Shakespeare meets independent cinema of the highest order in Welles’ brilliant and vital take on the tragic story of the Moor of Venice.
Dir. Orson Welles
1952 | USA | Drama | 93 mins | 1.37:1 | English
Not rated – likely to be PG13 for some mature themes
Cast: Orson Welles, Suzanne Cloutier, Micheal MacLiammoir
Plot: Desdemona, daughter of a Venetian aristocrat, elopes with Moorish military hero Othello, to the great resentment of Othello’s envious underling Iago. Alas, Iago knows Othello’s weakness, and with chilling malice works on him with but too good effect.
Awards: Won Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Distributor: Westchester Films
Subject Matter: Moderate – Malice; Manipulation
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Othello is a marvel of editing. Infamously plagued by production problems that left the film being made in a stop-start fashion for over three years, Orson Welles’ work is one of independent cinema’s finest examples of the grit and perseverance that go into completing a picture.
Shot and edited in a few countries due to limited resources, you would be surprised how seamless the film feels. A shot and corresponding reverse shot could have been filmed miles and years apart, yet it’s impossible to tell.
It is also a marvel of economical storytelling that captures the essence of its original text, in this case, Shakespeare’s famous tragedy about the Moor of Venice.
Played by Welles himself (albeit in blackface, which was typical of the time, but has irked more progressive, race-conscious audiences over the decades), Othello newly marries Desdemona.
This causes Othello’s aide, Iago, to become envious, triggering him to besmirch Desdemona’s reputation by manipulating Othello to believe that she is having an affair.
“I know not where is that Promethean heat, That can thy light relume.”
From the solemn opening scene, a breathtaking mood piece centering on a funeral procession, we already feel the vitality—and ominousness of what is to come—in Welles’ filmmaking.
Despite logistical and budgetary limitations, Welles was able to make Othello a cinematic experience on par with any top-tier Shakespearean adaptation that came before or after.
With its beautiful black-and-white cinematography of shadows and contrasts, it is impossible to think of, say, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) without drawing some visual-tonal influences from this.
However, Welles’ Othello is more organic and naturalistic, and there is this air of boundless energy, creativity and artistic nous bursting at its seams.
Like Welles’ other Shakespearean masterpiece, Chimes at Midnight (1965), I wanted to start Othello up again when it ended.