USA, 1955 (MIFF 1956, Programme 1)
Director: Orson Welles
Othello was filmed over many months, in many places and under trying conditions. The start was made in 1949: rehearsals in Paris, costumes fitted in Rome, players sum- moned to Morocco. Desdemona was murdered in a disused chapel in Viterbo, Emilia, in a studio in Rome; locations were used in Venice, Torcello, Perugia, Mazagan, the beaches of Morocco: all was uncertainty, improvisation. Desdemona was to be played, in turn, by four actresses, finally Suzanne Cloutier was selected. When filming began in Mogador, the men's costumes were held up in Rome; it was therefore contrived that the murder of Roderigo be played against a background where the simplest of dresses would do -- a steam bath.
Over everything hung the shadow of collapse. There was no money. But there was something else &ndash: a kind of genius.
Before even the title appears it is apparent that Othello is to be a film out of the ordinary. The first stunning sequences show the Moor's dead face and the catafalques of Othello and Desdemona carried in sombre procession while voices chant in mourning, and lago, a scurrying figure, between menacing spears, is thrust into an iron cage and hung from the battlements. Here, all that is sinister, cruel and barbaric in the place and age is given its expression, and throughout the accent and the emphasis remain the same &ndash: the grandeur and the terror of stone iorts and palaces, the feel of the dungeon, the slab of the steel, the dark places of the mind.
Seldom can there have been a more moody, flamboyant and restless presentation of Othello - this dynamic film is in perpetual motion, breaking the text and action into vivid fragments. Characters for ever rushing upstairs, downstairs. in and out, uttering wild cries, blown by a high wind, battling through surf and log. Banners streams, cocks crow, goats bleat and seagulls mew. But the spectacular images on the screen are unfailingly rich, beautiful, exciting. The plumy compositions of men-at-arms, the dramatic placing of single figures in the spaces of battlement or patterned floor, the massive and striking compositions of Venetian architecture vaguely expressive of the tangled jealousy and hate, all add up to a veritable feast 'for the eyes.
Othello is a film first, Shakespeare a long way second. The text is industriously deleted and rearranged, perhaps cut too deeply. The tragedy is conveyed in visual terms, in an attempt to saturate the senses with mood. The music helps to evoke the medieval atmosphere, although it could be criticised for commonplace devices, e.g., the repeated use of humming voices in the typically eerie manner of secondrate thrillers.
Charged with credits and defects, scenes brilliantly composed, lighted and photographed, others pale and trembling; sound muffled, superb images the film alive in Renaissance vigour and erotic violence; a black and white Othello never to be forgotten.