This is an unpopular opinion to have (particularly among film buff circles), but I think Citzen Kane is a considerably over-rated film. I watched it for the first (and only) time as a sophomore in high school when I was still in my formative years as a cinephile so maybe I was just too young and unversed in the more technical aspects of film-making to really appreciate it. So, honestly, perhaps it’s been far too long since I’ve seen it for me to really comment on its quality, especially considering how my tastes of late have grown towards appreciating more artistically complex films like Bergman and Fellini pictures. So, when it was finally time to watch the first Orson Welles film that I’ve seen since Citizen Kane, I was obviously excited. Why did it have to be his version of Othello? It was a visually stunning film without question, but it was plagued with so many technical problems that it bordered on being unwatchable. Fortunately, my knowledge of cinema has grown enough to know better than to blame Welles for this one. This film suffered from some fairly massive budget problems, and apparently, I watched the digitally restored version of the film. I can only imagine what the original print looked/sounded like. Seriously though, if 80% of the dialogue in a Shakespeare film is completely unintelligible, that’s probably going to be an issue.
While I had never actually read Othello before seeing this film (I hadn’t seen any other production of the film either), I was familiar enough with the tale to follow along despite the truly atrocious sound design. I was also able to tell just how much of the play was cut to make room for Mr. Welles’ very singular vision of the story. In 16th century Italy, Othello (Orson Welles) is a general in the Venetian army of Moorish descent (which is to say somewhere in Africa. The source material is vague on that one). Despite the initial protestations of the somewhat racist Venetian community, he marries the beautiful and much younger Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier). His supposed best friend is the manipulative and treachorous Iago (Michael MacLiammoir) who for reasons that are never adequately explained schemes to destroy every aspect of Othello’s life (and most of the other people around himself). Using the lusting of a Venetian merchant, Roderigo, for Desdemona as his starting point, Iago concocts a scheme to exploit the prideful and jealous Othello’s major character flaws by planting in Othello’s mind that Desdemona has been cheating on Othello with Othello’s top lieutenant, Cassio.
First and foremost, Iago is the real main character of this play. Othello may be the “hero,” in every Shakespearean, tragic sense of the word, but Iago has nearly twice as many lines as the Moor of Venice. In the first half of the film, he virtually dominates the entire screen as he lays the pieces in place his pure bastard plan. So, he’s the pivotal role for the entire film. It’s a shame that you can’t understand a damn word that Michael MacLiammor says. Yes, he over-acts and mumbles his way through one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, but the sound design is primarily to blame. He’s simply impossible to understand and my research says it was even more impossible to hear him in the non-restored version of the film. Because we can’t hear any of his soliloquys or asides, it’s a vain task to try and comprehend the already ambiguous and vague motivations of one of the most inherently evil characters Shakespeare put to paper. Orson Welles is fairly magnificent and appropriately brooding and passionately intense in the title role, and we are also able to understand what he’s saying. Still, the sight of Orson Welles in blackface didn’t make me any less uncomfortable than I was expecting to be (which is to say, incredibly uncomfortable).
The film’s cinematography was gorgeous (especially the standards of the early 1950s as well as the film’s infamously non-existent budget). The use of shadow, contrast, silhouettes, and intimate close-ups created a phantasmagoria of emotion and frenzied passion. This was a film where visual tone took a precedent over actual storytelling and based on what little research I’ve been able to do before writing this post, there were significant changes made to the actual play (specifically to the characterization of Iago). So, every scene created this unsettling and tumultuous sense of mood and sexuality. The cinematography of this film alone makes me excited to go back and re-watch Citizen Kane to see if I find myself so bowled over by its presentation. It’s a shame that the film was able to succeed so wildly on one technical front and then implode so significantly on the other technical front (sound). In true Orson Welles fashion, he stripped away everything but the raw core of Othello, and you’re left with a stark cinematic treatise on jealousy, betrayal, and lust. It’s a shame that it was often impossible to follow from a plot perspective.
If you plan on watching this film, read the play first. I really wish I had so that I could have had any idea what was going through Iago’s head. As it is, he simply became this visual testament to manipulative evil rather than a character of real substance. Also, come into it knowing that this film is honestly only half-finished. Welles shows flashes of true brilliance throughout the course of the film (particularly when Othello becomes the more prominent character and the film’s visual begin to match his darker and more frenzied mood), but it is such a disaster of a production in other regards that you have to fight to gleam the gems from the refuse. Casual Shakespeare fans and casual film buffs can pass it on for the more famous productions such as Laurence Olivier’s version or the Lawrence Fishburne version. I would personally prefer to see a version of this play where Othello is actually a black man.
Final Score: B-