Rep Diary: Othello
The face of a man emerges from darkness, followed by that of a woman. Their eyes are closed, and their bodies lie still in separate beds in what looks like eternal peace. Hooded pallbearers chant a Gregorian theme while carrying the two across a rocky plain. Nearby, soldiers drag another man ahead in chains and throw him into a cage, from which he looks down and sees the march of the mourners’ pageant that bears the lovers’ bodies toward the clouds.
This scene opens Orson Welles’s 1952 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, now playing at Film Forum in a new digital restoration courtesy of the distributor Carlotta Films. (Three different versions of Welles’s film exist; Carlotta has restored the lone circulating one, which was originally made with permission from the late filmmaker’s daughter Beatrice Welles-Smith in 1992.) The dead man and woman are Othello (Welles) and Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), and in the cage is the man who helped drive them towards death: Iago (Michéal MacLiammóir). The sequence—an invention on Welles’s part—foreshadows the characters’ fates at story’s outset and thereby trades dramatic suspense for reflection. We will not watch Welles’s rendering of the text to see whether Othello still kills his love but rather to understand why he would do so.
Welles was in a transitional period of exile at the time when he went to Europe to make Othello, his first feature film realized without Hollywood studio funding. Though his debut feature Citizen Kane (41) had survived in his desired cut, his four subsequent features had been released in truncated versions of his desired originals. They included 1948’s low-rent and highly imaginative rendering of Macbeth, in which Shakespeare’s Scottish warrior tries to raise his mind out of filthy medieval mire.
Welles’s Othello was the first film he directed after Macbeth; Welles broke with Hollywood while maintaining a lifelong relationship with Shakespeare. During his long and varied career, he adapted several of the plays into radio programs and films as well as stage productions (including a London theatrical production of Othello which he directed and in which he starred while seeking funds to complete his film’s editing). He adhered to unconventional ideas of fidelity, and often ruthlessly chopped up the plays in order to spotlight what he saw as their driving conflicts. Though Shakespeare’s work is filled with swordfights and suicides, the author’s greatest dramas often consist of people working towards self-understanding. For Othello, Welles cut more than half of the text and re-ordered much of what remained in order to focus on a man attempting to save himself from free fall.
Shakespeare’s play follows a spiteful scheme hatched by Iago, a Venetian military ensign, to trick his Moorish commander Othello into believing that the commander’s new bride Desdemona has betrayed him with another man. The Moor’s suspicions grow until he goes mad with the thought that “Othello’s occupation’s gone.” Welles’s film maintains this basic plot but makes Othello the lead figure rather than Iago, and spotlights the irony that it is actually the Moor who betrays Desdemona by deceiving himself.
Welles does so primarily by placing Othello and the other characters within a tightly bounded premodern environment, which he would later refer to in his insightful documentary Filming Othello (78) as “a whole world in collapse.” Imprisonment looms over the characters in the physical form of pillars, bars, gates, closed doors, and nets. These images echo Iago’s vow to “make the net/That shall enmesh them all,” but they more closely reflect the fatalistic mindset of Othello, and his double-edged declaration to his servant, the “honest” Iago: “I am bound to thee forever.”
For Welles, Othello was fundamentally a naïf who knew more about war than about women, and who was enchanted by Desdemona to the extent that she fit his male codes of honor. Though the film gives brief scenes (absent from the play) of Othello and Desdemona together in their bedroom prior to his disintegration, the interludes exist around Othello’s concern that “We must obey the time”; the actor’s delivery weights this line with sadness, as though knowing that their time is destined to be cut short. This commander of Venice’s fleets tries to adhere to a militaristic plan of action that ultimately dooms his marriage. He says early on that he fell in love with his wife for how she admired his war stories, and goes on to prove himself strategically wary to a fault in believing Iago to be more true to him than she is. By the time that he realizes his mistake, it is too late. Desdemona is already dead, and her husband has long since been swallowed up, a sinking that Welles stages with shadows cutting lattice-like across Othello’s front.
When Othello looks into mirrors throughout Welles’s film, he sees a man at war with himself. Welles the filmmaker (working with several cinematographers) heightens the movements between darkness and light upon Othello’s face to express internally battling elements; Welles the actor collaborates by giving a firm, sentinel-like performance that allows us to witness the fight as it takes place. In contrast to MacLiammóir’s demonic scampering as Iago and Cloutier’s angelic gliding as Desdemona, Welles’s Othello tends to move slowly and with resolute strides. The film’s early scenes transform as he enters them, replacing manic edits between multiple points of action with calmer, lengthier shots that rest on Othello while he confidently relates his thoughts.
Wholeness eventually gives way to fragmentation, however, as frames shatter into shards in accordance with Othello’s troubled mind. “And when I love thee not/Chaos is come again,” Othello tells Desdemona early, and the film takes Shakespeare’s cue. Its composition of images breaks the Moor’s body into pieces and turns them against each other at strange angles until a late moment when Othello looks up from a dark abyss for the last time in his life.
Welles conceived of his editing strategy for practical reasons as well as thematic ones. Othello was shot in Italy and Morocco during a stop-and-start production process that lasted roughly three years (chronicled in picaresque fashion in MacLiammóir’s 1952 book Put Money in Thy Purse: The Filming of Orson Welles’ Othello). Welles relied upon tight medium shots and close-ups in order to preserve continuity. Throughout, he maintained his conception of the film, which included a blackface performance so quietly straightforward that it broke with how myriad American actors had represented the Moor. In contrast to the usual style of bellowing physicality, Welles’s man lives and dies first and foremost inside his head.
The film, which won the Palme d’Or (as a Moroccan entry) at the 1952 edition of Cannes, commenced a new phase in Welles’s filmmaking: low-budget productions made piecemeal across several countries with aid from private European backers. With that said, Othello stayed coherent to Welles’s American films preceding it. The character of Othello joins a gallery of isolated Welles protagonists such as Charles Foster Kane and Macbeth, whose desire to believe themselves masters of their domains lead them to solitary tragic fates. Their ranks would eventually come to include Gregory Arkadin (from 1955’s Mr. Arkadin), Hank Quinlan (from Welles’s sole subsequent Hollywood film, 1958’s Touch of Evil), and Sir John Falstaff (from his third great Shakespeare film, the recently restored 1965 gem Chimes at Midnight). Welles understood Othello as he did all of his alternate selves—as a person with a universal problem. Like potentially any one of us, they build their own traps and fall prisoner to their thoughts.
Othello screens through May 8 at Film Forum.