OTHELLO: Blu-ray (UA 1951/1955) Criterion Collection
Few Shakespearean tragedies are as penetratingly grim as The Tragedy of Othello (foreshortened to ‘Othello’ henceforward); the bard’s brilliant character study of the self-destructive quality in that ‘little green-eyed monster’; fewer film adaptations still, as relentless in carrying forth the play’s unapologetic pall of doom and desire to the nth degree as Orson Welles stunning 1951 incarnation. In tandem, Welles genius and ego knew no bounds. But he would struggle to get this vision up there on the screen, frequently derailed by insufficient funding and a barrage of behind-the-scenes misfires to have soured any other aspiring film-maker to throw in the towel. Instead, Welles redoubled his efforts; doubled down and then rethought his strategies. In the end he emerges supreme, running through no less than five cinematographers to maintain an uncanny visual consistency and borrowing heavily in his editing style from the ‘montage’ theories put forth by Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein. Welles’ Othello, though taking great liberties with Shakespeare’s immortal text, is nevertheless supremely cinematic. It took Welles three years to shoot the picture…or rather, eighteen months, followed by nearly two years of tinkering with the edits. Welles would photograph his fractured masterpiece in Morocco, Venice, Tuscany and Rome (with interiors lensed at Scalera Studios in Rome) and, in retrospect, this resultant spectacle of alienation and jealousy might be the poster child for film scholar’s theory of the auteur.
Through his steep tenacity and occasionally ambiguous flights into unpolluted resourcefulness, Welles bore the slings and arrows that might have otherwise tilted a film-maker to reconsider his resolve; his ninety-minute distillation of Shakespeare’s three-hour drama, fairly teetering on the brink of mere folly, misshapen, oppressive and phantasmagoric. Indeed, from the outset, Othello marks a stark departure from any set of cinematic expectations one may choose to ascribe it – then or now; beginning with the finale - an extreme close-up of Othello’s dead face filling the screen, immediately followed by twin funeral processionals caught in stark silhouette; Desdemona’s porcelain visage shrouded in transparent black gauze (Suzanne Cloutier, the fourth actress to assume the part); the mourners rising askew on a parapet reminiscent of The Seventh Seal (1957) and the villainous Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir) hoisted by soldiers in a steel cage high above them all in observation of the unholy mess he hath wrought. Unreliable backers stretched Welles’ ambitions – along with his patience – from 1948 to 1952, as he continued to pinch his pennies and reassemble (and sometimes recast) cast and crew, infusing the production with his own capital, hard earned on pay checks cut for The Third Man (1949) and The Black Rose (1951).
An aside about The Black Rose. In it, Welles appears as the heavily painted and mustached Bayan, wearing a cloak he insisted on being lined with genuine mink, even though it would not be photographed: an odd request, though willingly fulfilled by 2oth Century-Fox. When production wrapped, the cloak ‘mysteriously’ disappeared, miraculously to turn up as part of Welles’ costuming for Othello with the lining turned out to show it off. Coincidence? Me thinks not, my lord. Convoluted planning, an erratic shooting schedule begun in 1949 and thereafter shut down three times due to bankruptcies, Othello was either doomed or destined for better things. Welles found some highly imaginative solutions to these ever-intrusive logistical nightmares. As example, Roderigo’s (Robert Coote) murder, shot with an almost impressionist’s spate of close-ups on a sword plunging through creaky and sopping wet floor boards, barely displays the actors’ faces as their costumes had been impounded during the latest financial coup befallen the project. In another instance, a duel begun in Morocco concludes with an insert lensed in Rome several long months later and with different extras in different costumes lining the backdrop. The shifting availability of actors forced Welles to recast several parts in his picture more than once.
