Orson Welles’s adaptation of “Othello” might be the auteur theory’s best argument.
For three years Welles persevered through sheer obstinacy and sometimes legally dubious resourcefulness to bring his version of the tragedy to the screen. True, Shakespeare wrote the three-hour-long original, but Welles cut and pasted it together to create a 90-minute pastiche that is jagged, claustrophobic, and hallucinatory. Forced by fly-by-night financing to stop and start a production that stretched from 1948 to 1952, Welles squeezed in scenes whenever he had the backing and the ever-changing cast and threadbare resources could be gathered in the same place. When necessary he pumped in his own money, earned from acting in films ranging in quality from “The Third Man” (1949) to “The Black Rose” (1951), even pinching costumes from the latter for his own project.
He would change locations as the need arose, hopping from Venice to Tuscany to Rome and to Morocco, with a fight scene beginning in Morocco and ending in Rome some time later. The effectiveness of such editing on the fly draws on the montage theories of Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein, and at the same time Welles’s cutting also demonstrated Andre Bazin’s concept of mise-en-scene with his astounding juxtapositions, compositions, and use of depth of field. In the course of his production he employed five cinematographers, but few films sustain such uncanny visual consistency. If by “auteur” we mean a director who takes not just the filmmaking process but all the vicissitudes of fate and finances as his medium, then Welles eminently qualifies. Seldom has a director encountered so many frustrations and obstacles, and turned those obstructions into inspirations, integrating them into his vision.
The result is, if not his best film, then his most uncanny and perhaps his most perfectly realized. From the opening scene the sublime strangeness takes over; it is like entering a Cubist painting or a canvas by de Chirico. The dead Othello’s face, upside down, fills the screen, with otherworldly chanting on the soundtrack. A silhouetted procession like one from “The Seventh Seal” carries him along a parapet on a funeral bier, intersected by another procession, that of Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier, the fourth actress cast in the role), minute in the distance. And then soldiers toss the wretched Iago (Welles’s old friend Micheál MacLimmóir, the second in that role) into a cast-iron cage and raise him aloft, and the close-up of Iago’s face behind the bars mirrors that of his beloved, despised victim, Othello.
Beginning with the ending, the narrative then follows that of the original, but so truncated and abruptly pieced together that it takes on an alien quality. Iago plots with the dupe Roderigo (Robert Coote), Othello preens, Cassio (Michael Laurence) gets drunk, Desdemona evinces bruised purity, cannons fire, troops assemble, ships come and go, confused mobs run about with torches during alarums, a handkerchief is dropped, and finally the Moor intones his dying apologia, a vain self-pitying justification that has been repeated from time immemorial by men who have murdered the women they love.
But by then the sound and images overwhelm the verbal poetry, and the film creates a poetry of its own. With each viewing new images catch the eye — this time for me it was poor Roderigo peering over the edge of a well as Iago’s lapdog skips through a flooded cellar, disturbing a mirror-like reflection as he goes to greet him.
The motif that dominates, however, is enclosure, the iron cage. The characters are subsumed by the artifice, they are like ghosts haunting the stark pillared halls of Cyprus and Venice. Iago is not the villain — he and Othello compose the black and white duality of a single entity. They are both victims of the rigid structure of their society and of the artist’s creation. It is not the triumph of the will, but of architecture, a motif pursued ad absurdum by Welles later in his adaptation of Kafka’s “The Trial” (1962). But of all his films “Othello” will endure as Welles’s sublime monument to his own passion, genius, and folly.Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.