Film

The Greatest Film Review I’ve Ever Read

How a review of an old Orson Welles movie changed my life

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Orson Welles’s notoriously troubled adaptation of Othello finally hit the Criterion Collection with a gorgeous new edition several weeks ago. That the set includes two release versions of the film, from 1952 and ’55, should give you some small hint as to the picture’s chaotic production and exhibition history. But the occasion of this long-awaited home video arrival brings to mind something else for me: a film review that, 25 years ago, in many ways changed my life.

I was an eighteen-year-old college freshman in March of 1992 when I opened up an issue of the Village Voice and found J. Hoberman writing about a restoration and re-release of Welles’s film maudit. After reading the review, I did something I had never done before: I dropped what I was doing and headed to the movie theater, immediately, to see the film in question. The theater, however, was in New York City; I was in New Haven, Connecticut. So, I had to skip my classes and travel two hours on a Metro-North train, then another half-hour on the subway.

I realize that “going to see an Orson Welles movie in New York City” ranks amusingly low in the grand pantheon of Crazy Things People Did During Their Freshman Year of College. But no review had ever done anything like this to me. (Few have since.) I’d read great criticism before, but this was the first time I truly understood its power. Like a tractor beam, the review had pulled me across state lines and into a darkened theater, to watch a movie I’d never heard of before.

Looking at the piece again today, I’m still wowed by it: its economy and thoroughness, the way Hoberman eloquently condenses so much history, analysis, and appreciation into one page, while somehow also working in references to Oscar Micheaux, Raul Ruiz, André Bazin, and the Clarence Thomas nomination hearings. But there’s more to it than that — there’s that certain mystery that turns the review itself into a work of art.

To fully appreciate Welles’s Othello, you have to know something about the crazy circumstances in which it was made. His original financier went broke, and the director was left in Morocco, trying, as Hoberman puts it, “to figure out how to shoot a costume movie without costumes.” Over the next several years, Welles had to shoot parts of the film in different countries and continents, sometimes with different actors. “Abandoned by producers, deserted by cast members, the director/star raised money to continue shooting by acting in other people’s films, including Prince of Foxes, The Third Man, and The Black Rose (from which he also managed to appropriate some sets), plowing his salary back into his labor of love.” The story of the making of Othello could itself be a movie. And it was: 1979’s essay-documentary Filming Othello (also included in the Criterion set, among loads of other great features) would be Welles’s last completed work.

But Hoberman offers much more than a history lesson. He deftly weaves the circumstances of Othello’s production with its aesthetic: “Taking necessity as its muse, Othello found its form,” he writes, then goes on to suggest that this makes the film singular. Describing how Welles’s scrappiness led to its own kind of cinematic poetry, Hoberman veers into the rhapsodic. “This is a movie of speaking shadows and mute reflections,” he observes — a lovely bit of prose that also happens to be accurate: Sometimes, the figures on screen are stand-ins and their dialogue has been dubbed, much of it by Welles himself; we don’t see their faces when they speak, and when we do see their faces, they’re quiet.

It is that kind of disorientation that Hoberman finds so alive and unforgettable — and his words convey both the electricity of Welles’s imagery and his own enthusiasm. Here he is on the movie’s opening scene:

Like Kane, Othello is structurally elegiac. The hero’s life is over before the movie begins. The pre-credit sequence has Othello’s body borne aloft along a castle’s parapet. Seen mainly in silhouette, a procession winds its way across to the accompaniment of ritualistic moan. For counterpoint, the treacherous Iago (Irish actor Micheal Mac Liammoir) is thrown into a cage and hoisted up to helplessly froth and dangle in the sky above Othello’s funeral. However hokey the individual angles, the modernistic yammering, the total effect is one of startling abstraction and overwhelming hysteria — the sorrowful aftershock of some cosmic catastrophe.

I believe it was after reading that particular passage, with those sci-fi overtones, that I knew I had to clear out my schedule and head to New York.

And yet, after all that, I didn’t actually like Othello when I first saw it. Womp womp.

It seemed to me a cacophonous mess. The awkward cutting and framing distracted; the seams showed. I felt at times like I was watching a montage of scenes from someone’s attempted version of Othello (which of course is exactly what Welles’s film is). It was weird to see Welles himself, with his face (in Hoberman’s words) “discreetly darkened,” playing the Moor — a theatrical convention of the era that seemed troubling in 1992, and registers as even more so now. I was relatively familiar with the play; they’d made us memorize its soliloquies in high school just a year or two before. I still didn’t quite get what made Welles’s short, fractured riff so momentous.

So, I returned to the review.

