Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Othello (1952)

Orson Welles' 1952 film adaptation of William Shakespeare's Othello was less of a production than a miracle. Filmed in bits and pieces over three years, the movie began shooting in 1948 and was plagued by financial woes, a common hazard for Welles' directorial efforts post-Citizen Kane. Filming ground to a halt a number of times as money ran out, forcing Welles to leave his actors stranded on location while he traveled elsewhere to raise funds by appearing in other people's movies. Actors dropped out and were replaced, a scene would begin in Morocco and end in Rome, and there were a multitude of technical and logistical problems along the way. All that aside, the question remains: was the result worth the effort?

Othello is the tragedy of Othello (here played by Welles), an accomplished general in Venice and a Moor who elopes with the beautiful Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), much to the dismay of her father, Brabantio (Hilton Edwards). Othello's most trusted officer is Iago (Micheal MacLiammoir), but Othello does not realize that the seemingly honest Iago secretly despises him. Through cunning and manipulation, he convinces Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with another officer, Cassio (Michael Laurence).

By definition, tragic heroes are brought down by their own flaws. If MacBeth's fatal flaw was his ambition, then Othello's is his jealousy. Early on, he says of Desdemona, "My life upon her faith," but sadly, it doesn't take much to convince him he's been cuckolded: some innuendo, a misplaced handkerchief, the lies of Iago, and some circumstantial evidence. Yes, Iago is undeniably the villain of the piece, a shrewd calculating piece of work, but Othello provides him a willing weapon for his evil. Iago doesn't walk up and stab Othello in the heart; he gets him to do the deed himself willingly.

For those looking for a faithful and complete adaptation of the Bard's work, look elsewhere. Whether by the haphazard nature of the filming or by Welles' artistic decisions, the movie, clocking in at little over 90 minutes in running time, omits much of the original text and condenses and/or rearranges a number of passages (most notably, Iago's "I hate the Moor" soliloquy is reduced to a one-sentence voiceover). Even less so than Roman Polanski's MacBeth, the focus is not on the acting and the language. Because the dialogue was dubbed in later, Welles stages many of the scenes where the lips of the actors are obscured and sometimes even their faces, so as to hide the effect, although the mismatch between lips and words is quite obvious a number of times.

Poor dubbing is not the only technical flaw in the film. The editing is all over the place at times, jarring and confusing. This is the restored version of the film from 1992, and some of the music and sound effects feel out of place. Plus, Welles, despite achieving a better makeup effect than any other actor in the role, is still quite clearly a white man in blackface.

All that said, I'd still highly recommend this version of Othello. Bringing to mind Citizen Kane and any number of film noirs influenced by German Expressionism, the movie is told through shadows and camera angles. Characters appear and speak through bars, looking like they're trapped in prisons. Figures are dwarfed by massive stone sets that look ready to crush them. The sea batters the coastline with a fury that matches Othello's, and when Othello collapses, convinced of Desdemona's unfaithfulness, the squawking of seagulls transforms in the mocking laughs of onlookers. The most haunting and memorable moment occurs when Othello, shrouded in darkness so only his seemingly disembodied head remains visible (not unlike Col. Kurtz), speaks  as he prepares to murder his wife.

Strictly speaking as a story told through visuals, Othello ranks among Welles's best work as a director, even if the movie itself isn't necessarily one of the better Shakespeare adaptations.

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