Monday, November 5, 2012

Othello (1952)

Orson Welles' Othello was the director's second adaptation of a Shakespeare play, following up his moody, fog-clouded Macbeth. Whereas he shot his expressionist Macbeth quickly and on a low budget, completing the film in a matter of weeks, his Othello was a deeply troubled project, taking three years to complete, and constantly plagued by budget shortfalls — Welles finally finished it with his own money, earned from acting jobs (like The Third Man) taken specifically to provide money for his own stalling film.

These troubles are readily apparent in the film's rough and rushed sensibility. Welles at times seems to be speeding through the famous play's text, delivering the lines at a hasty clip and liberally cutting from the source so that at times, particularly early on, it feels like a condensation of the story, occasionally assisted by a narrator who fills in the blanks and explains the plot. Coupled with Welles' typical post-dubbed dialogue, which always gives his soundtracks an air of spacey disconnection, this clipped pace gives the film a curious atmosphere, with its grand emotions of jealousy and hatred playing out at something of a remove. Welles seems far less interested in the text and the characters than in the opportunity that this classic source provides for cinematic grandstanding and strikingly crafted images.

This is, of course, a visually stunning film: Welles doesn't locate the emotion and the substance of Othello in Shakespeare's dialogue but in the images that Welles carefully chooses to accompany the words, setting the drama amidst moodily lit, theatrically decorated castles and stark, minimalist natural vistas. Whereas Welles' Macbeth was set in a foggy studio wasteland where the background was often nothing but a wisp of smoke and a dense black night sky, he achieves a similarly haunting effect in Othello with natural landscapes, foreboding swaths of sea and sky that churn with the intensity of the emotions embodied by this tale.

The gorgeous opening sequence sets the tone, foreshadowing the tragic end with a funeral procession shot from skewed low angles, the blank sky towering over the solemn figures of the coffin-bearers. The atmosphere is intense and eerily beautiful, and Welles carries this grand, dramatic aesthetic throughout the film. Othello's arrival in Cyprus is stormy and striking, with soldiers on the battlements framed against the unquiet sea, the waves crashing against the rocks beneath them and a dark, cloudy sky hovering above. The cold wind is practically palpable, and the stark, bleak mood is constantly projecting the air of impending tragedy that hangs over this story.

The film's performances are mostly excellent as well. Micheál MacLiammóir's Iago is perhaps not slimy enough, though he does project a blandly sinister flatness that makes him an effectively unassuming villain. Welles himself plays Othello, his face unfortunately darkened in what was still a Hollywood tradition of having Caucasian actors play darker-skinned men. But if one can get past that, Welles' typical forcefulness is very much to be found here, as he captures the glowering intensity and confused emotions of Othello, led to doubt his beautiful Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) by the treacherous plotting of the jealous, ambitious Iago.

Welles makes Desdemona's death scene especially potent, as befits the film's tragically sad climax: Othello wraps a gauzy sheet around his wife's face, her tears streaking the sheet, making wet marks in the cloth as it clings to her features, her mouth gasping against the instrument of her death. Death is at the crux of the film; it starts and ends with the same funeral procession, the same testament to the story's grim destination of murder and loss. Othello's death scene is similarly powerful, the camera reeling and whirling as the Moor, having stabbed himself in his grief and the realization of his mistake, stumbles back to the site of his wife's murder, where she lays sprawled out next to their bed. Welles' Othello is unforgettably potent at moments like this, unfailingly finding the black, shadowy, terrible beauty of the story's tragedy. It is far from a perfect adaptation of its source, and more than Welles' Macbeth it betrays the technical limitations and business woes that followed Welles throughout his career, but for all that it is a compelling, visually inventive work that unmistakeably bears the mark of its director.


MP said...

If I remember correctly Welles had to shoot Othello on a multi year span and it might be one of the reasons why the film is a unequal in rhythm and parts.
I, however, think that it is often underrated even if it does not strand as strong as Macbeth or Falstaff.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The last film Welles completed in his lifetme was Filming Othello which explained how the movie was made despite enormous difficulty. I also cannot reccomend highly enough Micheál MacLiammóir's memoir of the shoot "Put Money in Thy Purse." it's a hoot.

Sam Juliano said...

Yes this is visual grandstanding of the highest order, and visually it remains one of Welles most superlative pieces. But as you rightly notes there are some issues, like the cutting of the text to concentrate on the expressionistic presentation. Welles as actor here is terrific as are MacLiammoir and Cloutier. It's on balance a formidable achievement, though I still prefer CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT and MACBETH of Welles' other forays into the Bard.

As always a fabulous review.