Thursday, July 25, 2019
Orson Welles's adaptation of Shakespeare's OTHELLO is a film of unusual beauty. Even among the work of a visual master like Welles, it stands out. I don't want to linger on the incredible story of the film's production, which took place on two continents over three years and is a legend in its own right (Welles himself covered this territory in FILMING OTHELLO). Though it's worth noting the frantic, often desperate circumstances that Welles, his cast, and his crew, found themselves in, what matters is what was produced by those trials: this strange and beautiful film.
Before I go further, I need to say that I'm going to be writing here about the 1952 European version of the film rather than the 1955 US/UK version. Both versions were edited by Welles, so both stand as a "director's cut." It's fascinating to compare them, to see two different ideas Welles had for the film. In 1955, Welles redubbed the entire performance of Suzanne Cloutier (as Desdemona) with the voice of actress Gudrun Ure, as well redubbing about half of his own lines. He cut the spoken credits that had begun the film, clipped some dialog, and added some brief bits narration to set up the plot.
For my money, the 1952 version is superior, and not just marginally so. The changes Welles made in 1955 produced a less compelling picture overall. His spoken credits in the '52 version allow for a much smoother transition between the tour de force opening funeral march and the beginning of the story proper. I've always considered the first dialog scene in the '55 version--where Iago and Rodrigo spy on Othello's wedding to Desemona--to be choppy and awkward. And Welles's narration in these opening scenes has always seemed to be an obvious patch, explaining things in the narration to cover over the confusing editing. In the 52 version, by contrast, the opening scenes get to breathe a little, and they play better without the expository, and largely unnecessary, narration. Welles also includes a line from the play that helps set up Iago's hatred of Othello ("It is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets he has done my office") that was cut in the 1955 version.
The larger change, of course, is the redubbing of Othello and Desdemona's dialog. There is, I will admit, a case to be made here for the '55 version. What Welles did in redubbing the dialog was to replace the elegant and meek Cloutier with the more forceful Ure. To match this Desdemona's new strength, he made his readings of Othello's dialog angrier and more macho. Some viewers will prefer this more "passionate" performance of the material.
But I think it worked better in 52. Cloutier's vocal performance of the material better matched her physical portrayal of Desdemona as a sweetly innocent girl. And Welles, in turn, responded to that portrayal by giving us an Othello that was a softer, sadder man driven crazy by jealousy. In '55, she's louder and he growls his lines more, but, in this case, less really was more.
One of the great joys of a Wellesian Shakespeare adaptation is Welles-the-screenwriter's lack of intimidation in the face of such a classic. He takes his scissors to the play and makes it work as a screenplay, clipping lines or rearranging them, sometimes just shaving off a word here and there, other times jettisoning whole speeches. If one wants to savor the Bard's original language, this is not the film to see.
Because what Welles does instead is to interpret the work as a piece of cinema, not just as a recorded performance of a play. Shot by shot, scene by scene, his visual compositions are a delight. Over the course of the production the director worked with five (!) cinematographers, but there can be no doubt that Welles himself was the eye behind the camera. From the opening funeral march, to the attempted assassination of Cassio in the Turkish bath, to the final scenes of Desdemona's murder and Othello's suicide, Welles creates rich, vivid images. Working in certain motifs throughout the film--prison bars and distorted mirrors--he varies angles on shots about as often as he cuts, giving the film a dynamic energy. And speaking of editing, scholars who have done the counting have calculated that OTHELLO has almost 2000 individual cuts, compared to 500 or so for CITIZEN KANE. While the cutting is a direct result of the circumstances Welles was working under, the film is unified by a vision. OTHELLO, after all, is a movie about the center not holding, about love and trust and friendship falling apart in a frenzy. And the movie itself reflects that idea visually.
Coultier is sweetly touching as Desdemona, but Welles is not a great Othello. Although his performance in the '52 version is superior to the '55, either way OTHELLO is a director's picture rather than an actor's picture.( This was true, also, of Welles's MACBETH a few years earlier. His Shakespearean triumph was, of course, FALSTAFF, a film that manages to be both an actor's picture AND a director's picture.) As both Macbeth and Othello, Welles is more declamatory than deeply felt, and his characterizations rarely go beyond a surface level reading of the roles. (Again, compare this to his more lived-in portrayal of Falstaff, the most moving performance he ever gave.)
The one great performance in the film is given by Micheal Mac Liammoir, the legend of the Irish stage who had been a mentor to Welles when the actor was just starting out as a teenager. Mac Liammoir's performance is the one that lingers after the film is over. As Iago, he creates a delicious vision of wily evil, of internalized malice and outward cunning. He seduces everyone else in the film, and even when he's finally caught and imprisoned in a swinging cage to watch Othello's body carried off for burial, his secrets are still his own.