Othello is, of course, an adaptation of a Shakespeare play. It was Orson Welles’s second film based on the works of Shakespeare, but he had a long history of performing in, directing and producing the bard’s work on stage. Probably his most notable stage production was one dubbed the “Voodoo Macbeth,” set in the Carribbean and with an all-Black cast. The film he did just before Othello was also a version of Macbeth, and was his last major studio film until Touch of Evil. Macbeth was done with Republic, a very small studio that specialised in Westerns—and a lot of costumes were modified from stock Western costumes from their backlot, as Welles had almost no money to work with.
In Othello, Welles plays the title character, and in contrast to most versions, Othello gets much more screen time than his rival Iago, probably to boost the actor/director’s ego. He shot the film in a very noir-ish way, which is no surprise, since Citizen Kane set a visual template that was used by many films noir. Othello was made in several European countries across a number of years, in a series of complicated shoots that were later edited together.
At this point Welles had fled the US for a number of reasons, including his political views, and the fact that much of his work had dried up. His main income for years had been from radio voiceovers on shows like The Shadow, and although he continued to do voiceover work until the end of his career, the demise of radio made a real dent. Macbeth had also been a critical and commercial disaster, and the studios just didn’t want to work with him. So, Europe seemed like a logical choice, especially since there he was being seen as this great auteur already.
So, along with a cast of mostly British actors, Welles decided to do a version of Othello that foregrounds jealousy and plays down the race angle. Of course, it was at that time accepted that white actors would black up to play Othello, but already this was being questioned due to Paul Robison’s performance in the role. Robison was a huge success as Othello, and would continue playing the part for many years. Welles
Welles cut quite a bit of Shakespeare’s dialogue, a deliberate choice to make a play that usually runs for at least two and a half hours into a 90-minute film. He also wanted to tell the story visually. It’s not one of Welles’s greatest films, as it’s a bit of a Frankenstein production based on what the director was able to cobble together from all the footage. The fact that it works as well as it does is a tribute to Welles’s visual sense, his mastery of filmmaking, and the excellent cast.
Othello won the Grand Prix at Cannes (this was in the era before the Palme d’Or), sharing the prize with Two Cents Worth of Hope, an Italian film that has since been utterly forgotten. As with many of Welles’s films, there are various versions. This disc alone includes the 1952 European cut and the 1955 US/UK version, which is slightly longer and was eventually the director’s preferred version. The version his daughter Beatrice created is not included, it was greatly derided by Welles fans and experts.
The first disk includes a commentary by Peter Bogdanovich and the Welles scholar Myron Meise. The second disc features Filming Othello, a documentary that ended up being Welles’s final completed film in his lifetime. It’s a sort of essay film with interviews with the co-stars. Also included here are interviews with various Welles and Shakespeare scholars, including actor Simon Callow and Joseph McBride, amongst others; a French documentary on the film; a short film made by some cast members during a break in production; and an essay by film critic Jeffrey O’Brien.