Othello capsule review: 1952, directed by Orson Welles [Welles/MacLiammóir]

A full review will come as part of an overview of the videos available, but for now…

In 1949, production began under the direction of Orson Welles on his version of the play, starring himself as Othello and Micheál MacLiammóir as Iago. This is another case of a white actor tackling the role, but in this case because the film was shot in black and white (no pun intended), it didn’t seem so obvious a case of blackface. In a sense, I think the goal here was much as the same as in the 1981 BBC version–to play up the Moor/Muslim (rather than black) angle.

If the BBC versions are known for their (at least attempted) fidelity to the text, Welles is known for his playing very fast and loose with it. He’s unafraid to present the audience with an opening card and a narrative voice-over (think Olivier’s Hamlet). This narration sets up the conflict, allowing Welles to begin with a more provocative opening line (from Iago, but spoken to Roderigo): “I hate the Moor.” This is after, mind you, we see the opening framing device of Othello and Desdemona’s bodies being carried in a state funeral. And much of Iago and Roderigo’s opening dialogue is actually taken from Act One, Scene Three. Like I said, fast and loose. Oh, and another fast and loose aspect: Remember I said the BBC version was slow at over three hours? Well, Welles, well, he gets the play done in less than half that time, clocking in at a svelte 92 minutes.

With such shortening, it’s no surprise that most of MacLiammóir’s soliloquies are gone. In fact, looking back on it, we really only get one soliloquy and that’s a quasi-one: Othello’s speech as he enters Desdemona’s bed-chamber. Though it’s a solo speech, I’m not sure I’d call it a soliloquy, especially given the way Welles shoots the scene and it immediate precedent: it’s completely possible that Desdemona isn’t asleep and hears all this. Now, Welles was known for his ego: is it possible he cut all the soliloquies because Othello doesn’t have that many?

The production history for this film is fascinating, and something I will delve deeper in when I do my full review, but given the difficulties, this is a surprisingly beautiful film: from the shadows of Venice, to the vaulted ceilings of the castle in Cyprus, to the turkish baths where Roderigo meets his end, all of these are exquisitely shot. The sound’s not all that great, however (again, something I’ll get into with the full review).

The performances are solid if not mindblowing. I wasn’t as put off by Welles’ use of blackface, which was subtle enough that in the dark scenes you had to wonder if it was there at all; he still rocks a heck of a voice, and it thrills the ear to hear him speak the verse. Both Micheál MacLiammóir as Iago and Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona are good, but it almost feels that all the performances were secondary to the play itself.

Verdict: Good. If you don’t mind a certain carefree attitude toward line-by-line fidelity to the text, this is a great film. Would I use it as an introduction to the play? Probably not, but I certainly wouldn’t leave it out in a survey of the available films.