Welles, in Order #6 – Othello
“Maddening” was the word Welles chose to describe the production of Othello. It began shortly after Macbeth and even sooner after the collapse of Cyrano de Bergerac. Welles was in Rome working on yet another project, Black Magic, for Scalera Film Studios, at the time, Italy’s biggest studio, and talked the studio head into financing Othello.
The essential people were brought to Mogador, in Morocco, and soon after a telegram arrived saying the costumes were not finished. Two days later, as Welles relates, another telegram arrived saying the costumes had not yet been started. And, inevitably, a third telegram arrived saying that Scalera had gone bankrupt.
The trouble with the costumes is probably the second-most famous anecdote associated with the production, as it necessitated (or inspired) the sequence in the Turkish bath, in which the costumes are swapped for towels. That it remains one of the film’s most memorable sequences is a happy ending that’s not shared by many other production anecdotes. For one, Welles was chided for the long production time – Othello took nearly three years to complete (and so my lateness in writing about it seems another happy coincidence, right?) – for another, he nearly drove himself bankrupt by personally backing the film; and finally, the ongoing lack of funds resulted in a poor-quality soundtrack, which was heavily criticized when the film was finally released.
Still, Othello did share the Palme d’Or (or rather, the grand prize) at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival (the other film being Renato Castellani’s Two Cents Worth of Hope), and in 1985 Welles’ daughter Beatrice began a restoration project that greatly improved both the audio quality, the dialogue and the score, and the film itself. The result, I’m assured, was received to great acclaim in 1992. (The version I’m working from is the Criterion Collection Laserdisc.)
My own feelings toward the film are mixed. Technically, I think it recycles a lot of the editing and camerawork from Macbeth and The Lady from Shanghai, and while both aspects are impressive, and perhaps improve on their predecessors, they nevertheless don’t seem to carry that spark of creativity.
On the other hand, this is widely regarded by film critics and Shakespeare specialists as the best cinematic adaptation of Othello, often for reasons that I’m not entirely sure are deliberate. And should that matter?
Othello opens at the play’s end, with a closeup of the deceased Othello. The camera zooms out, then back in again before we cut to the body borne by cloaked men and marched to its resting place. We see another figure bear a cross and then we see the body of a woman.
And then, as the procession makes its way steadily right, in the foreground, a man is lead in chains to the left. Is he placed in a cage and raised over the funeral, his face dissected by the cage’s bars as he looks over what is presumably his handiwork. Title card: “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.”
One of the film’s champions, Emma Smith, in her lecture series “Approaching Shakespeare,” argues that Welles chose to film in black and white because it emphasized the idea of duality within the play, where things are often perceived in black and white while reality (or in this case the reel picture) is, literally, in their mixture of gray. To an extent I think she’s right, as black and white imagery within the prologue is profuse, most obviously in Desdemona’s costume and skin and Othello’s uniform and complexion; in the silhouettes of the procession and the white sky above them; and even, toward the end of the sequence, in a wall of the castle, which is evenly divided in black shadow and white stone.
But is it intentional? Maybe, not certainly. While Welles almost always shot in black and white, with the small budget he had for Othello, I don’t think there was much of a choice to film in anything but. Even given the choice of color, I doubt he would take it. Smith is probably more right than wrong (the funeral procession visually colliding with the guards is another, albeit metaphorical, contrast), and yet, as with the Turkish bath scene, I think it’s important to acknowledge that, especially in Othello, Welles made the most of his restrictions, and the film is likely better for it, but I’d be cautious attributing everything to choice.
For example, there’s some odd matching shots, such as when Iago’s hoisted in his cage: Welles cuts to the fellow pulling the wheel at the far bottom left of the frame, then back to Iago, also at the far bottom left. A bit later, when Iago and Roderigo are pursuing Desdemona’s gondola, Iago approaches Roderigo from behind his left shoulder, the shot then cuts to a close-up of the two, with Iago now behind Roderigo’s right shoulder. Are these simple errors or deliberate? The opening of the play (which does not open with the deaths of Othello and Desdemona and the imprisonment of Iago) is filmed from the perspective of a third observer to the conversation of Iago and Roderigo, who in turn are spying on the elopement of Othello and Desdemona. And added to that is Welles’ narration, which marks Iago as a man regarded as honorable but on the inside treacherous.
I’m nitpicking what I think are errors, but this truly is one of Welles’ best and most complex openers. In terms of exposition, Welles covers an immense amount of ground in a few shots – the voice-over tells us about the character of Iago while in the background we see Desdemona and Othello eloping, and the story that drives the scene is played out by Iago and Roderigo in the foreground. Neither Desdemona nor Othello speak, and their story acts almost as a memory that the two foreground players are recalling and commenting on. On top of all that is the camera and location, which gives us an image of Venice as a jagged maze. The focus is on Iago, and he’s framed in canted, distorted angles, yet the background story of Othello and Desdemona provides some stability and a sense of progression and space to the scene. Similarly, like Macbeth, the opening of Othello is swiftly, almost erratically edited, cutting sharply on every pause or break in the dialogue. And as the elopement is discovered, Othello’s domestic troubles are compounded with the foreign threat of an enemy fleet preparing to attack.
The pace relaxes with the entrance of Othello a few minutes later. Until now, we have not seen his face in life, and even though Welles shoots from Othello’s perspective, the camera never frames his face straight on; it’s always from the side.
