Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 3

59. Orson Welles’s Othello (1951)

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Orson Welles’s Othello opens with some weird music by Alberto Barbers and/or Angelo Francesco Lavagnino that splits the difference between a Modernist march and Gregorian chant during the funeral march of the Moor and Desdemona, with Iago brought along, caged in captivity, like some dolorous triumph. The tragic destinies are foretold rather than having any opening credits.

The film is in black and white, which may have turned off 1951 audiences. The restored version, however, makes the scenes look crisp, and so the black and white adds an antiquarian touch rather than just making the film look moldy. While I would have adored to see more of Venice, since the Venice scenes take place at night, perhaps black and white is just as well.

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I say this with hesitant irony, since Othello is a play in part about the uses made of the color of a man’s skin. White actors who portray the Moor these days forgo the unpleasant tradition of blackface. Ideally, since there are only two black parts in Shakespeare (Othello and Aaron in Titus Andronicus), the parts could be reserved for black actors, even in these times of color-blind casting.

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While I shrink from the practice of blackface, though, I don’t find it dreadfully offensive in the case of Welles. In black and white, it looks natural enough, and doesn’t impart direct associations with minstrelsy, although again I might have preferred to see Welles tackle Iago and grant the Moor’s part to a black actor. As weird as the casting of a white man in black make-up might seem to us now, the practice was considered totally normal in Welles’s time.

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And Micheál MacLiammóir as Iago brings to mind the importance of Iago’s lack of something, some lack of charisma despite being eloquent and shrewd in the ways of Machiavellian political intrigue. I don’t mean that MacLiammóir is a poor actor, for that is certainly not the case. But physically, MacLiammóir looks rather skinny and average, bland compared to Othello and Michael Cassio. Kenneth Branagh as Iago is too handsome for us to sense that his private griefs are that compelling. Branagh makes us believe that Iago’s lies feel like truth to him, as a compulsive liar begins to have difficulty recognizing the difference. Butit’s difficult to believe he didn’t get what he wanted in the first place. MacLiammóir’s Iago is harder to root for, but easier to empathize with. It makes the tragic destructions of Othello feel less wanton and more tragic.

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The sense of Othello’s testimony before the council regarding his courtship of Desdemona comes off poignantly in Welles’s mouth. Othello declares,

Rude am I in my speech,
And little bless’d with the soft phrase of peace:
For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith,
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field,
And little of this great world can I speak,
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle,
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnish’d tale deliver
Of my whole course of love; what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic,
For such proceeding I am charged withal,
I won his daughter.

Othello seems to be protesting the rudeness of his speech too much since his tale does not seem especially “unvarnish’d.” However, addressing these white Europeans with whom he serves, Othello seems to understand that his audience may hear his speech as rude, and is ingratiating them against their presumed racism. (I think of Trump supporters who feel like he has made the executive office “classy” again. Institutional racism means that there is a sliding scale for judgment.) This seems all the more enhanced from Welles’s amazing instrument of a voice. (Lawrence Fishburne’s Caribbean accent as Othello made the speech seem potentially rougher in tongue to Europeans, even though Fishburne’s instrument is excellent as well.)

For textual purists, the director was perhaps too rough with the cuts. Welles has added expository voiceovers to speed the play along, allowing the story to reach its conclusion within about ninety minutes.

Sizanne Cloutier makes for a taut Desdemona. She looks uncannily like a Disney princess in such Renaissance attire, and successfully conveys both a strong, clear will and a heartbreaking innocence.

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The fortress at Cypress, abutting its geometry against the ocean, looks stark, adding to this antiquarian flair.

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One of the later sequences occurs at a sauna. Iago convinced the lovesick dupe, Rodrigo, that he may win Desdemona after all if he will only kill Michael Cassio. Welles has a mandolin playing a gypsy-like tune, and added an essential ingredient to this scene: a poodle. I am not making this up. The scene is so uncanny as to be wholly believable.

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When Iago kills Rodrigo through the floorboards of the sauna, the effect is goofy, yet psychedelically terrifying. Indeed, as the film dispatches its climax, the effect is that of a classic horror film, in which nearly everyone left alive is a monster, imprisoned in the ancient jails of their psyches.

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The gazes of the dying and the damned.


John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.