But the one unwavering aspect of the production, Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s underscore, highly pleased Welles. Indeed, Lavagnino’s music is apocalyptically appropriate for the wanton pandemonium and misery about to envelop this volatile principality. We get an operatic requiem to kickstart the descend into hell on earth, later evolved with subtler strains of a more menacing atrocity. There are no ‘thematic’ cues, no musical respites to suggest anything but an overriding sense of passionless resolve to march willfully towards death, self-inflicted or committed the ole-fashion way. Death stalks this Moor’s sparsely decorated and drafty chambers to the point of wild distraction. Lavagnino’s cues deliver an assault upon the ear – disturbing yet effective; the decorous pomp of Italy replaced by a suffocating ennui, fraught with impatience – daggers and swords ever-ready to fight. Welles loved this score, and would use Lavagnino again for his Chimes at Midnight (1965) and The Merchant of Venice (1969). There is something to suggest Welles might have preferred a more comprehensive adaptation of Othello, had he found the money necessary to complete it. Under duress simply to get the ‘damn thing’ finished, Welles nevertheless finds both the horror and sadness within, and, without the full folio of Shakespeare at his side; his Coles Notes rendition more than amply plucking apart, then piecing it all back together: a fascinating venture that speaks to die hard scholars without any sort of slavish devotion to the bard.
Despite the extreme condensed quality Welles’ vision, occasionally junked, though mostly jubilant, yields to a profusion of cannon fire, wretched malevolence and duplicity meant to defile a kingdom, root chaos derived from a mislaid handkerchief, and that penultimate self-effacing rationalization of killing that which is most dear to the heart. While Shakespeare’s métier was undeniably verbal poetry, Welles unequivocally proves in Othello his inspiration derives from powerful, yet clear-eyed pictorial compositions. Othello is not so much a movie or even a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare as it typifies the mad genius of Orson Welles run gloriously amuck; the figures here brought to an almost zombie-like paralysis in their mannerisms and raped of all emotional content, the necessary buffer lacking among the aristocratic to prevent Iago’s insidious claims of marital infidelity from penetrating deeper into Othello’s subconscious, stirring, sickening the Moor’s already wounded ego.
Hence, as a cinematic experience this Othello is decidedly one-part Shakespeare to four-parts Orson Welles; Welles apparently having made the executive decision to jettison all but a basic thumbnail of the plot, foreshortening some scenes, excising others entirely, to achieve a decidedly Welles-ian verisimilitude. To be sure, Welles’ vision is full of that trademarked Shakespearean ‘sound and fury’, distilling the play’s wordy byplay into infrequently inarticulate ramblings, but with the hypnotic contributions of cinematographers G.R. Aldo, Anchise Brizzi, George Fanto, Alberto Fusi and Oberdan Troiani doing double – and in some cases – triple duty to fill in the blanks and provide the connective tissue that makes Othello click (at least, partly) as it should dramatically. Welles gets a lot of mileage from his location work, the stark stony gorgeousness of Adriatic ports looking wildly exotic, if ever so slightly remote and foreboding. Wisely, Welles retains the social stigma of the play, the dark Moor scrutinized by Venetian aristocracy far more for the tone of his skin than his aptitude as a professional soldier. Indeed, Othello is suspected of witchcraft. For by what ‘other means’ might he have taken the fair-haired Desdemona to wife and to bed? And Welles remains the master of this sort of shadowy cynicism. At times, however, even Welles’ expertise as a maker of scenes develops something of a dull spot where the play’s subtext is concerned. He has clipped too much from the play to make the arc of its drama anything better than sheer, elaborate spectacle. Worse, his interpretation falls prey to the pitfalls of translating Shakespeare to film; the characters, reverberating and coldblooded, seemingly without purpose – or perhaps, better stated as none that is ever entirely revealed to the audience forthwith.
The real problem with Welles’ Othello is that it never entirely evolves its narrative impetus to take us from points ‘A’ to ‘B’, then beyond, but rather comes to us in fitful bursts of higgledy piggledy inventiveness. Welles continually suspends the promise of more intense revelations yet to follow; then, never follows through. As Shakespeare’s Othello is a play about misrepresented words leading to dire misunderstandings, Welles’ pruning of the dialogue somewhat emasculates the point of the story for which no amount of exotic location work and swirling visual design can adequately substitute or sustain. As Welles has already settled on a modus operandi where actions speak louder than words he equally refrains from providing us with any sound explanation for the motives behind such actions. Virtually every character here is little more than a cardboard cutout of their Shakespearean derivation. Without a more comprehensive appreciation of the play – or even a basic scholastic approach – the audience comes away from this Othello with a tinny, overwrought and unusually frail compassion for what has made any of these iconic figures tick.
