In terms of English literature, Shakespeare is the greatest mind of all time. Visually, Orson Welles is one of the greatest minds of all time. Bring the two together and you have the makings of an all time classic. Welles’ Othello certainly qualifies.
It is frightening to think that we may never have been allowed to experience this masterpiece. The original negatives to this film were believed to have been lost somewhere in Paris, but were eventually found (through the hard work and persistence of many involved) in New Jersey. It was then digitally remastered, the audio track re-mixed and synchronized with the actors’ lips, and the musical score re-composed note by note by a famous conductor.
The result of all this work is one of cinema’s finest works of art, for Welles is, undeniably, an artist. The screen is his canvas, the camera his brush, and with every passing frame a new painting emerges. Othello is truly a film to be savored, and watched again and again. The use of bizarre camera angles, lines, patterns, and shadows all come together to evoke a mood and atmosphere of threat and tension and impending catastraophe rarely captured on screen. This may not be what Shakespeare had in mind, but this certainly is one of the most exciting adaptations of one of his plays.
The making of this movie was almost as interesting as the movie itself. Welles financed his project almost entirely with his own money. It was shot over a period of four years, whenever he could get enough money to regroup his cast and crew. Four different actresses were used as Desdemona. All this is startling to learn because Welles keeps everything moving fluidly, without the chop-socky feel one would expect. (For a terrific behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie, check out the film diary by Michael MacLiammoir, the movie’s Puritanical Iago.
The majestic sets and stunning black and white photography are unsurpassed, demanding the sort of concentrated observation usually reserved for masterworks of art in a museum.
Othello also boasts some fine performances. First off, Welles in blackface as the Moor is convincing rather than offensive (unlike Olivier). There are some wonderful scenes between him and Iago, played by Micheal MacLiammoir in an earnestly sinister, almost Puritanical portrayal of Shakespeare’s classic villain.
Here’s Welles’ “round, unvarnished tale” speech:
In the end, though, the main character in Othello is not Welles the actor, but Welles the director.
Here is a fascinating interview/documentary (85 minutes) with the incomparable Welles on the making of Othello: