Orson Welles' Othello
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Orson Welles' daring and visually adventurous production of William Shakespeare's classic play. Welles, one of the greatest directors ever, revered Shakespeare and was determined to bring his own versions of the Bard's work to the silver screen, though the studios resisted the idea. Without studio funding, Welles struggled for three years to make "Othello" with his own money. The film won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and critical acclaim but was rarely seen for many years. Over $1 million dollars in restoration work was spent, including re recording the score and re creating the sound effects, as well as updating the audio to digital. "Othello" remains a testament to Welles' legendary genius.
- 22-minute "Restoring Othello" featurette
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1. The Opening 4 ½ Minutes
The film opens with a view of a man laid out for a funeral, shown from just above his head. He’s lifted and carried by hooded monks. We see two other caskets, each with woman’s body, draped in black lace.
Religious imagery is everywhere: crosses, a bishop in cope and miter, men making the sign of the cross. People’s clothes appear medieval. The bodies are carried through a crowd, in a castle courtyard, apparently to be taken aboard a ship. A man, under custody of armed guards, is pushed and shoved in the opposite direction. He’s locked into a square iron cage which is suspended from a chain and winched upward, suspended next to the castle wall. Throughout there is eerie music and unintelligible chanting.
The scene concludes with a title card and a brief spoken introduction, then we’re taken to Venice, and the story begins.
2. Welles the Director
Everything we expect from an Orson Welles-directed movie is in that first scene:
Unusual camera placements and close ups
Quick cuts from one face to another
A moving camera that follows the actors through doors and into rooms
Crowd scenes with lots of people
Sharp black & white cinematography
Time-shifting, from now to then and back
3. The Cast
Welles assembled a British Isles cast (English and Irish) along with one Canadian and one American. Most
notable, other than Welles himself, are Michael MacLiammoir as Iago and Robert Coote (Colonel
Pickering in My Fair Lady) as Roderigo. Detroit native Doris Dowling (from Lost Weekend)
plays Bianca, and she’s a hoot. Fay Compton, a BBC-TV veteran, is appropriately in-your-face as Iago’s wife Emilia.
Plus, Did anyone ever have a more perfect movie voice than Orson Wells? With him in the lead, along with his veteran British cast, Shakespeare’s words sound marvelous.
Canadian actress Suzanne Cloutier is just perfect in this role. Though not in her late teens, Desdemona’s age in the play, she projects, flawlessly, strong-willed innocence and devotion to her husband. Also, the camera really likes her. A lot.
5. Welles the Actor
Filming began in 1948, so we see the Big Guy at his best, powerful and larger-than-life. His makeup is convincing, as is his physical presence: He looks and moves like a soldier.
6. The Locales
Morocco, Venice, Tuscany, Rome. The scenery, especially the Moroccan seaside castle, is like an additional character in the drama.
7. It’s on YouTube.
It clocks in at just 91 minutes. Search “Welles Othello” to find it.
Reviewer’s Note: Welles assumes that his audience already knows the basic story and characters of Othello, so don’t expect any on-screen help (like “Venice, 1604” or “Cyprus, After the Storm”).
Winner of the Palm d'Or at Cannes in 1952, THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO: THE MOOR OF VENICE was released in America three years later and was briefly shown in only two cities. The movie literally disappeared after that-- the negative assumed lost somewhere in France. Forty years later, Orson's daughter searched and eventually located this one and only silver nitrate master in New Jersey, of all places.
In pristine condition visually, restoration was only needed for the audio track. The Chicago Symphony re-recorded note-for-note the original score and this new track was "flown in." The results, picture and sound-wise are superb! Pictorially, OTHELLO is by far Orson's best work-- its beautifully moody scenery, imaginative edits, angles and lighting make for a movie that visually rivals the greatest works of the silent era, and in fact would stand up well in that genre.
As for the tragedy of the jealous Moor-- those unfamiliar with Renaissance-era English may at times wonder if the actors are speaking a foreign language! Yet, because of strong visuals the storyline isn't hampered by this. Welles's OTHELLO is the epitome of great film making. Along with Anthony Hopkins in TITUS (1999), it's by far my favorite screen version of Shakespeare. (CAMEOS: Joseph Cotten as a senator and Joan Fontaine as a page.)
Parenthetical number preceding title is a 1 to 10 IMDb viewer poll rating.
(7.8) The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (USA/France/Italy/Morocco-1952) - Orson Welles/Micheál MacLiammóir/Robert Coote/Suzanne Cloutier/Hilton Edwards/Nicholas Bruce/Michael Laurence/Fay Compton/Doris Dowling (uncredited: Joseph Cotten, Joan Fontaine)
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The recent restoration of Othello brings to cinematic space the magic of another...Read more