Othello - The Lost Masterpiece

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Othello (1952)

Jul 7, 2000
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:cinematography, direction, cast

Cons:dubbed, dialogue is not for the Shakespearean challenged

As a director, Orson Welles is best known for his first and most important film, Citizen Kane (1941). Other films followed, but RKO increasingly meddled with his direction. The Stranger (1946) was his only contemporary commercial success. His skills as an actor remained in demand, primarily due to his deep, booming voice. But as a director desiring independence, he was unable to get studio funding for his projects.

Welles filmed Othello from 1949 to 1952. It was financed by his acting gigs. When he ran out of money, production was suspended, until he had made enough from film roles for the production to resume. The filming locations were across Italy and Morocco, and through the magic of editing, scenes that began on one location sometimes ended in another.

At one point, needed costumes had not arrived, perhaps because they had not been paid for. The resourceful Welles moved the scene into a bathhouse, so that it could be played with the cast clad in towels and robes. Sound was not recorded, as that would exceed the budget. The dialogue was later dubbed in, with Welles himself sometimes mimicking the voices of secondary players.

The resulting film won the Grand Prize at the Cannes film festival. However, it was not distributed in the U.S. for many years thereafter. It has since been restored, with the original score replaced.

The story is set in Italy during the Renaissance. Othello (Orson Welles) is a dark-skinned Moor, who has won the hand of fair Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) despite her racist, disapproving father Brabantio (Hilton Edwards).

Due to his skill in military strategy, Othello is made General of the Venetian army. Othello chooses Cassio (Michael Laurence) as his lieutenant, instead of promoting his ensign, Iago (Micheal MacLiammoir). Irritated at being 'passed over', Iago intrigues with doltish Roderigo (Robert Coote) against the Moor. Iago arranges to make Othello insanely jealous of his wife and her alleged lover, Cassio (Michael Laurence).

Iago's wife, and handmaiden to Desdemona, is Emilia (Fay Compton). Cassio's free-spirited mistress is Bianca (Doris Dowling). Allegedly, Joseph Cotten and Joan Fontaine have cameos, but they must be difficult to spot as I have yet to discern them in the cast.

While the budget was minimal, the cinematography can be striking. Welles achieves decent crowd shots despite having a small cast, and makes good use of lighting, shadows and sets.

Despite Welles' perfect diction, the dialogue is difficult to follow for anyone who isn't well acquainted with the original Shakespearean play. Welles took some liberties with the play, removing several scenes and rearranging others.

Welles makes Othello very sympathetic despite his actions, while Cloutier's Desdemona is both credible and intelligent. But while I have great respect for both Welles and Shakespeare, I have to say that this film was uncomfortable for me to watch. The real problem is not so much with Welles' adaptation, but with the play itself. It is a tragedy, and an unpleasant one at that. Iago is sadistic in his need to ruin the lives of those around him, while the innocents suffer grievously and at length. (69/100)



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