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‘Othello’: Shakespeare’s Tragedy Was Orson Welles’s Triumph

One might even extend Welles’s competitiveness to Shakespeare. Sound in “Othello” is always subordinate to image. Less windy than windblown, it is a film full of jarring shifts, disorienting angles, and sudden jumps to close-up — an expressionist style that let Welles accommodate all manner of mismatched footage. The continual cutting on movement creates a roiling, hectic quality in which each brief action seems to exist in its own eternal present.

The movie’s most compelling subtext is what the Russian montage theorists called “creative geography” — the use of editing to create the illusion of a continuous, albeit imaginary, space. Consecutive sequences were filmed many months and thousands of miles apart; Welles would claim that he was never able to get Iago, Desdemona and Iago’s stooge, Roderigo, together for a single shot. In “Filming ‘Othello,’” he maintains that “Iago changed continents in the middle of a phrase.” The scenes are replete with stand-ins wearing hoods or turned away from the camera. Virtually all the dialogue was post-dubbed with Welles himself providing Roderigo’s voice, among others.

These editing strategies aren’t simply described in “Filming ‘Othello’” they’re also demonstrated — most hilariously when Welles splices himself into and otherwise re-edits a lengthy dinner conversation with MacLiammoir and his companion, Hilton Edwards, who had played Desdemona’s father. “Filming ‘Othello’” also includes a fantastic duet between the old Welles and the young, the elder reading Iago’s lines as his glowering younger self reacts to them.

In “Filming ‘Othello,’” Welles appears to privilege his editing over his directing and his directing over his acting. But the movie is also a hall of mirrors, with Welles playing “Orson Welles” — at once pompous and self-deprecating, a celluloid Santa Claus with a full bag of tricks.


Suzanne Cloutier was Welles’s third choice to play Desdemona to his Othello.

The Criterion Collection

A short coda has Welles answering questions from what looks to be a college audience that has just seen “Othello” at the long-gone Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Mass. A director, he explains, is “the man who presides over accidents” (pause for applause) “but doesn’t make any himself” (hearty chuckle at his own joke).

For Welles, process, however chaotic, was ultimately more important than product. With “Filming Othello,” he ended his film career as he began it: Like “Citizen Kane,” the movie is a stunt that places the act of filmmaking at center stage.

Welles’s third Hollywood film, and by some accounts his most financially successful, “The Stranger” (1946), has been released in a new Blu-ray from Olive Films. More staidly conventional than either “Citizen Kane” or “The Magnificent Ambersons” (and evidently re-edited by its producer), the movie has been somewhat unfairly neglected.

“The Stranger” was the first postwar Hollywood movie to acknowledge the Holocaust, with Welles playing a Nazi monster hiding out in a New England college town. (It’s suggestive of the guilt that World War II inspired even among the victors that, like Charles Chaplin in “Monsieur Verdoux,” Welles chose to greet the postwar world in the guise of a multiple murderer.) Shot by Russell Metty, the cinematographer on Welles’s later “Touch of Evil,” “The Stranger” is further notable for integrating government footage of Nazi concentration camps into a film noir context.

The inky blacks and brilliant whites of Olive’s restoration are striking, although many details found in the less-high-contrast, slightly more expensive Kino Library of Congress restoration are lost. This earlier release, which Dave Kehr reviewed here in 2013, also has the benefit of several extras, including “Death Mills” (1945), the government information film, edited by Billy Wilder, that is quoted in “The Stranger.”

Newly Released

THE BIG KNIFE Robert Aldrich’s two fisted adaptation of Clifford Odets’s anti-Hollywood stage play features Rod Steiger as a ferocious studio boss and, in a role created by John Garfield on Broadway, Jack Palance as the troubled actor who wants out. The movie was a prize winner at the 1955 Venice Film Festival; the Blu-ray is newly restored. (Arrow Academy)

HANA-BI Takeshi Kitano wrote, directed and stars in the story of a desperate police detective who seeks aid from a yakuza loan shark. Newly out on Blu-ray, “Hana-Bi” alternates brutal violence with no less shocking sentimentality. It was well-received at the 1997 New York Film Festival and is considered by many to be Mr. Kitano’s finest work. (Film Movement)

THE QUIET AMERICAN Graham Greene’s novel of Western intrigue in French Indochina provided the basis for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film, now available on Blu-ray. Michael Redgrave plays a British journalist; Audie Murphy is the quietly disruptive American. “Scenes shot in the streets of Saigon have a vivid documentary quality and, indeed, the whole film has an aroma of genuine friction in the seething Orient,” the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote in his 1958 review. (Twilight Time)

RED LINE 7000 Revisiting the subject of his 1932 auto-racing film “The Crowd Roars” in the fashion of 1965, with James Caan in the James Cagney role, the quintessential auteur Howard Hawks imbued his mastery of what the critic Manny Farber called “the ambulance-speedboat-flying-saucer movie” with a not altogether intentional twilight melancholy. Available on Blu-ray and DVD. (Kino Lorber)

UNDERCURRENT Katharine Hepburn gives a fascinating performance as an innocent bride (half her actual age) in this otherwise nonsensical gothic melodrama directed by Vincente Minnelli in 1946 and now available as a stand-alone DVD (and on Amazon Video). Robert Taylor plays an unstable husband whose guilty secrets include the presence of a mysterious brother, Robert Mitchum. The last Screwy Squirrel cartoon, “Lonesome Lenny,” directed by Tex Avery, is an inspired extra. (Warner Archives)

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