When Orson Welles embarked on Othello, he was at the beginning of a new phase of his creative life. Recently transplanted to Europe after weathering a succession of disasters—RKO’s butchering of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) while Welles worked in Brazil on his ambitious but doomed documentary It’s All True, the financially catastrophic failure of his stage adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days in 1946, the lackluster response to both his hallucinatory film noir The Lady from Shanghai (1947) at Columbia and his experimental low-budget Macbeth (1948) at Republic—he would remain there for years, and work as a director in Hollywood only once more, making Touch of Evil in 1958. Deep in debt, Welles went off to Rome to play the legendary charlatan Cagliostro in Gregory Ratoff’s Black Magic (1949), and it was there that he arranged with producer Michele Scalera to make a film of Othello, to be shot quickly and economically. As it turned out, Scalera was on the verge of bankruptcy, and in short order Welles was obliged to keep the production going with his own resources, derived from acting jobs and whatever other funding he could conjure up. The making of Othello was a supreme example of how far he was prepared to go to realize his vision, under the most difficult of conditions.
It was, as Welles later euphemistically remarked, “quite an adventure,” a production that evolved through changes of cast (two Desdemonas came and went before Suzanne Cloutier got the part, only to find her voice dubbed by another actor in Welles’s final version), changes of location (several Italian settings, including Rome, Venice, and Lombardy, were used, along with, most crucially, Morocco), multiple cinematographers and editors, and constant interruptions of financing. Shooting began in 1949, and it was not until 1952 that Othello emerged to share the top prize at Cannes (with Renato Castellani’s Two Cents Worth of Hope). Welles’s close friend and mentor the Irish actor Micheál MacLiammóir, who plays Iago, published an entertaining memoir of the embattled production, Put Money in Thy Purse (1952), but even he witnessed only a portion of the intrigues and subterfuges involving unhappy creditors, unpaid actors, contentious crew members, and a director at once obsessive, seductive, and unpredictably temperamental, who might drive his cast and crew mercilessly or absent himself without warning. Simon Callow, in the third volume of his Welles biography (Orson Welles: One-Man Band), gives a long and mesmerizing, and sometimes unavoidably comic, account of the extravagant proceedings.
To watch Othello in light of the stories surrounding its making is to be constantly aware of the tricks and devices that were necessary to get it done at all. Some of these have become legendary, like the relocation of a scene to a Turkish bath (actually a fish market) because the costumes (unpaid for) had failed to arrive. Throughout, things are rarely what they seem. Soldiers wear armor made from sardine cans; a rustled sheet stands in for the sail of a Venetian galley, a basin of water for the Mediterranean; the chain for Desdemona’s handbag is repurposed from a hotel toilet pull; through the manipulation of perspective, an array of lances is represented by small slivers of wood. More fundamentally, no line can be assumed to be voiced by the actor on-screen, any shot is quite likely to be followed by a reverse shot filmed at a different time in a different place, and, as Welles explained, “if you can’t see the actor’s face, you can be pretty sure it’s not him.”
With all that in mind, every cut takes on a heroic quality. It hardly seems possible that these disparate pieces of film could have been brought together to form a coherent vision of the world. Could one even attempt to diagram the supposed layout of the residences and public spaces within which the film takes place? We come to feel that it is unfolding in some parallel domain of memory in which all places and times are equally accessible—truly a cinema of the mind, yet achieving its effects through the immediacy of stone and water and metal and fabric. No matter what is otherwise going on or being said, there is a constant tactile astonishment: waves, clouds, windblown banners, wheeling gulls, arches and alleyways and circular stairs, street singers standing by a wall, a small dog moving about indifferently in the midst of the turmoil.
Visible differences in film stock or lighting angles hardly matter; in fact, these very irregularities only emphasize the imaginative current that sets all the pieces into fluid interaction. This goes far beyond making a virtue of necessity, however dazzling the inventiveness. The production’s circumstances prompted Welles toward a style of rapid and disjunctive editing whose rhythms define the film’s essential mood. His vision coheres, but it is precisely a vision of a world already falling to pieces. In the crosscutting between two characters, each shot exists in a separate domain, surrounded by emptiness or hemmed in by stone. The cuts mark lines that cannot be crossed.
Welles always identified editing as the essence of his art, and Othello was one of the relatively rare occasions when he had more or less a free hand with it. The 1952 version released in Europe was revised for the 1955 U.S. and UK release, and while some changes at the beginning of the film (the addition of brief narration to set up the story line, in place of Welles’s original spoken credits) were made at the urging of the distributor, others involving both visuals and soundtrack were a further refinement of the filmmaker’s intentions. Left to his own devices, he never wanted to stop editing. Indeed, in Welles’s television documentary Filming “Othello” (1979), in place of clips from the film, he accompanies his commentary with extended sequences of further reedited images that amount almost to a condensed vision of another possible Othello, a distillation into abstract patterns of a film already extraordinarily abstract.
