TheTragedy of Othello:

The Moor of Venice (1952)

Directed by and starring Orson Welles

Summary: Othello, one of the four great Shakespearean tragedies, was brought to the screen by Orson Welles in 1952. It is a 93-minute black and white filmic production that could be titled "Orson Welles's Othello." Welles was the producer, the director, the screenwriter and even the main actor. He played the title role of Othello, the Moor, by painting his face black with cosmetics. One of the major issues in Othello is about the position that a foreigner and a black man hold in a white society, and the film's black and white photography interestingly fits this theme. However, it is unsettling to see a white actor playing the role of a black man.

The original text has been considerably abridged. No comical parts are left in, and Desdemona's scenes, especially her lines, have been reduced. Several intimate chamber scenes, moreover, have been added. Also, scenes are rearranged into a different order, but it is still Shakespeare's language and the essentials of the story remain the same as Shakespeare's powerful story of jealousy and rivalry.

The film begins and ends with the funerals of Desdemona and Othello. With the theme song that is heavy and sad the audience is immediately exposed to an upside-down image of Othello's face. It is the corpse of Othello, lying on a stretcher and carried to the plaza. Nearby is another stretcher, which holds the dead Desdemona. The funeral procession is led by priests holding a giant cross and surrounded by soldiers. Meanwhile, the villain, Iago, with a chain on his neck, is being led and put into a cage. As the procession moves near, the cage is pulled up and Iago is seen hanging in the sky. With a blank face, from the bottom of the cage, Iago stares at those men carrying the dead Othello.

The story continues with the use of flashbacks. Despite her father's opposition, Desdemona and Othello fall in love and get married. This marriage is not blessed even from the beginning. When this happy couple comes out from the chapel, Iago and Roderigo are standing in the shadows, watching them and conspiring treacherously. In the film, the first words spoken by Iago are, "I hate the Moor and I want to poison his delight." Upon hearing this, the audience can foretell how the story will develop. Othello's wife, his love and delight, Desdemona is immediately chosen by Iago to be the tool to hurt Othello whom Iago hates and to attack Cassio, Iago's competitor. Under Iago's cunning manipulations and deceptions, the hot-tempered Othello turns his jealousy for Cassio to murderous madness and kills innocent Desdemona.

Orson Welles is good at telling stories and conveying meanings through special camera angles and suggestive settings. For example, the scene in which Othello shows his regret and has the last dialogue with Iago after killing Desdemona is shot with a huge gate. The scene shows a guilty Othello "behind the bars" and from the other side, we see the sinful Iago is also "behind the bars." One exception, however, is that the scene in which Iago manipulates Roderigo to murder Cassio is somehow improperly (or at least seemingly unnecessarily) set in a Turkish bath. For Shakespeare's faithful readers, this arrangement may seem abrupt and unexpected. One explanation for this scene is that Welles had difficulty finding enough funds for the movie. "On the shooting day for this scene, the necessary costumes had not yet arrived, so Welles quickly moved the action to a Turkish bath where he could dress his actors in only towels and sheets" (source).

As for the actors and their acting, Orson Welles as Othello, of course, is the main focus. If we ignore the fact that he was wearing heavy make-up to appear as a black man, Welles actually is a good Othello. In many scenes, when he was among people in a crowd, you can see that he stands out, not only because he is physically taller, but also because he is able to show Othello as a courageous soldier. Iago, played by Michael MacLiammoir, has as many scenes and lines as Othello. Iago is a villain and the audience knows that from the beginning. MacLiammoir is successful in terms of not overdoing the facial expressions to show how vicious Iago is; instead, he manages to let the development of the story and the character's behavior accomplish that. Suzanne Cloutier's Desdemona is disappointing, but the writer Orson Welles should be responsible for that. Cloutier plays a sweet and innocent Desdemona. This blonde lady, Cloutier, in many scenes, especially in those with Othello, often takes the position that emphasizes her vulnerability. Desdemona speaks more in Shakespeare's play, which allows an audience to know her more. In this movie, she is reduced to a tool for Iago and a victim in her marriage.


Other Reviews:

Helsinki, Finland

Date: 21 June 1999


The film is not excellent, but good. I know the Shakespearian play
very well and was delighted to see a movie version. The actors are good, especially Iago, and little Desdemona is very sweet - but I had always thought that she should have dark hair. Orson Welles expresses Othello's fury and jealousy especially well, but I think Desdemona should always speak in a very delicate voice - in this movie she may even shout. And I couldn't understand why she didn't cry when Othello said she had no more lifetime left - after all, she is "little Desdemona". However, the film is quite good, especially the beginning in which the men carry the dead Othello and Iago sees it from the cage.

Quoted from IMDB


Shakespeare & Welles--A Brilliant Combination!, June 13, 2000

Reviewer: mystery_ink

If people today remember Orson Welles at all, it is probably as the pitchman who would "sell no wine before its time." The more "film literate" might know him as the director of "Citizen Kane." Most, though, will be unaware that he directed a number of other outstanding pictures that rank among the very best. "Othello" is one of those. Incredibly, "Othello" was filmed over a three year period from 1949 to 1952, in nine different cities in Morocco and Italy. Welles never did assemble adequate financing for the film, so he was forced to shoot in a series of small spurts. They would work until his money ran out, then he would rush off to take acting jobs to raise cash to start filming again. One scene-between Othello (Orson Welles) and Iago (Michael MacLiammoir) on the beach-starts on one continent and ends on another, a full year later. Somehow, though, Welles kept the whole picture alive in his head. He also improvised when he had to. On the day when they were to film Iago's attempt to murder Cassio (Michael Laurence), the necessary costumes had not yet arrived. Welles quickly moved the action to a Turkish bath where he could dress his actors in only towels and sheets. It is now one of the most effective scenes of the film. As was typical of Welles, he took many liberties with Shakespeare's text, trimming it to a tight ninety-one minutes and cutting out the comedy. The story now begins and ends with the funerals of Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) and Othello; scenes not contained in the orginal, but done here to good effect. (For those of an auteurist bent, "Citizen Kane" and "Mr. Arkadin" also open with the deaths of the main character.) The first words of the film, spoken by Iago are, "I hate the Moor." Thus Welles tells us right from the beginning what the play is about. (He later did the same thing in "The Trial.") Iago hates Othello and he will stop at nothing to bring about his downfall. He chooses Othello's wife Dedemonna as his tool to undo him, cunningly manipulating the Moor until his natural jealousy turns to murderous madness. A familiarity with Shakespeare's play will help ease viewers' passage through the film. The action is sometimes confusing, a fact not aided by the total dubbing of the dialogue-much of it by Welles himself. Although, his brilliant vision may have been hampered by his scant resources, it was not destroyed. Welles remained committed to telling the story visually, as well as through Shakespeare's prose, and he succeeded magnificently. This is no mere filmed play. It is a stunning work created by one of the greatest artists the cinema has ever known. If, ultimately, it is more Welles' "Othello" than Shakespeare's, we are still the richer because of it.

Quoted from Amazone Customer Reviews