Friday, May 9, 2014
Orson Welles may be the only classic Hollywood auteur who has a following for what he almost accomplished. The man was seemingly incapable of delivering a complete masterpiece, full of false starts and moments of genius in films unfortunately damaged by his massive ego. Even Citizen Kane is not the perfect film as many claim, though it is certainly his best. Witness Othello, a film that took three years to complete yet still feels rushed in many spots. Welles' connections to Shakespeare went back to his youthful theatrical days, when he was mounting an all-black production of "Macbeth" (where Welles, as an understudy, first performed in blackface, as he does here) and a fascist Italy variation of "Julius Caesar". There are moments of that rebellious Welles to be found in this troubled production, even if you sometimes blink and miss them. The most noteworthy must be his re-imagining of the Cassio assassination attempt, now set in a bathhouse due to a costuming snafu leaving the production without the proper attire for the sequence. Welles, in a moment of creative innovation, clad his actors in towels and carried on with the shoot. Time is money. The entire production history was recounted in star Michael MacLiammoir's book "Put Money in Thy Purse". If it's anything like his performance of Iago, it must be sinfully good, campy reading.
Whatever misgivings there are about this film, it remains the best screen version of Shakespeare's tale of treachery and marital jealousy, which ultimately says more about the other lackluster approaches to the material. Its ragged production history shows, especially in bewildering editing choices that would make Doris Wishman blush in embarrassment and unfortunate post-dubbing that will look familiar to fans of low-budget Italian exploitation films. But emerging triumphant through the production errors are the sterling performances of Welles as Othello, bold and bombastic as the role should be played; MacLiammoir, slimy and reptilian, holding a little dog as a Bond villain would stroke his cat; Robert Coote, the perfect simpleton Roderigo. The right actors reciting Shakespeare's prose makes all the difference in the appreciation of the work. Where the film soars and everything works is the final act, including the bedroom scene between Othello and Desdemona. The suspense is palpable, the lighting moody, the editing taut. It makes one wonder why Welles never attempted to make a pure horror film. This surely is the mood and scene delivery Shakespeare dreamed of when the bard envisioned the original play. The wonderful Fay Compton, familiar from so many Hollywood film character roles, is given her chance to shine in the final act as Desdemona's maid, Emilia.
Welles' Othello is a fascinating mess, with flaws aplenty that actually contribute to its charm and appeal. The dubbing, often teased by critics, gives the whole affair a distinctive otherworldly ambiance, and some of the awkward editing beneficially amps up the pacing. Especially worth noting, the cinematography is a startling thing of beauty, capturing the gorgeous sets and scenery in a lavish and cost-effective way. Any other shortcomings are very easy to overlook when they're presented in such pretty wrapping paper. And I have to give Welles all the credit in the world for doing what often feels impossible in movieland: making something cinematic and captivating out of traditionally stage-bound Shakespeare plays. Very few films are able to pull this off. Welles' Othello certainly does. The film is currently touring the US in a new restored version courtesy of Carlotta Films. You should go out of your way to experience what all the fuss is about. I imagine you will be pleasantly surprised. See it.