The abstraction is announced in the first shots. We begin, before the credits, with a close-up of Welles’s face upside down, the camera moving out as we gradually perceive that he is being carried forward on a funeral bier. In a succession of shots that recalls the most slashing geometrics of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen or Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, the somber procession moves along the ramparts of an ancient citadel (the Portuguese-built coastal fortress at Mogador in Morocco), broken down into stark images of soldiers with pikes, a silhouetted bishop, a giant crucifix, the veiled Desdemona carried alongside Othello on another bier, a zigzag line of black-robed monks casting long shadows, while all the while a funeral chant is sung. In a countermovement, a mob surrounds Iago, who is penned in a metal cage—we see him in close-up looking desperately through the bars—and hoisted to the top of the ramparts. It is one of the most dazzling scenes in Welles’s oeuvre—a scene entirely outside the bounds of Shakespeare’s play—plunging deep into a mood of sorrow and cruelty, inextricable from the citadel’s architecture, before a word has been spoken.
You may begin to wonder how much we even need the words. Here and elsewhere, Othello communicates as the most eloquent of silent films. It could be thought of, to borrow a phrase from Duke Ellington, as a “tone parallel” to the play, with Shakespeare’s language forming only one strand of a mix in which music (Angelo Francesco Lavagnino developed his score in close collaboration with Welles), sound effects, visual design, and human faces each count for at least as much. Welles always took a free hand with Shakespeare, on both stage and screen. The words are there—a good part of them, at least—but they are condensed and spliced as needed, scenes moved about and recombined, lines reassigned, the whole play relentlessly pared down. The careful exposition and painfully gradual turning of the narrative screws that mark Shakespeare’s play—perhaps the most exquisite in its timing of all his works—are compressed into a more abrupt and convulsive rhythm.
Having begun with a funeral, we are left in no doubt that everything we see is hurtling, in an uncontrollable rush, toward a catastrophe that has already taken place, from Othello’s words to Desdemona as he seizes a moment of love before setting off to war (“We must obey the time”) to his final words as she pleads with him not to kill her: “It is too late.” Every step—as when Othello rushes up the winding stone stairs to be reunited with Desdemona in Cyprus, as cannon salvos burst and a chorus swells on the soundtrack—is a step on a collision course. The haste with which Othello, fully in the grip of his jealousy, strides away from her through a maze of Romanesque arches is shown in a series of incredibly fast cuts, as if he were flying out of the room, so that by the time she reaches the other side of it, only his shadow is there.
Even Iago seems part of a larger imbalance, rather than its sole author. MacLiammóir and Welles had agreed on sexual impotence as a motive for Iago’s destruction of the Moor’s happiness, intending to suggest that, perhaps, by the coldness with which he spies on Othello and Desdemona’s secret marriage ceremony in Venice. With his face like a weather-beaten bird of prey’s, MacLiammóir exudes an essential joylessness and contempt, yet his Iago is made to seem at moments a victim himself. He shows fear when Othello, grappling with him on a cliff’s edge over a raging sea, demands proof of Desdemona’s infidelity—the same fear already glimpsed in the close-up of him in the cage, facing down the howling mob. It’s possible to conceive of him as one particularly misshapen by-product of an already twisted world, as if he had been in that cage all along. He, the supreme enmesher, is only another inhabitant of the domain of meshes—and grilles, and nets, and barred gates, and stone spy holes—that Welles tirelessly elaborates.
For some, the most problematic aspect of the film is Welles’s own performance. It has a fitful quality. We miss the nuanced transitions in the agonizing process by which he allows Iago to persuade him that his wife is unfaithful, and the great speeches—considerably shortened—sometimes seem inserted recitations, like encore arias delivered on request. Welles was stung by Eric Bentley’s review of the film in the New Republic, in which he asserted that Welles “never acts, he is photographed.” Yet it could be argued that the use that Welles the director makes of Welles the actor’s face is a form of acting once removed, a self-interrogation in which he exposes his own vulnerability.
It is a face transformed as well by the blackface that, standard for portrayals of Othello when the film was produced, makes contemporary audiences uncomfortable. Welles was inordinately fond of makeup and other forms of physical transformation, including ethnic impersonation (see his Colonel Haki in 1942’s Journey into Fear). But there is nothing caricatural about his Othello. The filmmaker was passionately engaged in civil-rights issues and, not long before, had lent his voice to publicizing the case of a returning African American veteran blinded in a racist attack. In that context, Othello can be seen as another black warrior exploited for his talents by a corrupt establishment while being held in scarcely concealed contempt.
His performance—however devastating it is to say so in a Shakespearean context—is most effective in moments of silence. This is a fearful and uncertain Othello, out of place, out of sorts; the confident warrior and enthralled lover seems beaten down from the outset by some inward doubt. His relation to Desdemona is remote, perhaps a reflection of Welles’s dissatisfaction with Suzanne Cloutier’s performance. (In the 1955 version, she is dubbed by the Scottish actor Gudrun Ure.) The heart of the film is not Othello’s embraces with Desdemona but his indissoluble bond with Iago. Here, for once, acting with his older mentor, Welles portrays most persuasively—again, with glances as much as line readings—a fear of inadequacy, a half-hearted concealment of his feelings, as he submits to Iago’s mental torture.
Welles’s performance cannot, of course, be considered separately from the setting he has created for it. When Othello—in answer to Iago’s hypocritical concern that his suspicion-mongering may have “a little dashed your spirits”—responds unconvincingly, “Not a jot, not a jot,” it is the doubling of Welles’s face in an adjacent mirror, a visible splitting in two, that gives the moment its force. If Othello seems at times a symphony of claustrophobic spaciousness, finding ever greater depths and extensions among constricting snares, it locates the ultimate claustrophobia in the human face itself.