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As for Welles, he plays this troubled figure with admirable control. Hoberman is right in deeming Welles as Othello "an uncomplicated figure" - let's face it, Othello is scarcely brighter than Bo Derek. But it says a lot for Welles that, intelligent and cultured as he was in life, he chose not to raise Othello's I.Q., as Laurence Olivier, in his malodorous, egomaniacal National Theatre production filmed in 1965, tried (and failed) to do. Also to his credit and unlike Olivier, Welles doesn't portray the Moor as a physically intimidating, blackfaced minstrel, though the make-up varies from time to time, a reminder that this film took four years and much soul-searching to finally complete. What most impresses 40 years after its release is how untheatrical - and delicate - Welles's Othello is.
It should be mentioned by way of inclusion that Welles also played the part on the stage in London in 1952, and was savaged by one of his keenest admirers, the critic Kenneth Tynan. Of his Othello, Tynan wrote: "No doubt about it, Orson Welles has the courage of his restrictions. Welles's own performance was a huge shrug...His bodily relaxation frequently verged on sloth...He positively waded through the great speeches, pausing before the stronger words like a landing craft breasting a swell." Then came the unkindest cut: "Welles's Othello is the lordly and mannered performance we saw in Citizen Kane, we have adapted to read Citizen Coon." To be sure, that very relaxation onstage - symptomatic of Othello's elusiveness, his status as an outsider - gives the performance on film its sense of naturalness, its heightened realism.
I am duty-bound to report that Mac Liammoir's journeyman Iago doesn't answer pending questions of this character's motivation beyond a certain generic-operatic black-heartedness. Iago's Mephistophelian musings on his relationship with the Moor have stirred many famous actors to outlandish interpretations in order to define what makes Othello's ensign dissemble and betray. Olivier, playing Iago in the Thirties to Ralph Richardson's Moor, assumed he was gay. He shocked the audience - and Richardson - with an impromptu kiss on the lips. I saw Christopher Plummer work a similar pansification in 1980 on Broadway with James Earl Jones as Othello - without the smooch, mercifully. But Iago's obsession with puppet mastery and destruction does not necessarily imply Freudian overtones. The best stage Othello and Iago I've ever seen, Ben Kingsley and David Suchet in London, didn't play their relationship as repressed, Jean Genet-style homosexuality, but as cult of personality gone astray. To marvelous effect.
There are plenty of flaws here, technical and creative. As a Shakespearean portrait and interpretation, Othello isn't within shooting distance of Welles's Falstaff chronicle of 1967, Chimes at Midnight, a compendium drawn from Richard II, both parts of Henry IV, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. There you can enjoy true Shakespearean pageantry and a world-wise contribution from Welles as the fat knight.
Othello nonetheless begs to be seen, as a reminder of a creative spring at near full flow. Sad to say, there's an entire generation of Americans who, when they remember Orson Welles at all, recall either a gray-bearded, double-breasted Graf Zeppelin rising gingerly from the "hot seat" on The Tonight Show to perform a variety of magic tricks to pathetically forced applause, or the basso profundo of radio and TV advertising, assuring the nation's armchair oenophiles that "We will sell no wine before its time." That depressing picture of a genius in his anecdotage is ably - and at times memorably - countermanded by this imperfect retelling of Othello, whose strongest depictions regarding the ephemerality of love and the finality of death cannot be gainsaid.
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