DVD: Othello (1952/55)

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Orson Welles | CAST: Orson Welles, Suzanne Cloutier, Micheál MacLiammóir, Robert Coote, Hilton Edwards
RELEASE DATE: 10/10/17 | PRICE: DVD $27.99, Blu-ray $32.59
BONUSES: Welles’ full-length documentary Filming Othello; audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich and critic Myron Meisel; short “Return to Glennascaul”; documentary about actress Suzanne Cloutier; interviews with scholars Ayanna Thompson, Simon Callow, Francois Thomas, and Joseph McBride
SPECS: NR | 93 min./91 min. | Drama | 1.37:1 widescreen | mono

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

One of the best-ever film adaptations of Shakespeare, Orson Welles’ Othello is further proof — if one needed it — that the maker of Citizen Kane continued to make great films after his legendary debut. Like his other Fifties films (Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil), there was more than one theatrical cut of the film but, as is noted in one of the supplements here, this is the only case where different versions of a Welles films were assembled and approved by the man himself.

Both versions are included in this package. The first is the 1952 European cut that was Welles’ first assemblage of the footage he shot over a three-year period in various locations in Italy and Morocco. The second is the 1955 UK/US cut, which was a more honed version of the material with significant changes, including a complete re-dubbing of Suzanne Cloutier’s Desdemona (by another actress) and Orson’s own re-dubbing of Othello.

The differences between the two versions are spelled out in a very interesting interview with film historian Francois Thomas. He advocates watching both, but one can be content in knowing that each has its merits, with the 1955 version being Welles’ “final say” in the matter.

Thomas also describes the dimensions of the project — the film was made on three continents with four editors over a four-year period (not counting the later re-edit), as Welles had to stop whenever he ran out of money to act in other films (most of which were Hollywood pap, although one is a masterpiece, Carol Reed’s The Third Man).

The most impressive aspect of the film besides the lead performances is the incredible editing, which blends disparate elements into a coherent, exquisite whole.

The editing also prefigures the unconventional approach of the French New Wave — both Godard’s jumpcuts and Resnais’ gorgeous, fragmented compositions. Combine this kinetic approach with the production design of Alexander Trauner (Children of Paradise, Fedora) and you have Welles’ Othello, the middle entry in his unofficial Shakespeare “trilogy” (along with Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight). Welles’ debt to Eisenstein is also clearest here, as the impeccable framing seems to reflect Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible.

There are a number of new interviews shot especially for this release, and an audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) and film critic Myron Meisel recorded for the 1994 laserdisc release of the film. The two “narrators” pursue different paths, with Meisel discussing the film critically and Bogdanovich discussing its place in Welles’ life (and his own friendship with the filmmaker).

Historian Ayanna Thompson discusses the performances of Shakespeare’s play in the 20th century, situating Welles among the white actors who played the lead (Olivier, most prominently) and the black actors who broke new ground as the Moor (Paul Robeson is the best-remembered). She notes the ways in which Welles removed much of the dialogue concerning race and emphasized the theme of jealousy instead. She also discusses Welles’ pioneering “Voodoo Macbeth” stage production in 1936 featuring an all-black cast.

Welles biographer Simon Callow concentrates on the film’s prolonged production and how it helped kill the friendship between Orson and his mentors, Irish theater legends Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards, who played Iago and Brabantio in the film.

The set also includes a 1953 short film that Welles starred in during one break between the shoots for Othello. “Return to Glennascaul” is a ghost story made by Edwards that is entertaining, but is mostly of interest because of Welles’ participation as the star/narrator.

In his interview, film historian Joseph McBride posits Welles as “the model of indie filmmaking,” reviewing the many hurdles he encountered in the four-year creation of the film and those he avoided — the HUAC hearings began around the time he left Hollywood for Europe.

McBride also discusses his theory that Welles’ films have a strong homoerotic overtone, and that Welles was drawn to Othello for several reasons, including the fact that he had his own personal Iago, namely his ex-producing partner John Houseman.

The supplement that offers the most “private” glimpse of Welles is a 1995 Canadian documentary about the actress who played Desdemona, Suzanne Cloutier. The interview is both informative and poignant, since Cloutier still seems smitten with Welles and also declares point-blank that Othello was “the high point of my life.”

The documentary is broken into two halves. The former contains much info about the film’s stop-and-start shoot and the various methods Welles used to make the film, including doing his close-ups at the very end of the shoot since, presumably, he needed to get the other performers’ shots first, contingent on their availability.

The second segment makes it clear that Cloutier had romantic feelings for Welles, although she carefully sidesteps declaring whether the two ever had an affair. Her most interesting revelations are that she tried to get him financing for the still-unfinished Other Side of the Wind from an Iranian source and failed, but did obtain a million dollars from an investor for Don Quixote, another of Welles’ famed unfinished works.

The most essential supplement in the set is Welles’ last finished film, the documentary Filming Othello (1978). He presumably made it for students and cinephiles who were interested in his filmmaking but it stands now as the perfect model of a “DVD extra.” It starts out with a spirited 30-minute monologue by Orson about the extended film shoot and other troubles. MacLiammóir and Edwards then discuss Shakespeare’s play with Welles (conspicuously avoiding the subject of the film’s production), and as a closer we see Welles answering questions at a Q&A after a showing of the film in Boston.

In the course of his opening monologue, Orson gets down to brass tacks, talking over sequences from the film in order to show how one action was shot in one country and the following action was filmed at a much different time in a totally different space. He maintains that the film’s fragmented visual style was forged “out of necessity,” given the stop-and-start nature of the film shoots. He avoids the thorniest issue (mentioned in other supplements here) — that the film’s sound was out of synch with the visuals and thus needed to be edited in various sequences so viewers would not notice the disparity.

And even though he cites a few bad reviews that he and the film received, one can sense he was quite proud of it — as well he should’ve been.

Buy or Rent Othello (1952/55)

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”