Monday, June 17, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.7: Orson Welles' Othello/Filming Othello

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 89/A-

With the twin disasters of The Lady from Shanghai and Macbeth, Orson Welles was effectively exiled from Hollywood. He would spend the next ten years scrambling to get anything made. His first project in Europe, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, was shot on-and-off from 1949 to 1952, with Welles being forced to halt production whenever he ran out of money and had to go begging. The film would win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival (then called the Grand Prix rather than the Palme D’Or), but it would not find American release until 1955, where it was released in an alternate cut and (this sounds familiar) didn’t find the praise it received in Europe. But the years have been kind to Othello, one of the most ingenious Shakespeare adaptations ever made, and likely the definitive film version of the Bard’s tale of jealousy.

NOTE: Like many of Welles films, there are a few existing cuts of Othello. The version that premiered at Cannes and found acclaim in Europe is likely the closest to what Welles had envisioned, but it has sadly never been released on home video. The American edit released in 1955 is probably the next closest- it has a few creative choices forced on Welles (some opening narration, written credits rather than spoken titles, Suzanne Cloutier’s performance as Desdemona has been dubbed by Gudrun Ure) and some audio/visual syncing problems, but is otherwise excellent. Then there’s the 1992 restoration overseen by Welles’ daughter Beatrice, which used the American cut as a model but has some major sound problems and a re-recorded score that now sounds tinny and weak. Furthermore, Beatrice Welles has taken legal action to make sure that no other version but the restoration be released on DVD, as it is the only one she has the rights to. Thankfully, some classy goodfellow has taken the Criterion Laserdisc version of the original American edit and uploaded it onto YouTube. Go check that version out.

Othello (Welles), a Moor general in Venice, has married Desdemona (Cloutier), the daughter of a senator. Othello is hated by Iago (Michael MacLiammoir), a soldier who believes Othello has wrongfully promoted the young man Cassio (Michael Laurence) above him. Iago uses Roderigo (Roberte Coote), a weak man who loves Desdemona, to help convince Othello that Desdemona has had an affair with Cassio. Othello’s jealousy and Iago’s treachery leads to tragedy.

Because of the haphazard fashion it was filmed and edited, Othello is almost inevitably flawed. The audio/visual syncing is often noticeably bad, and the early going is sometimes confusingly edited. But these problems become less noticeable as the film goes on, and Welles vision is undeniably powerful. Gone are the mannered accents and archness. Instead, Welles amplifies the feeling of doom and hopelessness, bringing his baroque tendencies to the front. The opening funeral march for Othello and Desdemona might just be the most impressive sequence in the film. Set to a fantastic piano and choir based score by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino that wouldn’t sound out of place in a horror movie, we open on the corpse of Othello, bathed in shadows as a crane moves upwards. He is then taken by a procession of monks, all in black robes against a cloudy sky. The contrast of brightness and darkness is phenomenal, and it plays like a waking nightmare that both recalls the foreboding of Citizen Kane’s opening and foreshadows focus on death of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Welles then combines elements of tragedy with noir, turning Othello into another story of men whose decisions lead to terrible consequences because they don’t know everything they think they know. Welles shoots Venice beautifully, but he also shoots it like a world in disorder and collapse, with one party scene turning into a mad, impressionistic blur, and Othello’s epileptic fit is shot with such a striking POV shot that we’re brought to the same disoriented mindset that he is. Othello also uses spatial dynamics about as well as any Welles film, letting a long tracking shot of Iago leading Othello show us the control the former has over the latter; showing Desdemona bathed in light, oblivious to her husband’s jealousy, and Othello in the shadows, seething in anger; Othello behind a brick wall, misinterpreting a conversation between Cassio and his lover Bianca as their conversations cruelly echo; and one particularly beautiful shot, with Othello in the foreground and Desdemona in the far distance as Othello delivers a particularly indicative line, “my heart is turned to stone”.

The difficult production might have caused some of the problems with Othello, but it also caused one of the most striking sequences in the film. One of the first scenes shot, the attempted murder of Cassio and subsequent murder of Roderigo, was done while the costumes weren’t finished. Welles decided to stage it in a Turkish bathhouse, and it’s one of his most striking set-pieces. Just as David Cronenberg did years later with Eastern Promises, Welles exploits Cassio’s intense vulnerability, and his use of incense as smoke and fog helps add to the feeling of moral murkiness in the film.

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a Shakespeare film without the performances, and this features two of the best in the director’s filmography. Iago is an easy character to reduce- he states his bitterness over Othello’s promotion of Cassio, but he also expresses racial hatred for the Moor, which may just motivate his fear that his wife has slept with Othello. Any actor could play just one aspect of the character and turn him into Snidely Whiplash, but MacLiammoir plays up the character’s shrewdness and gifts as a manipulator. The dramatic irony of Othello constantly calling him “trustworthy Iago” is believable because, as played by MacLiammoir, he’s a man of incredible intelligence and thoughtfulness. He just happens to also be a sinister monster. That said, Welles gives multiple shades to Othello as well. He’s a charismatic figure, and Welles often gives himself a chance to take up the whole frame because of this, but he’s also shortsighted and quick to become jealous, and his treatment of Desdemona in the film’s second half is often just as monstrous as Iago’s manipulations.

Welles interest in the battle between morality and megalomania, when compounded with the play’s main theme of jealousy, makes for exactly what Welles’ Macbeth wasn’t- an emotional experience. Iago is a man made of pure bile and jealousy, and it is that jealousy that helps him justify his plotting of Othello’s downfall. Iago no doubt understands the feeling perfectly, and it better allows him to exploit Othello’s own jealous nature and sense of propriety. It’s a perfect Wellesian tragic figure- a man whose good nature is overwhelmed by pettiness. Like Kane and George Amberson before him, he comes to realize his errors, but it’s far too late (ignoring the tacked-on ending for Ambersons). We’ve already had one of the most ghastly murders in Shakespeare film history as Othello smothers his wife’s face with a sheet. As he meets his journey’s end, the feeling of doom that still pervades is unmistakable.

BONUS: Here’s Filming Othello (Grade: 66/B), the final completed film by Orson Welles, also unavailable due to action by Beatrice Welles. It’s honestly not too much more than a bonus feature of Welles recounting the experience he had making it, discussing with MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards (who played Desdemona’s father Brabantio), and (in the weaker second half) recounting some of the soliloquies. But hey, it’s Orson Welles, and he’s always a droll and engaging presence, so give it a look.

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