If anyone was ever richer than all his tribe, it was certainly Orson Welles: he was rich in talent and vision and energy. And like the Othello he played in one of his greatest movies, he was brought low by baser men who conspired against him, resenting his greatness; and at the same time, also like Othello, he had to share the responsibility for that destruction, so readily did he collaborate in it.
Now, thanks to an inventive effort, "Othello" has been returned to us (it opens today at the Senator), freshly restored and in perhaps better shape than it was in 1952, when it won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie wasn't so much made as assembled, cobbled together over three long years between 1948 and 1951 in Rome and Morocco, with Welles and the crew frequently breaking off production so that Welles could race away to act in some banal Hollywood production like "The Black Rose" to get a few bucks together to continue shooting. This is no way to make a movie.
Thus, certain inconsistencies bedevil the production. Chief among these is Welles' own weight: when he began the production, he was the slick and mesmerizing Harry Lime of "The Third Man"; when he finished it, he was a true fatty.
Halfway through the film, then, Othello's sleek warrior's wardrobe complete to black tights and studded jersey suddenly becomes a tent-like, bulk-disguising white caftan.
But that's only if you notice, and you probably won't notice. This "Othello" is so visually inventive, so quickly paced, so cracklingly alive, it seems to fly by. And, at 85 minutes, it does. It's certainly more coherent and purely entertaining than Welles' "Macbeth" of a few years earlier. As for how it stacks up against his "Chimes at Midnight," a bravura condensation of the two "Henry IVs," I cannot say, because nobody's done for "Chimes" what Castle Hill Films has done for "Othello." Perhaps someone will.
Laurence Olivier, another famed white Othello, chose to play the Moor as a Caribbean prince, a Calypso warrior: his was an athletic, barefoot Othello. Welles' Moor is more intellectual and the racial aspects of the role seem largely unimportant to him; he lacks Olivier's physical radiance but he seems much smarter, a true General rather than a mere warrior. Thus his agony is far more interior than Olivier's, which explains much of the film's gloomy, film noir sensibility.
Where Olivier raged, Welles broods; where Olivier's physicality finally exploded, Welles' anger expresses itself in more symbolic turns. A perfect example of this is the strangulation scene: it's not done as if a brutal murder, but a delicate one: he wraps Desdemona's face in a scarf and we see him extinguish not the woman but a stylized mask. It's an intellectual's crime, bloodless and discreet.
The cunning Iago is played by Welles' old pal from the Dublin stage, Micheal MacLiammoir. It's a fine, feral performance, though you may have some difficulty, as I did, with the fey little beardlet which the great director has induced his villain to wear. It's pretty silly. Nevertheless, Iago's sly manipulation of Othello toward tragedy is masterfully done. I wish Suzanne Cloutier's Desdemona had been a little younger; she seems like a very staid British lady somewhat put out by all this nonsense (though she was a great Welles loyalist).
But it's the production -- that is Welles' direction -- that truly "stars" in the picture. It's full of astonishing invention, as Welles daringly finessed the immeasurable obstacles that stood in his way. For example, to validate the somewhat truncated account of the play's materials, he takes the liberty of recasting it as a flashback. He opens with a remarkable visual montage of the funeral of the principals, intercutting the fate of Iago, led in chains to a cage suspended over the crashing waves. It's pure bombast, but it's incredible.
More famously, when it came time to film the botched murder of Michael Cassio by Roderigo and Roderigo's subsequent murder by Iago, Welles found he lacked the funds to get the costumes out of hock. So he filmed it in a steam bath -- were there steam baths in 16th century Cyprus? Who cares? -- and turned it into a brilliant, vapor-bound spin through a madhouse, with the camera whirligiging in and out of chaos.
Pauline Kael once said that Welles loved the "candy of cinema," all the bold compositions and twisted camera angles and flashy moves. She meant it unkindly. But "Othello" is pure movie candy of the very best sort, and we are the lucky ones: Candy, in this case, is dandy.
Starring Orson Welles and Micheal MacLiammoir.
Directed by Orson Welles.
Released by Castle Hill.