*. There’s an always been an issue with Othello relating to how much Iago should be allowed to take over the proceedings. This is because (1) villains are more interesting than heroes; (2) Iago is actually a bigger role, with more lines than Othello; (3) Iago is more relatable than the heroic but alien Moor; and (4) Iago’s the one directing the whole show, the guy who makes everything happen.
*. But Iago taking over isn’t an issue with this production. Iago is still Iago (and played well by Micheál MacLiammóir, a stage actor making his first film appearance), but he’s a diminished thing. To take only the most obvious example, there’s no entry point for inquiring into his motives for hating Othello since he has no soliloquies! This is a radical pruning and re-imagining of the text, signaling a major shift in how we experience the play.
*. Of course Shakespeare almost always has to be cut when being put on screen. He was actually being cut back in the days when Will himself was helping to run the Globe. A “full text” version of Hamlet would run close to four hours in performance (Branagh did it in less, but only by running at a crazy pace). This Othello comes in at 90 minutes, and there’s a lot of time for mood-setting extras (like the pre-title sequence, which goes on for nearly five minutes). So obviously some lines were going to be dropped.
*. Having made that obvious point, however, I think the cuts here mean that while this is a great movie it’s not great Shakespeare. On the Criterion DVD commentary Peter Bogdanovich calls it “the most cinematic Shakespearean adaptation that had ever been made, the truest to the spirit if not the letter of Shakespeare.” I could get on board with the first part of this, but not the second. The spirit if not the letter of Shakespeare?
*. The visuals, and in particular the use of architecture and framing, is the real star. The sound (the “letter,” or lines) is a secondary consideration. Now what I’m not commenting on here is the terrible dubbing, which was remarked upon by contemporary reviewers and has been criticized ever since. The lines as they are delivered aren’t synchronized either in terms of timing or to the actors’ delivery. We barely see someone’s lips move as a line is being shouted or bellowed. Welles just went with what he thought were the best readings and plugged them in. Sometimes the lines were recorded years later, and the actors didn’t even have a chance to see the film. That is, when they were the same actors. That isn’t Suzanne Cloutier’s voice. All of her lines were dubbed.
*. Just sticking with this aside for a moment, David Thomson remarks on how the sound in Welles’s Chimes at Midnight and Macbeth was “hideously postsynched . . . but the blurring assists the dreamy ambience of his Shakespeare.” That’s a nice try, but no. Sometimes messy sound just sounds messy. It doesn’t add dreary ambience.
*. Instead of commenting on the sound, what I am saying is pretty much the opposite of what Myron Meisel says in his DVD commentary, that “when the time comes to respect Shakespeare’s language and when Welles decides to employ it specifically, he adjusts his camera style to give the maximum impact to the lyricism of Shakespeare’s words.”
*. This doesn’t strike me as being true. To take just one example, when Othello delivers his dramatic line “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” we can barely see or hear him because he’s just a dot on a distant balcony of an imposing ducal façade and the reading is faint.
*. Meisel also draws attention to the scene where Othello first calls Iago “honest” in a shot where no figures are seen at all. Meisel says this is done so as to make us feel that Othello is “addressing a man with no independent personality whatsoever.” This strikes me as a very strange reading of the scene, not least because I don’t see how any production of Othello could present Iago as being a character without any personality. That could not have been Welles’s intention, and I don’t think the shot implies it. Instead, I get the sense that Welles just liked the shot and didn’t care much about how the line fit with it.
*. A quick correction to something else Meisel says on the commentary. Iago does not have the most lines in Shakespeare. Meisel says he has more lines than even Hamlet, but this isn’t true. Hamlet has the most, followed by Richard III. Henry V and Falstaff would have the most if you counted all their appearances spread out over three plays.
*. A final note on Meisel’s commentary. He really goes to town on interpreting the visuals of the film as having sexual significance. Every spear is a phallus and every narrow window or slat is a vulva. This is then taken as representative of the underlying motivation of Iago, which Meisel takes to be his impotence. I think much of this is a stretch, and if Welles had wanted to play up that angle he could have done it far more effectively.
*. I mean, you could see a spear as being phallic, but the thing is Welles really had a thing for them. I think he used them in all of his Shakespeare films. At least I remember them being featured prominently in Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight. We seem them again here. They may have been drawn from Renaissance art, where they were a staple going back at least to Giotto’s Betrayal of Christ.
*. Probably the most remarkable aspect of the film’s look is the editing. Apparently there are significantly more shots in Othello than in any other film by Welles (and four times as many as in Citizen Kane). This was due mainly to the way it was made: over a period of three years and shot on widely separated locations. But necessity led to something amazing, as the editing lends a tremendous energy to the proceedings. At times, however, it is disorienting, as characters seem to transport to different spots instantaneously.
*. The longest single take is a minute and a half. It’s in the famous scene where Iago infects Othello with jealousy, and given how well-known this scene is I think Welles had to try and do it as one shot. He must have known that’s what would have been expected. But even so it’s only part of the seduction scene, not the whole thing.
*. Given the incredible difficulties in its production I think this has to be seen as a stunning achievement. It makes me think of other directors pursuing seemingly doomed and self-destructive foreign adventures in films like Apocalypse Now and Fitzcaralldo. That these movies ever were completed is amazing. That they were classics tells you everything you need to know about the men behind them.