Wednesday, September 2, 2015

#564: Othello

Directed by: ORSON WELLES
1952, TSPDT Rank #626

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see a new print of Beatrice Welles' 1992 restoration of this film at a local cinema, and decided to go despite having never seen the film before because of my qualms about the restored version - for which Welles had the original score replaced with a re-recording, re-edited numerous scenes, and had much of the original dubbing (which, as Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out in a contemporaneous essay about the restoration, is typical of dubbing practices in European films of the 1950s) redone by new voice actors. I went into this screening with an open mind, and despite being blown away by the film's raw power and breathtaking cinematography, it was hard to shake the feeling that the overall feel of the film was just not right. The revisionist work done on the soundtrack was very noticeable and overt, and much of the editing seemed choppy and made little sense. I have been studying "incomplete" Orson Welles films like The Lady of Shanghai and Mr. Arkadin (multiple versions) for years, and even so, I had never seen one that felt this disjointed. I decided to wait to write a post on the film until I was able to see the original version - which was only available briefly on Criterion Laserdisc in the mid-'90s, until Beatrice Welles forced it out of circulation so that her restoration would be the only available version of the film. Now that I've finally seen the original version, I can say with confidence that it flows much better than the "restored" version, and stands as a definite high-water mark alongside Welles' other output of the time period. The original score is truly magnificent, despite the supposedly sub-par recording conditions which caused it to be scrapped for the restoration, and it stands with the score of The Third Man as a work of unique brilliance. However, Welles' powerful artistic vision still shines through in both versions, despite the restoration's numerous shortcomings. 

When audiences saw Orson Welles' Othello in the early '50s, it was immediately doomed to be compared to Lawrence Oliver's Shakespeare adaptations, which were wildly popular at the time as well as much more faithful to the theatrical tradition that Olivier, Welles, and Shakespeare all came from. Orson Welles, on the other hand, had been out of favor with Hollywood ever since the turbulent production of his follow-up to Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and by the time of Othello, he had taken to making films in Europe - away from the influence of the Hollywood system that had mangled The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady of Shanghai. The making of Othello took place over a three-year period, with many interruptions and less than ideal conditions, but the end result was a visionary reimagining of the Shakespeare play that revitalized the source material by skirting a purist approach and instead experimenting with new ways to translate Shakespeare to the screen. First, Welles cut the play down from approximately three hours to just over 90 minutes - in effect boiling the dramatic material down to its essential elements to allow for a taut cinematic narrative. He also employed strikingly moody film-noir cinematography and a dazzling usage of editing to translate much of Shakespeare's theatrical language into the predominantly visual language of cinema. However, as was the case with many of Welles' films, audiences of the time were not receptive to his innovations, and generally found his approach to Shakespeare strange and off-putting. This, along with the noticeably low-budget circumstances of the production and the lack of good distribution for the film, caused Othello to fail at the box-office and suffer in the eyes of audiences and critics alike. The 1992 "restoration" of the film finally made it accessible to audiences again, but for the foreseeable future, it will likely remain difficult for most people to see the film as Welles originally intended.

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