OTHELLO is immediately involving, draws us in as swiftly as does a cobra’s eyes, hypnotizing us, avoiding the usual explication of less effective directors and boom! we are there—the dead Othello comes up at us out of the dark, a black, magnificent, marled monstrosity accompanied by giant hoods, the silhouettes of—what?—soldiers? monks? clergy? worshippers? They walk, their footsteps as dead as the dead Moor they carry. This is a FRANKENSTEIN, a DRACULA OTHELLO, the horror movie elements and psychological terrors of that genre deliberately pinned to its hem. A movie, too, of scope and close-ups, lending it a regal fright; watching it, you want to swoon, you get weak, the way you would if a great king should ever pass before you.
The great, great Orson Welles has cut Shakespeare’s three hour play down to 90 minutes without (mirabile visu!) losing any of the story’s power and loads it with such majesty and dread, some scenes reverberate and shake you long after you have gone to bed.
In this film, Welles’ deft use of mise-en-scene accentuates the characters and their actions: the church in which Othello and his Desdemona marry dwarfs their joy; their union is lost in the dark of what is to come. They are together, yet they are so very alone in the vast cavern of a doomed marriage. In another scene, an abandoned wife is made smaller by shooting her in a mammoth, seemingly roofless hall. And in another, flags, like so many flapping heads of the Hydra, wave menace behind the warring Rodrigo, spur him on to bloodlust. There are dizzying montages of vivid tensions and contrasts—the dark, stone-faced Othello and his lily-white Desdemona, a Botticelli’s own, fluttering doves, sincere, moonlit canals, North African flutes and beautiful tambourines give way to Medieval chants and prayers. The rays of the sun struggle to come in but are swallowed up by an everywhere darkness.
This is a film of ingenious tricks—it whispers when we expect it to roar, shimmers when it should dim, It is all white spires and surprises contrasted against flying black shadows, motion and magic both; even the sometimes stilted dialogue scenes seem strangely to be moving, and move.
It is worth re-iterating that it is a movie of magnificent close-ups, opening a door to the character’s minds and intentions, and it reminded me how much I really miss the habit Hollywood used to have of lighting actors’ and actresses’ eyes, so different from today’s movie styles. This technique “made” the stars like Garbo, Davis, Cooper, Stewart, Dietrich and yes, Welles. His eyes in OTHELLO emit a commanding confidence, compassionate, though confused. The eyes are never far from madness, black and full of menace, then unconstrained. If, as is said, the eyes are the windows to the soul, in OTHELLO, then, the camera lights expose the glories, the complexities of Orson Welles’ inner being to us.
This OTHELLO is a film that, by all rational reasons, should not even exist.
Certainly, one of the most underrated of Welles’ films, if not of all films ever, it was plagued by problems and delays from the start. Made piecemeal, over a period of years, it (and Welles) fell prey to an unexpectedly erratic and lengthy film shoot (funds ran out, as they often did on Welles’ projects) and he had to keep leaving the production behind in order to earn (or beg, steal or borrow) the money to continue—the movie ending up taking three to four years to complete. Miserable as this was for Welles and his troupe, this misfortune gives the film a shattered, shard-like look mirroring the characters themselves; they are broken pieces of a broken looking-glass (they fail time after time to “see” clearly, turn into twisted, mischievous souls who surrender to jealousy, revenge, betrayal and murder, become mere fragments of who they used to be.)
The serendipity of this is mind-boggling since it was never Welles’ intention, of course, to shoot the film with years’ long delays, in different locations (Italy and Morocco), with different actors and extras having to fill in for some of the original cast. The happy accident of this OTHELLO is that its defects establish its worth, lend it its genius.
It was not, however, an immediate success. In spite of the ingenious music by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Lyric Opera, and in spite of its taking Top Prize at Cannes in 1953, it was roundly panned by American critics when released here in 1955 as a failure and its troubled history continued to frustrate Welles who was never able to re-mix the improperly synchronized soundtrack to its original quality, was never able to return to it as he would have liked. Much of the film is still missing and the fullness of Welles’ original vision has never, to this day, been seen.
But OTHELLO remains a must-see for movie aficionados. Honestly, it is a masterpiece.
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About Mister Orson Welles—
He was born to charm. He knew from a young age that he was not made for ordinary human pursuits. A born Irish storyteller, Welles possessed, at one and the same time, an elegant yet avuncular way with a tale. A recognized Wunderkind (he was interested in everything and anything) and a seasoned world traveler before he had reached adulthood, it is reported that while on a walking and painting tour of Ireland, he managed to convince the director of Dublin’s storied Gate Theater that he was a famous Broadway star and his career was on its way!
Welles could charm the proverbial birds down from their nests. And that tuba of a voice, oom-pah-pah-ing until it is inside you, a visceral instrument of invasion and persuasion. For Orson Welles knew who he was and what he had, and insinuated himself onto the world stage from a young age and stayed there until the day he succumbed to great success and great failure. Everything about the man was big—he had a marvelous mind; it could wheedle financial backers out of their money as surely as cute puppies charm treats out of their owners’ palms; it rolled over the likes of eternal beauties like Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth. He dined with commoners and kings and could be like either when he needed to be, there was about him, too, a bit of the back-slap from way back. He was a con in the best sense of that word, for what are most movies but happy cons, a director’s attempt to hoax us into believing his or her vision is real?
Every aspect of Welles’ being—actor, director, producer, purveyor of legerdemain, gourmand—a true connoisseur of lavish food and wine and Art and Life—a carnival barker, a circus performer, really, with himself working all three rings—had, as its end, one true aim—to “merely entertain”
It was sometimes said of Welles’ career that it was a magnificent misadventure, that it died (in part) because his genius could make the story but not the money needed to see it through. His later life became a sad one, sequences of whoring himself out to anyone who would pay for whatever he had left to offer, forced, time and again, to do cheesy t.v. commercials (“We will sell no wine before its time.”) or to appear for scale to chat with insipid talk show hosts like Mike Douglas or the ever-jejune Merv Griffin. (Interesting aside: it was immediately following just such an appearance on the Griffin show during which Welles became uncharacteristically open about his loves and Life that he left the studio, collapsed and died of a massive heart attack at the age of 70).
He has left behind enthralling hallmarks of work, the majority of them masterpieces in every sense, and yes, still loved and studied by generations of movie fans. The Wellesian reach is staggering, his pictorial compositions are flawless, his contributions to movie history secure.
Some say he overplayed his hand. But whenever Welles was thought to be out of the game, a washed-up magician with no tricks left up his sleeve, the great man with the operatic basso voice and God-like, fiery eyes and mind, the command premier man, the twinkly humorist, the shameless poseur, showed us one final trick—or tricks—the very films he left behind: his KANE, his AMBERSONS, his LADY FROM SHANGHAI, his TOUCH OF EVIL, his OTHELLO, all God on celluloid, God caught in mid-air and kept there for us to see whenever we need a resurrection, a celestial lift, a glimpse of The Divine…