The Venn diagram overlap of Shakespeare with the elaborate scrap-fabric quilts pieced together by early American settlers is Orson Welles’s Othello, a film pulled together from everything and nothing. This Othello took nearly four years to make: Welles began planning it in the summer of 1948, and it debuted at Cannes in 1952. It was filmed in fits and starts, in at least four locales in two countries, as Welles’s finances were alternately drained dry and replenished. Several Desdemonas came and went. Because so much of the movie had been shot on the fly, at different times in different places by different cameramen, Welles assembled it largely in the editing room, cleverly stitching one sequence to the next to impart the illusion of continuity. Othello came together in defiance of any unifying principle beyond the scrappy vision of its director. It’s a work of seat-of-the-pants grandeur.
Even if Othello isn’t one of Welles’s greatest films — on my own list, it would trail The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, and Citizen Kane — the stark beauty of its compositions alone make it a standout. Welles locates the humanity in Shakespeare’s characters by finding the proper visual setting for each: A rejected wife is dwarfed by the vast, chilly emptiness of the marital bedroom; an embittered underling schemes and fumes as sinister black flags ripple in the wind around him, as ragged and tatty as the hair of witches. How did Welles take such a seemingly delirious clash of visual patterns — the slender, pointed windows of Venice, the all-work, no-play parapet of a mighty Moroccan fortress, the vertigo-inducing swirl of mosaic tile floors, and more varieties of iron grillwork than you’d think mankind could dream up — and synthesize them into such an expressive, visually vibrant whole? That’s one of the great mysteries of Welles’s genius, and a splendid new, velvety-crisp restoration of Othello at Film Forum (through May 8) is as good an excuse as any to bask in it.
As Welles himself noted in a wiggy ramble of a documentary he made in 1978, Filming Othello, the love story at the heart of this adaptation isn’t that between the jealous Moor, Othello (played by Welles), and his young white bride, Desdemona (the luminous but stiff French-Canadian actress Suzanne Cloutier). It’s Othello and his duplicitous lieutenant, Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir), who share the strongest bond. Othello warms to Iago’s counsel, eagerly buying the wretch’s pure and inexplicably evil malarkey. Yet when his wife asks him to pardon the right-hand man he’s dismissed for drunkenness and disorderly conduct (Cassio, played as a big blond galoot by Michael Laurence), Othello barely seems to hear her. Cloutier’s Desdemona is a pitiable creature, all right, but she’s too wispy to hold our attention. Welles, rather than stressing the dark-skin, white-skin contrast of this interracial marriage, sets his Othello in a man’s world, where women are ornamental, and necessary to a degree, but men are more interesting to listen to.
For that equation to work, you need an Iago with the slippery grace of a newt, and MacLiammóir fits the bill: His slithery demeanor notwithstanding, he’s as seductive as he is repellent, fanning out his increasingly resplendent untruths like a peacock’s tail. Othello would rather not believe the accusations Iago levels at Desdemona, yet he can hardly look away. As Welles plays him, he’s an innocent locked tight in the body of a man, an emotional child who’s so entranced with and intimidated by women that he’d rather just avoid them altogether; men, on the other hand, are easy to decode and easy to believe. Once he sets his meaty jaw against Desdemona, it’s set for life.
This is a fairly recessive performance for Welles, despite his physical robustness; he’s more vigorous when he’s listening, absorbing Iago’s slow-spreading poison, than when delivering his own lines. “He never acts,” wrote the critic Eric Bentley, “he is photographed,” a line that stung Welles for years. Bentley’s words may have been cruel, but he was onto something: The movie’s sense of movement, its restless vitality, is the real star, and that’s where Welles truly makes his presence known. The picture’s editing is willfully jagged in some places and silky-smooth in others, but it always strides forward with purpose. In Filming Othello, Welles explains that, because the filming was so erratic, MacLiammóir might begin a line in Venice and, in a segue finessed via the Moviola, finish it in Morocco. But neither you nor I would know just by watching. Nor would you notice that the armor worn by the movie’s soldiers is made of flattened sardine cans; money can’t buy that kind of bright, shiny audacity.
“The cinema has no boundaries,” Welles once told theater critic and journalist Kenneth Tynan. “It’s a ribbon of dream.” But Welles knew from hard experience that a film, and a dream, could be sliced to shreds: The Magnificent Ambersons had been taken from him and cut by the studio, RKO, before he could finish it. By the time of Othello, he’d learned to hang on more tightly, refusing to be undone by circumstance, by lack of funds, by others’ failure of imagination. Othello, made piecemeal, is a movie held together by sheer will. The stitches are invisible; the patchwork glory of the result is hard to miss.