By the time Orson Welles set about playing Othello in 1948, he had already established himself as one of the great cinematic innovators in the short history of the medium, as well as a gifted man of the theater - something people tend to forget nowadays, for understandable reasons. Indeed, 51 years after its premiere, it stretches credulity that a 26-year-old should possess the cultural wherewithal to produce, co-write, and act in a masterpiece like Citizen Kane, Welles's 1941 debut film at RKO Studios. But Welles's pre-Kane infancy was also a period of considerable achievement. Historically speaking, the collaboration with John Houseman and the Phoenix Theatre Group, Federal Theater Project, and later, his own Mercury Theatre, should be placed alongside, if not above, the galvanizing Group Theatre productions of Harold Clurman and Clifford Odets of the Thirties, which were the closest this country ever got to owning a national theater.
Two adaptions of Shakespeare from that time stood out among Welles's early theater work. One was a ritualistic, voodoo Macbeth staged in Harlem with a cast of black actors. The other was a brownshirted Julius Caesar, set in Mussolini's Italy as a fascist parable. A prodigious phenomenon in his youth as actor, writer, painter, poet, pianist, violinist, and sketcher, Welles had been fascinated by Shakespeare since his early stirrings in Illinois (he was raised in Chicago). But it was during an adolescent sketching tour of Ireland, when he presented himself to Dublin's Gate Theatre and its two founders, Hilton Edwards and Micheal Mac Liammoir, that he essentially embarked upon a career as an actor.
Things happened quickly for Welles; he was nineteen in his 1934 Broadway debut, playing Tybalt in a Katherine Cornell Company production of Romeo and Juliet. The tall, handsome, imposing, booming-voice Welles was a natural actor for Shakespeare. That, in a sense, became his downfall in later years, when he clowned about in secondary roles, all the while maintaining a Shakespearean carriage and eloquence. He was an outsize theatrical personality before he became obese.
His Shakespeare on film is a less singular matter. Welles the actor and Welles the director weren't always the best combination, at least where Shakespeare's works were concerned. His Macbeth, made for Republic Pictures in 1948, came after Welles's highest pinnacle (Kane) and lowest ebb (The Magnificent Ambersons, which RKO truncated and reshot, stripping Welles of creative control, and The Lady from Shanghai, a critical and popular flop). The "Scottish play" was shot on a bargain-basement budget, a three-week schedule, with sets obtained from Republic's papier-mache westerns, and with the exception of Welles's intense portrayal of Macbeth's unbridled ambition, the cast included incompetent, inarticulate actors. Worst of all, despite the dark-hued camerawork typical of Welles's black-and-white work, his overall vision of the play was hardly as innovative as the Harlem Macbeth of more than ten years before. By any standard, it remains a problematical interpretation.
Then, immediately following, Othello was launched. As film critic J. Hoberman pointed out recently in his Village Voice review of this film, Welles was 34 years old at the time he started production in Europe. Not only was this the first time he had enjoyed complete artistic freedom since Kane, it was, ironically, the last time Welles would cast himself as a romantic lead. Othello was a cause celebre from the moment it began production in 1948 until its release four years later, when it shared the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival with Renato Castellani's fantasy, Two Cents Worth of Hope. Money was tight from the word go; cast members, like work schedules, came and went. In the end, having filmed a substantial portion of the film in the North African city of Mogador (before that, Rome and Venice), Welles entered Othello in the festival as, of all things, a Moroccan production.
For his adaption of Shakespeare's play about love, jealousy, duplicity, and revenge, Welles cast his Irish mentor, Micheal Mac Liammoir, in the pivotal role of Iago, with an ensemble of English and Irish performers lending support. In that respect it lends a happier result than in Macbeth - there's no language barrier. The acting is good, though not outstanding. There's a moving delicacy about Suzanne Cloutier's pale Desdemona, a fragility emphasized in Welles's overall, hypersensitive view of the tragedy. There's also one recognizably mainstream Shakespeare performance by Fay Compton, who plays Emilia with a large dose of saucy, pre-feminist wit.
What Welles imposes upon - or rather, removes from - the play's structure and verse is another matter. Shakespeare's five-act analysis of psychosexual ambivalence and the degree to which faith can be compromised is transformed into a brief, 92-minute-long paean to the fatality of obsessed love. Like Citizen Kane, there's a retrospective glance: The film begins with a somber cortege depicting Othello and Desdemona's funeral and Iago's imprisonment; as with Charles Foster Kane, the Moor's life is over before the story begins. Alas, many of the play's best speeches and soliloquies, such as Iago's "Put money in thy purse" to Roderigo at the end of Act I or Othello's "It is the cause" in Act V, emerge either as throwaway lines or disturbingly amended and abridged declamations.
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.
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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.