Othello (1951) Review

Othello (1951) Director: Orson Welles

Rating: 5 out of 5.

One of his first independent films outside the studio system, Orson Welles’s Othello contains more than a hint of the surreal –the crumbling real world settings, the angular dream-like cinematography, a panoply of striking visuals, and Angelo Francesco’s horrifying choral score all contribute to an extraordinarily distinct cinematic experience for a Shakespearean production. This film takes us out of the theatre and into the narrow canals of Venice as well as the sun-kissed shores of Cyprus –a world of shadowy, grainy stone hallways, and of echoes and mirrors.

It should be noted that Orson Welles takes certain liberties with the original source material –one of the most memorable revisions in the film is the murder of Cassio which takes place inside a Turkish bath house (a decision which resulted from a lack of costumes on the set that day). However, in typical Orson Welles fashion, the scene is nevertheless iconic –perhaps even reminiscent of the dramatic “hall of mirrors” closing sequence in The Lady From Shanghai. The voice dubbing in Othello is also a bit odd at points, it feels choppy and awkward. But with that being said, there is an element of horror, dread, and anxiety that looms over the film as we hop from one jarring scene to the next –and it unfolds as if each scene is crafted to be a moving painting. We begin with an ominous prelude filled with foreshadowing as Othello is given full burial rites in the vein of a classical hero, and the film leads us to down through the maddening story of betrayal and lies ultimately ending in the reveal of Iago’s bloody murderous plot.

Othello was filmed sporadically on location over a three-year period in between Morocco, Venice, Tuscany and Rome as well as the Scalera Studios in Rome. Shooting began in 1949, but it was quickly shut down several times when an Italian producer went bankrupt and then Orson Welles started funding the project only to go bankrupt, himself, shortly thereafter. This caused a revolving doors of actors appearing in their roles, for example the third and final actress to play Desdemona in the film wound up being Suzanne Cloutier. After years of shooting various scenes and patching the whole thing together on the cutting room floor, Othello was finally released in 1951, though it faced another uphill battle with distribution. The whole chaos surrounding the production of the film was later released as a separate film essay entitled Filming Othello (1978) in which Orson Welles offers his commentary on the film as well as some interesting reflections on Shakespearean tragedy.

With Othello, Orson Welles offers a poignantly unique interpretation of Shakespeare’s play –one not to be missed, another excellent film from one of the 20th century’s greatest auteurs. Three different versions of the film have been officially released –two supervised by Welles, and a 1992 restoration supervised by his daughter, Beatrice Welles, which was the edit I personally watched. Thankfully, Ms. Welles managed to locate a negative of the film in a New Jersey warehouse which had survived in relatively good condition. From there, the film was expertly restored and brought to life anew.

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