I REALLY don’t know how one might go about litigating which of Orson Welles film’s qualify as his “weirdest” one. You can watch a film like The Lady From Shanghai with its surreal cinematography and editing and then compare it to something like Mr. Arkadin which goes way weirder. For my money, I’d throw Othello onto that short list. It’s not his best film or his most original but it certainly must be regarded as a uniquely Wellesian accomplishment. It’s an epic Shakespeare adaptation shot across multiple European countries, on a micro-budget, and released to international acclaim for its tense editing and overpowering tone of horror.
As Welles states in his documentary Filming Othello, the film takes the basic setup of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy and builds upon it to express a visual story about the utter devastation of the world by one man’s rage and destructive choices. You really feel that towards the film’s end. The film’s prologue teases the inevitable death of it’s titular character and is comprised of a collage of furiously cut vignettes of castles, parades and haunting music as though all that was right in the world had been killed.
To paraphrase Jonathan Rosenbaum, Welles’ Othello is almost a horror film in terms of its pungent atmosphere and and anxious tone. Welles seems to have merely turned up the existing subtexts in the script of the play to shift the story’s content into a whole new artistic creation.
In many ways, Othello represents a median for his filmography. It was one of his first independent films outside of the studio system. It’s shooting style matches the patchwork style of his other late career work like Don Quixote and Mr. Arkadin. It’s surrealistic style mirrors the high expressionism he’d further develop in The Trial. The film is a fascinating stepping stone between the high tragedian celebrity Welles of the 1930s and the starving artist Welles of the 1950s and forward and almost all of his eccentricities show up on full display.
Like any of Welles films, a basic question is worth asking though: why did he make this film when he had dozens of ideas brewing? We do know alittle bit that Welles held the play in high regard. He seemed to considered his film a cheap facsimile of the literary accomplishments of the play in some respects.
It’s undeniable that Shakespeare’s work is unapproachable. He is the greatest poet in the English language. What’s usually fascinating though is seeing how individual people approach his work and what they come away with. Speaking for myself, I don’t find Othello as a character to be the most engaging characters in Shakespeare’s bibliography. I’m a young man and young men will always adore Hamlet for his listlessness and existentialism. The story of an old man wrestling with his age, his race and his deep jealousy for others is not something I’ve experienced in my short life as of yet.
That said, I respect the story of Othello for its deep sense of tragedy and hubris. As Andrew Klavan once put it, “If you put Othello in Hamlet, the play ends too quickly. If you put Hamlet in Othello, the play never ends.” Maybe that’s why I don’t like it. I relate too much with Hamlet.
Othello is the tragedy of shallow prejudice and uncontrollable emotions. We have a lead character consumed by his own jealously at a false notion proposed by one of his scornful subordinates who wants him gone. Our “hero” succumbs to his own temptation and hated by destroying his fount of love and beauty at the behest of a man who is even more hateful of him as a Moore living in Italy.
Many have compared Welles’s Othello to the political atmosphere of the 1950s. By creating a story of false accusations and backstabbing, it’s been said the film captured the tense pressures at the height of the Cold War and McCarthyism. Certainly the famously progressive Welles poured much of his anxiety into the film. Welles was technically in exile in Europe at the time of filming because of his deep sense of disturbance surrounding the McCarthy hearings and Hollywood’s internal purge of communists (although he never identified himself as a communist).
The film’s gritty look certainly adds to the overall tension of the movie. It was shot across numerous countries including Italy and Morocco. The film’s visual look can best be described as Pan-Mediterranean but the jagged shifts between different coastal cities often take place between individual scenes or shots. The continuity between shots hardly exists and what Welles was able to shoot was edited to cover up his lack of budget, consistency or sound equipment.
Like all of Welles’s films, the difference between what was an intentional decision and an accident of circumstance is inseparable. Like all of Welles’s films, that’s part of what makes it a masterpiece. He might’ve been working with limited options but he was able to fuel his creative fears, loves and limitations into a film where the faults as a part of the final product of what we see on screen. He took a perfect play and added his own taste to create something stylish and essential.
Roger Ebert summarized it best: “Othello is essentially a tragedy based on words that lead to misunderstandings; Welles films it more as classical tragedy, with processions, poses, ceremonies and dramatic visual compositions.”