Some of the best film criticism works both as a prelude and a look back at the work in question: You can read it to decide whether you want to see something, or you can read it afterward, to better understand what it was exactly that you saw. Hoberman’s infectious prose had compelled me to see Othello. Now, it offered an approach for better appreciating the film.

There is a subtle, animating thesis at work in this review. Hoberman had always been close to the avant-garde, and his admiration for Othello comes from the picture’s weird, pseudo-found-footage quality. All those distracting cuts and odd frames — those seams — that had bothered me are a part of its greatness. Here he is again:

Othello does have the courage of its restrictions — and it transcends them. At 92 minutes, the film moves very quickly. Every shot seems trimmed and the continual cutting on movement creates a roiling, hectic quality in which each brief action exists in its own eternal present. The film is full of jarring shifts, disorienting angles, sudden jumps to close-up. The sound texture ebbs and flows — long shots reverberate with booming echoes of wind and surf. Lines are declaimed behind thickets of colonnades and effaced by flourishes of reaction shots. Seemingly off-kilter, the result is, in fact, a very supple structure that allows Welles to accommodate all manner of mismatched footage.

The movie is a patchwork, and Welles was unafraid to present it as such. It seems to change form with every cut and dissolve. It never does what you expect it to. By revealing the circumstances of its production, Othello achieves a new sort of greatness, and maybe even helps point the way for the cinema of the future — to the explosive experimentalism and fractured narratives of the Sixties and Seventies.

This review of Othello, while deeply important to me, is not one of those pieces that’s bound for the history books or the big critical anthologies. (They still have those, right?) It’s not Pauline Kael proclaiming the greatness of Last Tango in Paris, or Andrew Sarris confidently declaring Psycho a masterpiece, or Roger Ebert trashing North, or Bosley Crowther missing the boat on Bonnie and Clyde. It doesn’t break an old form, nor does it present a radical new one. No, it’s just a critic — one of the greatest ever, admittedly — hammering out 1,338 words on deadline about a film he loves, and making clear his passion for cinema itself in the process. As such, it is glorious.

Below, you can find Hoberman’s review, both in digital form and as it originally appeared in the March 3, 1992, issue of the Village Voice.

Moor Better Blues

By J. Hoberman

Othello, the movie that marked Orson Welles’s break with Hollywood, was also the first film since Citizen Kane that Welles made entirely on his own terms. Although modest enough in means to have been commissioned for educational TV, Othello is also a windblown, turbulent, bravura movie — premiered exactly 40 years ago, it’s arguably Welles’s most delirious exercise in style.

It has been observed that, of all Shakespeaare’s tragedies, Othello is the one most suited to grand display. Welles’s adaptation, however, changes one’s sense of the word ostentatious. Four years in the making, this masterpiece of perseverance flaunts a wily pragmatism worthy of the pioneer black independent Oscar Micheaux; in its flagrantly cheap, go-for-baroque visual pyrotechnics, it’s the basic text for most Raul Ruiz. Abandoned by producers, deserted by cast members, the director/star raised money to continue shooting by acting in other people’s films, including Prince of Foxes, The Third Man, and The Black Rose (from which he also managed to appropriate some sets), plowing his salary back into his labor of love.

Othello was originally to have been made with Italian financing on a Roman soundstage — then, in the south of France, and then, in Venice. When the original producer went broke, stranding cast and crew in the North African city of Mogador, Welles’s first problem was to figure out how to shoot a costume movie without costumes. His solution was to set the murder of Roderigo in a Turkish bath (actually a fish market made steamy with burning incense) and to film another sequence by dressing extras in armor fashioned from sardine cans. Taking necessity as its muse, Othello found its form.

The film was produced in fits and starts and it has been circulated the same way. A version released in 1980 went on to disappear in a confusion of legal titles; another restoration, this one supervised by Welles’s daughter Beatrice and concentrating on the movie’s soundtrack, is currently at the Cinema II. No additional footage appears but the film’s been aurally tidied up. The musical score was remastered, the dialogue readings resynchronized — it’s a bit like encountering a grimy monument that’s recently been sandblasted.

Of course, one of Othello’s great perversities was that the movie’s sound was always subordinate to its image. For Welles, Othello was “a jigsaw puzzle I had to hold in my mind.” Consecutive sequences were filmed years apart; the director once told Andre Bazin that he was never able to get Iago, Desdemona, and Roderigo together for a single shot, that “every time you see someone standing with his back turned or with a hood over his head, you can be sure that it’s a stand-in.” Virtually all of the dialogue was shot wild and later dubbed, with Welles himself providing the voice of Iago’s lackey Roderigo — among others.

