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.