Only part of the disarray vexing these characters who populate Othello can be witnessed on the screen. The rest was largely Welles’ behind-the-scenes tsunami to survive; continuity stitched from fragments of scenes sometimes begun in one location, only to be concluded in another, hundreds of miles away. As he could not afford to record his sound live, Welles placed the camera to make his actors’ lips invisible, dubbing many of the voices himself as cast members dropped off the radar over the next three years to take on other projects. Despite his tenacity, Othello would remain one of Orson Welles’ least seen movies; a truly ragged testament of wills with its soundtrack badly out of synch. No one can – or should – deny Welles his flair for visual drama. Herein, as always, he remains the master of such storytelling. The images tell the story – period! Given that so many – too many – Shakespearean plays to film settle for mere moving tableau of great actors enunciating great lines (good for the stage, deadly dull on the screen), we give Orson Welles top marks for resisting the urge to simply bow to the bard with that usually ascribed surrender to “the play is the thing.” Welles’ view of the play is more emotional than cerebral or even, at times, articulate. It has absolutely no place in academia. And he re-conceives the narrative as a whirlwind of all-consuming mania his Moor is experiencing from within; jealousy giving rise to a temporary madness, displayed by fully-formed hallucinogenic properties exhibited through a camera lens.
In 1952, Othello was the recipient of the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film (precursor to the Palme d'Or). But it would take United Artists (UA) another three years to figure out how to market the picture in the U.S. To date, three versions of the movie have been released theatrically; two supervised by Welles and a 1992 ‘restoration’ overseen by his daughter, Beatrice. A dubbed version shown in Rome in 1951 possessed less flaws than the Euro-English release, incorporating subtler tweaks Welles made to many scenes – seemingly, never entirely satisfied with the final product. The 93-minutes cut for New York’s 1955 premiere excised Welles’ spoken-word titles for more traditional written credits at UA’s behest. Extremely displeased with Suzanne Cloutier's entire performance, Welles would also dub her with Gudrun Ure, who had played Desdemona opposite him in a 1951 theater production. The major consensus at the time was that the official U.S. release represented something of a compromise. Welles, who died in 1985, would miss out on the theatrical reissue of Othello, with a $1 million restoration bequeathed to refurbish its decaying film stock and more tightly re-synch the audio with augmented sound effects re-recorded, along with Lavagnino’s score, in true stereo. The irony here is that if Welles had been given a million to make his movie back in 1948 none of this post-Welles tinkering would have been necessary.
Again, technical issues abounded with the restoration efforts, a persistent ‘white noise’ not inherent in the Euro-cut, and further marred by a number of creative changes that some would argue had flown in the face of Welles’ intent. Criticisms were lobbed at Beatrice Welles for ‘changing’ with her father’s work. After a legal battle with Criterion over their LaserDisc debut prompted the distributor to pull Othello from home video distribution, subsequent limited releases on VHS and later, DVD all used the 91 min. U.S. print that had sidestepped the deluge of all this legal haranguing. Would Orson have approved? Hmmm. Perhaps unaware a more competent Euro-cut existed, arguably, the 92’ restoration team did their best with what they had; the opening funeral processional missing its Gregorian chant for the theatrical reissue but reinstated for the DVD release. Also, Angelo Francesco Lavagnino score was severely altered to the point where his heir refused to acknowledge the work as part of his father’s canon. Whereas Welles had used a 40-piece ensemble of mandolins, the remastered stereo incorporated barely three. By the end of the theatrical reissue, Beatrice Welles’ had been dragged through the mud by scholars loyal to Orson Welles’ original version, deriding Bea’s claims Othello was ‘a lost film’ that had ‘never been screen theatrically’. Returning to the original mono blend, Othello was to receive yet another ‘upgrade’, this one hailed as “much more appropriate for a low-budget, black-and-white 1952 release.”