This is a movie of speaking shadows and mute reflections. To a certain degree, the restoration has revealed Welles’s sleight of hand. As Richard Jameson observes in the current Film Comment, “a disconcerting but inevitable side-effect [of the resynchronized sound track] is to emphasize those shots in which Welles selected a take when the actor’s lips weren’t moving!” In the 1978 The Filming of Othello, Welles’s last film and a hall of mirrors documentary that employs many of the same strategies as Othello itself (creative geography, extreme fragmentation, auteurial ventriloquism), Welles maintains that there are scenes in which “Iago changed continents in the middle of a phrase.”

Othello was eventually entered in the 1952 Cannes Film Festival under the Moroccan flag and there shared the Palme d’Or with Renato Castellani’s now-forgotten neorealist fantasy Two Cents Worth of Hope. When it finally opened in the U.S. in 1955, Time sneered at Welles’s tawdry “brummagem genius” and rampant megalomania: “Depend on it, the camera will be angled upward from the floor so that Welles looms at least ten feet high while the other actors seem scarcely more than midgets.”

Indeed, Othello — which opens with an iris-in on Welles’s face — provided the erstwhile wunderkind with his last youthful role. Welles was 34 when Othello went into production and he would never again cast himself as a romantic lead — which is how he plays the tragic Moor. Although Welles’s Othello, a mumbling construction in noble close-ups and sidelong glances, is a relatively uncomplicated figure, the movie reeks of psychodramatic subtext. Abundant mirror shots underscore the hero’s self-absorption; the camera rotates madly around the bed whereon Othello dies. Welles, no less than his alter ego, kills the thing he most loves — namely himself.

Like Kane, Othello is structurally elegiac. The hero’s life is over before the movie begins. The pre-credit sequence has Othello’s body borne aloft along a castle’s parapet. Seen mainly in silhouette, a procession winds its way across to the accompaniment of ritualistic moan. For counterpoint, the treacherous Iago (Irish actor Micheal Mac Liammoir) is thrown into a cage and hoisted up to helplessly froth and dangle in the sky above Othello’s funeral. However hokey the individual angles, the modernistic yammering, the total effect is one of startling abstraction and overwhelming hysteria — the sorrowful aftershock of some cosmic catastrophe.

As an actor, Welles dominates Othello the way he must have dominated the production — always pushing forward, the lone character who seems able to take decisive action. Given the film’s Moroccan locations, the North African music, the strong Mediterranean light, Welles’s discreetly darkened Othello should be more at home than anyone else. Indeed, Welles proves the most “liberal” of Othello’s interpreters. His playing of the Moor is in no way exotic. On the contrary, Othello is not an Other — merely the best man to marry Desdemona and govern Cyprus.

As Welles’s Othello has no unconscious — unless it’s the movie — the burden of neurosis is projected onto Iago, who, like the filmmaker, is a master of subterfuge. (That Othello and Iago are symbiotic was borne out during the Clarence Thomas hearings when, trying to be helpful to Thomas, Senator Simpson attributed Iago’s lines to Othello: “He that filches from me my good name, robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.”) Welles wanted an Iago who genuinely resented him. Mac Liammóir’s relationship with Welles was frought with professional jealousy; it seems significant that Everett Sloane, who plated the dwarfish Bernstein to Welles’s outsized Kane and Rita Hayworth’s disabled husband in The Lady from Shanghai, was the movie’s original Iago. The essential relationship is between these two, although the evident fragility of Suzanne Cloutier’s sweetly doleful Desdemona gives her characterization a certain clarity.

In late 1951, while Othello was still being edited (far too prosaic a term for the frantic matching, dubbing, and cobbling together that the process entailed), Welles stirred up additional publicity by going to London to stage Shakespeare’s play. The drama critic Kenneth Tynan, who nastily dissed the production as “Citizen Coon,” was particularly hostile: “Orson Welles has the courage of his restrictions.”

Othello does have the courage of its restrictions — and it transcends them. At 92 minutes, the film moves very quickly. Every shot seems trimmed and the continual cutting on movement creates a roiling, hectic quality in which each brief action exists in its own eternal present. The film is full of jarring shifts, disorienting angles, sudden jumps to close-up. The sound texture ebbs and flows — long shots reverberate with booming echoes of wind and surf. Lines are declaimed behind thickets of colonnades and effaced by flourishes of reaction shots. Seemingly off-kilter, the result is, in fact, a very supple structure that allows Welles to accommodate all manner of mismatched footage.

Even André Bazin, who had praised the long takes and deep focus of Citizen Kane as the democratic antidote to the authoritarian deceptions of Eisensteinian montage, found a way to praise Welles’s sleight of hand. “The artifice is in the open and recreated from entirely natural materials,” he wrote. “Othello unfolds in the open, but not at all, however, in nature.” It is as if Welles wrested his studio from the raw material that came to hand.

 

 

 

 

 

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