14th Dec2018

‘Othello’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Orson Welles, Micheál MacLiammóir, Suzanne Cloutier, Robert Coote, Fay Compton, Michael Laurence | Written by William Shakespeare, Orson Welles, Jean Sacha | Directed by Orson Welles

othello-blu

We open with a funeral. For whom we’re not sure, but by the end of Orson Welles’ 1952 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Moorish tragedy Othello we can be certain that more than one of the main characters will be dead.

The location is Cyprus, and Venetian General Othello (Welles) is married to Desdemona (Suzanne Coultier, post-dubbed by Gudrun Ire), much to the chagrin of Othello’s supposedly loyal ensign, Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir). The latter sets about bringing ruin to his master through a convoluted campaign of rumour and hearsay. Specifically, he makes Othello believe that one of his captains, Cassio (Michael Laurence), is romantically involved with Desdemona. In all of literature a simple handkerchief has never held such power.

MacLiammóir is having an absolute riot in the upsetter role (the painted-on beard isn’t too much of a distraction). He is a character that Samuel Coleridge referred to as possessing a “motiveless malignity”, so it makes sense for MacLiammóir to ham it up to high heaven. And Welles himself is effective in the title role – his mental decline, although sudden (Welles covers a huge amount in 90 minutes), is truly heartbreaking.

But wait, Orson Welles isn’t black! No he is not, and alas, we must live with the spectre of blackface, however “honourably” it is worn. It’s unthinkable nowadays, of course; but perhaps it highlights just how good Welles is in the role that we can put that aspect down to cinema history and enjoy a powerful and moving transition from might to madness.

In terms of the female roles, Desdemona is a tricky one because she hovers somewhere between innocence and passivity. Cloutier gets the balance right; and the heavy feminist lifting is done by Desdemona’s handmaid, Emilia (Fay Compton). The latter has a wonderful speech which perhaps expresses the thoughts in Desdemona’s mind; that few men know of, or even care to discover, the emotional depths that women experience. Desdemona, so dutiful to her man, cuts Emilia short to leave the room. We are never given a reason to doubt Desdemona’s innocence, which is how it should be.

Largely financed from Welles’ own pocket, the budget limitations in this production are pretty clear, especially in the exterior castle scenes. Every trick in the filmmaking book is used, from forced perspectives to depth-of-field to clever editing, all to convince us that this is a bustling market city. The arrival of the warships is a nifty piece of model-work. But ultimately the interiors are superior: cavernous, angular, shadowy sets which, in true German Expressionist style, seem to reflect the twisted madness of their human captives.

Ahead of its time in 1603, and in the early 1950s pre-empting the American civil rights movement, this re-release couldn’t be more timely. In a world where bigotry and prejudice seems tribal – and as sharply binary as the dark and light of Othello’s remastered dungeons – this is a story of how insidious prejudice, against a black man and finally against women, can only result in a poisonous, socially unjust system and the reinforcement of white male supremacy. As such, it’s a story that will remain relevant until it no longer needs to be.

SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfers of two versions of the film, the 1952 European one and the 1955 U.S. and UK one, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks
  • Audio commentary from 1995 featuring filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and Orson Welles scholar Myron Meisel
  • Filming “Othello,” Welles’s last completed film, a 1979 essay-documentary
  • Return to Glennascaul, a 1953 short film made by actors Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards during a hiatus from shooting Othello
  • New interview with Welles biographer Simon Callow
  • Souvenirs d’”Othello,” a 1995 documentary about actor Suzanne Cloutier by François Girard
  • New interview with Welles scholar François Thomas on the two versions
  • New interview with Ayanna Thompson, author of Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race and Contemporary America
  • Interview from 2014 with scholar Joseph McBride
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien

Othello is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.

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