Welles’ Othello is book-ended by an event foreign to Shakespeare; the twin funeral processions of the Moor and Desdemona. We regress to some rather cryptic byplay between Welles’ earth-skinned Moor and Iago. Othello has lived a rather solitary soldier’s life in the bonded company of men. He is therefore ill-prepared for the elixir of Desdemona’s fresh-faced innocence, and ultimately, even more incapable of recognizing how impossible it would be for a woman so in love with her lord and master to defile their sacred bond of marriage with another. Infatuated after having overheard Othello’s tales of war relayed in private to her father, Brabantio (Hilton Edwards), Desdemona’s naïveté and Othello’s inexperience with the fairer sex conspire to undue all their mutually obvious affections for one another. Othello is precisely the sort of human folly destined to befall when extreme opposites attract; the rough-hewn nobleman meets an aristocrat’s green girl – a recipe for disaster. And so, does it fall to Iago to unscrupulously tread where these two not dare; Iago, perhaps the most satisfying, if socially impotent usurper of romantic longing who ever walked the earth. The green-eyed monster he implants into Othello’s highly impressionable brain has first run its self-destructive course through his own; a ‘queer’ – if thoroughly chaste – bro-mantic chemistry flung to the mud by Othello’s decision to marry another. It is telling Othello should allow mere innuendo teetering on conjecture about Desdemona and Cassio (Michael Laurence) to ruin his perfect marriage. Othello, both the play and the movie, is essentially about a man too arrogant to last. Welles could likely relate to his alter ego; his heady leap into Citizen Kane (before considering the consequences from going toe to toe with the yellow journalist python, William Randolph Hearst) great fodder for willing his Moor to life.
Suffering under the strains of Iago’s accusations, Othello drives Desdemona from his bed. He denies her not only his sexual companionship, but more detrimentally the emotional content of his character with which she has desperately fallen in love. Her patience tested, Desdemona is much too unprepared to either spite her husband’s spurn or repay him in kind. Instead, she grieves in private without the distorted, though nevertheless grotesquely comforting buffer of Othello’s emotional masochism. And so, Iago pursues his agenda un-tethered from fear of discovery. He plagues Roderigo, another weak-willed gentleman, still agonizing over the realization Desdemona prefers the cocoa-skinned Moor to him. Nothing less than Othello’s death will satisfy Iago. And thus, a murder plot is hatched; to plant the handkerchief given to Desdemona by Othello (a family heirloom) in the purse of Cassio to stir Othello’s bloody revenge to a boil. Problematically, Othello resists believing the worst about Cassio. So now, Iago orders Roderigo to murder Cassio in a Turkish bath. Alas, even this seemingly simple assassination is bungled. Cassio is stabbed to death by Iago who also murders Roderigo when no one is looking.
Now, Iago poisons Othello’s mind to the point of no return. Othello confronts his mistress in her bed chamber. She is contrite, knowing not the reason why, and implores her husband to reconsider the decision he has already reached beforehand; to drive out his specter of doubt by killing the only woman he has ever loved. Suffocating his beloved in a rather passionless rage, Othello cannot live with his guilt. While Desdemona’s lady in waiting, Emilia (Fay Compton) is left to discover her savagely butchered remains, Othello draws his dagger to his own bosom, carving the madness from his heart once and for all. We regress to the beginning (or rather, the end); Othello and Desdemona’s funeral processions passing a crowd of remorseful onlookers with Iago, strung up in a cage to observe the spectacle from on high. This isn’t going to end well for him either!
