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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Othello (1952)

Othello is another of Orson Welles' troubled but brilliant films. Made in a stop and start fashion over several years, it was officially released in 1952 and won at Cannes, but had to be restored in 1992 for contemporary audiences.

Welles was a great interpreter of Shakespeare on stage, and chose to tackle the story of the Moor of Venice, playing the title role. Today, it is a little (or a lot, depending on your view) uncomfortable to see a white actor playing in blackface, but it was common enough in Welles' day (Olivier did it as late as 1965--today I don't think anyone would do it). It would have been fascinating to see Welles play Iago opposite a black actor.

That being said, the film continues Welles' style of chiaroscuro with elements of German expressionism. The use of shadow and light is mesmerizing, and their are several stark examples, such as the opening scene, which is Othello and Desdemona's funeral procession, silhouetted against the sky. It reminded me of the end of Bergman's The Seventh Seal, but that film wouldn't come for five more years. There are also many scene of Welles in close-up, his face looking disembodied as it floats in darkness.

I won't belabor the plot, which should be known to most literate people. Iago, upset because Othello has promoted Cassio ahead of him, works to destroy both men by framing Desdemona as an adulteress (with that key piece of evidence--the handkerchief). Iago himself warns Othello of "the green-eyed monster," which Othello ignores. The most powerful scenes are his rages before killing his wife (not strangling her, but suffocating with her that damn handkerchief).

The film is only 90 minutes long, which with Shakespeare means there have been considerable cuts. I'm not recently familiar enough with the play to know what was left out, but it seems all that is key is there, starting with Desdemona's father's anger over her secret marriage to Othello. There is also a very surreal scene in which Iago kills Roderigo set in a bathhouse.

This is the only Shakespearean adaptation of Welles that is available on DVD. We must wait to see Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight. I hope I live that long.

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