’s a remarkable film and in some ways encapsulates so much of Welles’ work after his move from Hollywood to Europe. Firstly, as Andrej touched on, there was the haphazard nature of the film’s production, made piecemeal and on a low-ish budget in between various film and television acting obligations. Welles would then spend years on the edit, producing the final copy in time for the 1952 Cannes film festival. Second is his approach to sound, which for mine becomes more and more a focus of his artistry in the “independent” (roughly, from the 1950s to his death in the 1980s) period of his career. It’s not just the brilliant score – which blends renaissance and medieval choral workouts with some wild modernist tinges – but the roughness of the mix, apparently due to the sub-Hollywood standard equipment used for the mixing of the soundtrack.1 Coupled with the dubbing of all dialogue and diegetic sound – in line with the Italian studio production practice of the time – this magnifies the disjointed artifice of the montage.
In classic Welles fashion, the logistical hurdle of dubbing sound produces some striking stylistic choices, particularly in the way he captures his actors delivering Shakespeare’s lines. Note the preponderance of long shots in the film, in which the pragmatic decision to mask the movement of the actors’ lips also makes these scenes exercises in geometry, landscape and power. Close-ups are thus markedly more sparse than one would expect in a Shakespeare adaptation, reserved almost exclusively for the central triangle of Othello, Desdemona and Iago. They are all the more powerful for it: see the slow-moving chiaroscuro opening on the dead Othello’s face before his body is carried away.
Brad Mariano: One of the few major entries in the Welles canon I hadn’t seen, though sadly my experience wasn’t as glorious as that of Ivan’s (he’s right that a restored version probably won’t appear theatrically here, but the French label Carlotta has put the film out on Blu-ray which is very encouraging news for English-speaking territories). It’s visually impressive, almost overwhelmingly so. Welles was a master of cinema, and a lover of theatre but is careful here in not meshing these two artforms. There’s no way you could label this film with the reductive putdown of a ‘filmed play’, a failed experiment where an adaptation of a play is served no purpose in its adaptation to the screen except for the posterity of performances and the integrity of the written text – think James Foley’s adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross; an impressive ensemble piece but one which is egregiously uncinematic. The visual artistry of Othello is often staggering, one of the few productions of Shakespeare you could enjoy with the sound off. I just wonder if he didn’t go too far, veering occasionally into conspicuously great filmmaking and set pieces at the expense of immersiveness or spatial/sound continuity – by going to such lengths to avoid being labelled ‘uncinematic’ he just occasionally oversteps and gets into a habit of cinematic showmanship. But that’s not to undermine the great work he does, which I think Andrej has done a great job of pointing out. And again, it is a choppy edit of Shakespeare’s text, but one that maintains the ‘vibe’, which is to say, the characters, the sense of drama in a more cinema-friendly and well-paced 90 minutes. It’s a daring adaptation, and a mostly successful one.
Jeremy Elphick: I’m a newcomer to Orson Welles’ oeuvre (this is my 3rd after Citizen Kane and The Trial), but I’ve never come out of one of his films anything bar impressed – this wasn’t an exception. Writing the third comment here, there’s a lot that has already been said – especially that of the noticeable change in Welles’ approach to cinema in the Hollywood-Europe switch, the awe-inspiring chiaroscuro, Welles’ performance itself, and the nature of the dichotomy between theatre and cinema. Welles is clearly a director whose work is inextricably linked to the world of theatre and criticisms of it have often felt more like criticisms of theatre in general. As Brad argued though, it’s not a ‘filmed play’ and it’s definitely more than simply a piece of recorded theatre. That said, I agree that it gets lost a few times between trying to compensate against critics of the theatrics of Welles’ cinema, resulting in a bit of aesthetic confusion. Besides that, though, I feel Welles’ has made a broadly successful film. Orson Welles’ last film, however, feels very pertinent to this discussion.
Filming Othello (1978) was released 26 years after Welles’ Othello, his last film – a documentary. One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is the way in which Welles views his own film – largely imperfect. He discusses his regrets over the “many things” he would have done over again. He looks at it as a failure, something that could have been one of his greatest pictures, but something that fell through. Looking at this conversation above, history looks like it will be kinder to Othello than Welles’ himself was. “In all my heart, I wish that I wasn’t looking back on Othello, but looking forward to it. That Othello would be one hell of a picture” he concludes in Filming Othello, leaving an interesting questions to frame this film: what could Othello have been? I enjoyed the film, but I feel like that Welles’ idealised version of it would have been something I could have loved in the same way I would have loved Akira Kurosawa’s destroyed full-length version of The Idiot. While Othello raises a lot of questions internally, looking at the context that surrounded it and the nature of regret in the life of the filmmaker is simultaneously – at least, for me – one of the most fascinating parts of the movie.