Othello was very much on Welles’ mind even as he was putting the finishing touches on 1948’s The Lady from Shanghai. That latter picture bares the stigma of Welles’ sad-eyed farewell to Rita Hayworth (the star of ‘Shanghai’ and Welles’ soon to be ex-wife). In many ways, Othello is an even more dire elegy to that love bitterly denied; Welles, having had enough time to properly digest the treacheries both men and women commit when a marriage begins to disintegrate. Personally, I have always found it difficult and a little bit embarrassing to write about Welles’ genius in his later years because inevitably I find myself being critical about the shortcomings that go along with it. Othello is a movie rich in Welles’ fertile imagination; also wrought larger than life with his ingenuity for working under the most extreme and oppressive conditions. It has an intricate visual splendor that belies its paltry budget, only occasionally matched by the quality of performances given throughout. Alas, my singular desire here would have been for Welles to remain a littler nearer to Shakespeare for the dialogue and not resort to this sort of chop-shop editing style rendering whole portions of his storytelling incoherent; particularly, for those never having read the play, and therefore unprepared for the movie’s disjointed quality. It’s not all Welles’ doing or fault, in fact; the idiotic abandonment of indie backers unable to carry the creative load, allowing Welles to concentrate exclusively on being the genius he so obviously was and remains. But in the final analysis and in spite of its virtues, Othello comes across as a truncated and discombobulating entertainment at best.
Criterion bows its new to Blu incarnation of Othello, affording us the opportunity to appreciate both the 1952 UK cut and its 1955 U.S. re-envisioning by Welles. Both versions have been afforded a brand new 4K remaster. The results are hardly perfect, but this is owing to the deplorable nature of surviving elements. For decades only a poorly contrasted 16mm print was thought to have survived. Mercifully, 35mm prints eventually resurfaced, allowing for a more comprehensive restoration effort to occur. A few years ago, French distributor, Carlotta did a 2K release of Othello. Now, Criterion’s bests this effort, improving upon image density and fine details. Depth remains a problem, particularly in Welles’ display of masterfully composed long shots. Everything just seems very flat, despite better than average shadow delineation. Minor and easily forgivable fluctuations occur throughout. Interesting, the 1955 U.S. cut is in marginally rougher shape than its Euro-predecessor; the gray scale weaker with its mid-range settling into variations of tonal gray. Image stabilization has been applied, though I did detect minor gate weave in the 55’ cut as opposed to the 52’ effort. Film grain is also better resolved in the earlier incarnation. Age-related artifacts remain throughout, despite Criterion having done its utmost to apply its litany of restoration tools to the cause. Again, Othello was in such a sad state of disrepair prior to this release, one can only marvel at the quantum leaps made since previous home video incarnations.
Criterion has favored us with a PCM 1.0 mono audio on both versions. The only extra on the actual ‘movie’ disc (there are two discs here, both versions consolidated on a single Blu-ray) is a fairly fascinating audio commentary recorded in 1995 and featuring filmmaker, Peter Bogdanovich along with scholar, Myron Meisel. This is a joy to listen to and it accompanies the 1955 cut of the picture. For the rest, Criterion has packed on some goodies on a second Blu-ray including the rarely seen 1979 essay documentary Welles’ produced, Filming “Othello”. At an hour and a half, this indie-made addendum shows Welles primarily seated behind his desk at home, waxing about his participation in the ordeal that was to eventually evolve into Othello. I could listen to Welles for hours; his seemingly off-the-cuff articulations almost hypnotic. Among his many attributes, Orson Welles possessed a commanding presence and inimitable charm that fully displayed his intellect and rational without ever appearing as pompous or self-aggrandizing. What an artist, indeed! We also get, ‘Return to Glennascaul’, a 1953 short film made by co-stars, Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards during one of the many hiatuses from shooting Othello, and, Souvenirs d’Othello, a 1995 documentary devoted to Suzanne Cloutier (who had hardly garnered Welles’ favor). Welles historian and biographer, Simon Callow chimes in with a 2017 interview expressly done for this release, plus a new comparative piece from Welles scholar, François Thomas and another featuring Ayanna Thompson, author of Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America. Finally, Joseph McBride’s 2014 reflections on Othello and Welles, and a fascinating written essay by critic, Geoffrey O’Brien. Cumulatively, these extras represent hours of tantalizing backstory on the making and re-making of Othello – surely to please the collector and novice alike. Alone, they are well worth the price of admission. Bottom line: while Othello is a miscarried masterpiece, and the Blu-ray can only do so much to resurrect its former visual splendor, Criterion’s valiant efforts here are to be commended. You’ll want to snatch this one up.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)