Orson Welles and Suzanne Cloutier in The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1951)

OTHELLO (The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice)

(director/writer: Orson Welles; screenwriter: from the play by William Shakespeare; cinematographers: Anchise Brizzi/G.R. Aldo/Georges Fanto/Oberdan Trojani/Alberto Fusi/; editors: John Shepridge/Jean Sacha/Renzo Lucidi; music: Alberto Barberis/Angelo Francesco Lavagnino; cast: Orson Welles (Othello/Narrator), Michael MacLiammoir (Iago), Suzanne Cloutier (Desdemona), Michael Laurence (Cassio), Fay Compton (Emilia), Robert Coote (Roderigo), Hilton Edwards (Brabantio), Doris Dowling (Bianca); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Orson Welles; The Criterion Collection; 1951-USA/France/Morocco-in English)
“Though made on the cheap, it has the rich arty look of an avant-garde Expressionist work that few big-budget films ever achieve so well.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Orson Welles’s loving and inspired version of Shakespeare’s great tragedy Othello, his sixth feature and a followup to his Macbeth, is shot piecemeal in Italy and Morocco over four years from 1948 to 1951–often without money, as the film was not fully backed and Welles would shoot until the money ran out then scurry around Europe trying to get investors. Michael MacLiammoir’s book Put Money in Thy Purse offers an amusing but sad account of the financial hardships endured in the making of the film. How Welles turned his limits into strengths makes for a tremendous read. Stuck without costumes for the important murder scene of Cassio, Welles ingenuously films the scene instead in a Turkish bath. When an actor wasn’t available to do a later scene, the problem was overcome by use of a stand-in and an alternate camera angle. Suzanne Cloutier was the third and last Desdemona, as it was difficult to keep the same cast around due to the money problems and the length of the shoot. When not able to match footage shot in Mogador and Venice, the black and white photography gets enmeshed in intricate webs of dazzling montage successfully disguising the location. Either because he was not satisfied with Roderigo’s dialogue or the actor wasn’t available, Welles’ voice is dubbed in for him. And so it goes, as Welles makes it work beautifully on all levels–visually and dramatically–coming up with an enthusiastic version that is not crippled by being a slave to the Bard’s work but, nevertheless, remaining faithful to it in spirit and deed. Though made on the cheap, it has the rich arty look of an avant-garde Expressionist work that few big-budget films ever achieve so well. It took home the Grand Prize in the Cannes Film Festival, which should hearten other impoverished filmmakers that it’s possible to make do with less if you got the talent.

Welles rearranges the order of the tragedy and starts with the funeral of the Moor and his bride, thereby turning it into a film noir as the murder investigation takes place as to what led to their deaths. It also ends with the funeral procession continuing–a procession that did not appear in the play, as Welles took many such liberties throughout. But it keeps the classical tragedy theme of the jealous Othello (Orson Welles) who is led into an uncontrollable rage over a series of misunderstandings culminating with a misplaced hanky that somehow points to Cassio (Michael Laurence), the handpicked lieutenant (second in command) chosen by Othello, the powerful General of the Venetian army. Cassio is accused behind his back of having an affair with Desdemona by Othello’s base underling Iago (Dublin actor Micheal Mac Liammoir, founder of the Gate Theater, in his only role in cinema), who is angered that he was passed over for that position. The Moor is too blind to see through such hateful deceits, and is easily manipulated by the emboldened Iago. This comes shortly after the Moor has eloped with the Venetian Desdemona, who marries against her father Brabantio’s wishes– who objects because of the Moor’s skin color. The evil Iago is given a more modern reason by Welles for committing his treachery–his impotence. Iago appears as an amiable guy on the outside but he’s so twisted inside that he says of himself “I am not what I am.” Emilia (Fay Compton) is the sincere wife of Iago, who when she learns of her husband’s foul deeds reveals his diabolical need to take from her the hanky of Desdemona’s that she found. She urgently speaks to the Moor so he can understand that he strangled to death a virtuous woman.

This striking filmed version of Othello is the one I prefer; it remains one of the most amazing film projects ever completed. Long believed lost, this is the newly restored version that cost a million dollars and if the beleaguered genius filmmaker has that kind of dough to begin with no one would have ever complained about the poor production values.