It is such a strong opening to the film, that the thought of what can possibly follow is tantalizing. But the film never lives up to it, save for the murder of Desdemona and the Turkish bath sequence. Even then, the creativity of the bath scene is somewhat diminished by the preceding fight between Roderigo and Cassio. And both recall the final scene in The Third Man (or, even before that, the penultimate sequence in The Lady from Shanghai) in the editing, the music, and even in the shot of the trapped Roderigo. The pace livens, Welles adds a deft touch of suspense with the use of the dog, and the cut to water pouring through the floorboards is a sweet bit of nastiness, however it is, at times, difficult to understand what is happening.
Though between those two bright spots, the bulk centers around Iago’s manipulation of Othello, and here the ingenuity of Welles’ camera defers to the actors. Not surprisingly, as Othello, Welles delivers the best performance in the film, tender in his love scene with Desdemona; sweaty in his suspicion; furious in his jealousy. In contrast, Michael MacLiammoir as Iago is devious, but not menacing. Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most fascinating characters, but MacLiammoir’s monotone delivery seems to be simply a reading rather than a performance. And Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona is sadly relegated to the background. You’d almost forget she was even in the movie were it not for her striking appearance. Robert Coote, as Roderigo, however, nearly eclipses Welles. His sullen look and simpering voice inspire pity even when he has said nothing, and I think his character may be the most effective in the film due both to his performance and also to the fact that we don’t know what his fate will be. Still, two standout roles in a Welles film is a disappointment; even The Stranger offered more interesting characters.
Where I think Othello does set itself apart from Welles’ previous films is in the use of foreground. Iago’s duplicity is literally brought to the front; his “heart on his sleeve” speech delivered in the extreme foreground as well as his manipulation of Roderigo in the opening scene. This is another instance of necessity dictating the scene, as Welles didn’t have the money to shoot much else besides his actors close up, but it’s a clever and effective visual representation of the joke, “How do you know [Iago] is lying? His lips are moving.”
Similarly, the structure of scenes, going from stability to chaos and back to stability (the funeral, Iago’s manipulation of Roderigo, the first appearance of Othello) repeats itself throughout the film, as Othello’s entrance is followed by the turbulent fight between Roderigo and Cassio, which in turn is settled by Othello’s dismissal of Cassio.
The cycle is then switched when Iago has successfully convinced Othello of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness. Now Othello, who has been the representation of stability, is framed in canted angles and carved up by sharp cuts. And Welles adds another reversal in Othello’s subsequent scenes with Desdemona. Early in the film, the two appear together in the same frame, particularly in their love scene (which adds a third reversal when Othello brutishly rips open the curtains to Desdemona’s bed then smiles impishly at her), but as Othello becomes more convinced of her affair with Cassio, Welles deliberately avoids pairing them in the shot.
The murder calls back to Othello’s previous molestation of the castle linens, this time, of course, doing so with distinctly less humor. He extinguishes a candle then looms over the bed, where Desdemona pretends to sleep. Cloutier has her moment to plead for mercy and openly defy Othello’s accusations before the handkerchief is wrapped over her head and the camera lingers on ghastly image of her face screaming for air. Welles finally shows them together, but separates them once more for the act, giving us Desdemona’s perspective as he shoots Othello’s final words to his wife, adding an echo to his lines.
The final scene brings together many of the recurring visual themes: distorted angles, the separation of characters, and entrapment. Emilia’s reveal to Othello of who gave her the handkerchief is filmed in a series of back-and-forth cuts; Welles confines Othello in each shot, never showing him with anyone else and emphasizing a sense of isolation. Emilia is in turn murdered by her husband Iago, who again appears in the extreme foreground. And Othello’s suicide is depicted with the camera spiraling out of control. The final shot of Othello mirrors the opening shot of the film – a close-up of the face, surrounded in darkness, pitiful.
Othello, like many of Welles’ films, is uneven, however, while those films such as The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai have high highs and okay lows, Othello has high highs and low lows. The beginning and end are as strong as anything Welles has done, but the time in between suffers from a lack of technique and innovation (and weak performances) that tire. Nevertheless, it is still the best cinematic adaptation of Othello that I’ve seen, but I think it still could be greatly improved. And I’ve gone the entire length of this writeup without even touching on the fact that Welles is in blackface. To someone who hasn’t seen the film, this may be the most controversial choice of Welles’, yet, in all seriousness, he doesn’t look “black,” he just looks very tan. Part of that is due to the fact that it’s a black and white film, and part of it may be because we know it’s Welles, but I also never felt like Welles made Othello’s Moorishness a large issue. Contra Emma Smith, and her reading of the film, the black and white, I think, don’t comment so much on race as they do on duality (if indeed there’s a comment at all). Welles loved using high contrast in his cinematography, so it’s difficult to say whether one shot is intended to be a read a certain way or is simply interesting in itself. Othello is often referred to as “The Moor,” and his line, “Her name, that was as fresh as Dian’s visage is now begrimed and black as mine own face” is kept, but they never are crucial to the drama; Welles probably could have gotten away without blackface, had not the play demanded it. Regardless, it’s not a big issue, and whatever meaning one can find in it or not doesn’t change my opinion that this is a good Welles film, but not a great one.
And I mentioned that the genesis of the Turkish bath sequence was the film’s second-most-famous anecdote, here’s the first: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TpqwY7QL7r8
Next Time: MR. ARKADIN (1955)