Othello (Orson Welles), the Moor of Venice and highly respected military man, is dead, and his body is being taken to its place of rest, along with that of his murdered wife Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), dead by his own hand. How did this tragedy come about? We must go back a few weeks to when they were first married in a church, with no one in attendance but the bride, groom and priest: however, there were other eyes watching, belonging to Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir), who was extremely offended by what he saw. Whether it was his prejudice against the Moors, the idea of a black man marrying a white woman, or his own envy at Othello's romance, it spelt trouble...
By the time he made this brief version of William Shakespeare's play, writer-director-star Orson Welles was well into the state he would find himself in for the rest of his professional career, scraping together budgets financed by acting roles in works that did not engage him for the most part (though he did feature in The Third Man around this point) and shooting what footage he could to edit together into as much of his vision as he was able to muster. It's little wonder this adaptation lasted a little over an hour and a half, as it's about as much as Welles could capture without rendering the source material completely incomprehensible, despite the striking appearance.
Othello took over three years to finish to his satisfaction, and even then he crafted two separate cuts for Europe and America - if he was anything, Welles was a tinkerer with his own works - and the reaction was more one of surprise he had got the thing finished instead of admiration at what he had achieved on slender means. If you know the background, this was quite a feat, a collection of handsome black and white imagery that brought to mind the appearance of what someone who had been to see the play in the theatre would dream of that night, the pictures in his slumber inspired by what he had been impressed by as entertainment; there was a definite unreal quality here.
A lot of that was down to Welles not being able to record the sound on location to any great satisfaction, so the dubbing tended to take you out of the drama when it was so blatant, yet adjust to that and accept these were the edited highlights of the text and what the director brought out in them was undeniably intriguing. Really, at this length it was largely the title character and his nemesis who gained the necessary degree of exposure so we could follow their thinking, though we did get a sense of Desdemona as the embodiment of purity and innocence, leaving her ultimate fate (revealed in the first minute) all the more perplexing that Iago should want to encourage Othello to murder her, all in order to destroy the Moor in body and soul. McLiammóir was an old mentor of Welles', and the extended filming process gave him a wealth of anecdotes.
He was probably Ireland's most famous stage actor (though - whisper it - he was not actually Irish!) and this production offered him his best role on film, not that he was especially interested in the medium and he remained in the shadow of Welles, here at least. But there's a problem with Othello for modern audiences that would not have occurred to moviegoers in the twentieth century, or for that matter theatregoers for centuries before that: more often than not, the lead was taken by a white actor in blackface. Now, post the likes of James Earl Jones or Lenny Henry, even Paul Robeson, playing the role, this seems unacceptable, and may be a hurdle for anyone without experience of the history of the part, no matter how sympathetically and non-stereotypically it is realised, but that does not mean a fine performance should be whitewashed (so to speak) out of history, merely that we should understand the context. After all, in Shakespeare's day every role was taken by a white man.
[Criterion have released Othello on Blu-ray, and here are the features in full:
New, restored 4K digital transfers of two versions of the film, the 1952 European one and the 1955 U.S. and UK one, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks
Audio commentary from 1995 featuring filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and Orson Welles scholar Myron Meisel
Filming "Othello," Welles's last completed film, a 1979 essay-documentary
Return to Glennascaul, a 1953 short film made by actors Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards during a hiatus from shooting Othello
New interview with Welles biographer Simon Callow
Souvenirs d'"Othello," a 1995 documentary about actor Suzanne Cloutier by François Girard
New interview with Welles scholar François Thomas on the two versions
New interview with Ayanna Thompson, author of Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race and Contemporary America (this is excellent!)
Interview from 2014 with scholar Joseph McBride
PLUS: An essay by film critic Geoffrey O'Brien.]