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Orson Welles' adaptation of William Shakespeare's Othello (or The Tragedy Of Othello: The Moor Of Venice, if you prefer) was an arduous project even by Welles' standards. It took three years to finish (the original producer went bankrupt and Welles had to finish the film by funding it personally) and was shot on location in both Italy and Morocco and while it took home top honors at Cannes when it debuted there in 1952, it took Welles another three years to secure U.S. distribution. Once that was secured, the movie was hardly a commercial success. Time, however, has been kind to this film, much as it has been kind to many of Welles' films.
The plot of the story will, no doubt, be familiar to most. Othello (played by Welles himself), is a top ranking Moorish general in the Venetian army. He's recently been wed to the beautiful Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), the daughter of a Venetian aristocrat named Brabantio (Hilton Edwards). Othello is tricked into believing that his new bride has been having an affair with his lieutenant Michael Cassio (Michael Laurence), who had previously asked for her hand in marriage. The truth of the matter is that this is all a plot put into motion by Othello's ensign Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir), a traitor jealous of Othello's rank and who knows his weakness and is not afraid to exploit it. But of course, we learn about all of this after the fact. The movie itself begins with a funeral procession and it works its way backwards from there.
Welles, when tackling Shakespeare, was never less than a visionary when it came to conjuring up the perfect visuals to accompany the writer's work. While his take on MacBeth made a few years earlier in 1948 is arguably his most impressive adaptation from a production standpoint, Othello is a very close second. Rather than shoot the picture in accordance with its ‘stagey' origins, Welles instead puts the camera in the action itself. As such, we get a lot of interesting shots that quite literally follow the characters, making the viewer an accomplice in both the conspiracy and the tragedy that are part and parcel with the story's conclusion. Shot in stark black and white, Welles, makes excellent use of his locations, ensuring that everything is nicely framed and beautifully lit in order to squeeze out every last ounce of atmosphere. As we saw in MacBeth, Welles again shows a preference for odd angles, some in fact seem specifically intended to keep viewers as off kilter as some of the characters that inhabit the picture. A great example of this is an early shot wherein we see the funeral procession from behind a cross in front of and above those carrying the casket, cloaked in robes covering their faces. It's an eerie image, one of quite a few in the picture.
Performances are likewise impressive. Welles, as the titular lead, uses his rather mammoth screen presence to create an Othello that cuts an imposing frame. As you'd expect, his turn in the part is quite memorable. His chemistry with Suzanne Cloutier is pretty solid and her work here is also very good. Often times, however, it is Micheál MacLiammóir and Michael Laurence that really steal the show. They get a lot of screen time in the film and Welles the director plays to their strengths.
Note that this release is a two disc set. The first disc contains both the 1955 US/UK version of the movie (clocking in at 1:30:59) and the 1952 European version of the film (running 1:33:31) while the second disc holds the bulk of the accompanying supplements. The main differences between the two versions included here are that in the 1955 version Welles had Desdemona completely redubbed by a different voice actress. Additionally, Welles himself redubbed Roderigo and a few other supporting characters. On top of that the credits sequences between the two films are different (there isn't really a proper credits sequence for the 1952 version) and there are some different shots used in the 1955 version not found in the 1952 version.
Each version of Othello is presented on a 50GB Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition in its original aspect ratio of 1.37.1 fullframe. Thanks to a really high bit rate, the black and white picture is free of any compression artifacts and the absence of any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement has resulted in a very film-like image. Contrast looks excellent and black levels are nice and deep. There's very little print damage outside of some specks here and there and the occasional scratch, nothing too serious or in the least bit distracting. There is excellent detail and texture throughout. The video quality on this release is impressive.
Having said that, the 1952 version is taken from a new 4k scan of a 35mm fine-grain master positive while the 1955 version comes from a new 4k scan of the 35mm negative. The 1952 version is, not surprisingly, the better looking cut of the film in terms of transfer quality. The grey scale is more nuanced and in certain shots detail is just a little bit better than the earlier cut. In both versions there are some age related issues and softness on display, but these are minor, and compared to what we've seen before, this is a very nice presentation indeed. The 1955 version looks a bit softer by comparison, although it too is a more than watchable presentation.
The only audio option for the feature, regardless of which version you choose, is an English language LPCM Mono track. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH only. The audio here is just fine but keep your expectations in check. The 1952 version sounds considerably less impressive than the 1955 version, which uses an alternate soundtrack. The earlier cut is a bit rough in spots where the later cut is not. There are times where, no matter which cut you watch, things sound a bit flat but all in all, it's easy enough to follow and the deficiencies inherent in the source material have been minimalized as best they likely can be.
The only extra on the first disc is a commentary track with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and Orson Welles scholar Myron Meisel (who worked on the 1993 feature It's All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles. Originally found on the laserdisc release of the film, this track covers pretty much everything that you would hope for. There's a lot of discussion of what drew Welles to this project, how he went about financing it, the use of international cast members, the dubbing of the film, the cinematic aspects of the visuals, the source material that inspired it and lots more. These guys not only know their stuff, but they've got an enthusiastic appreciation for the picture and its director that makes this quite worthwhile for anyone with even a passing interest in the picture or in Wells as a filmmaker/historical figure.
The rest of the extras are, as was mentioned earlier, included on the second disc. The biggest and best of this is the inclusion of Welles' own 1979 feature length documentary Filming Othello, a picture that would wind up being his last completed film. This documentary is interesting for quite a few reasons, not the least of which is that Welles re-edited some of the clips used in the picture and dubbed much of the voice work himself. Made for German television, the eighty-three minute long piece, narrated by Welles, allows Welles to discuss the trials and tribulations of getting the picture made, talk about its reception and share stories about the genesis of the project in his own words. Meant by Welles to be a ‘conversation' rather than ‘anything so formal as a lecture,' its inclusion on this set is important and appreciated. The piece also includes input from cast members Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards and also features vintage footage of a Q&A session that Welles did in 1977 for a screening that took place in Massachusetts. Welles shot this on 16mm, the presentation on this Blu-ray is in full 1080p HD and it looks quite good. This marks the first time that it has been made available on home video.
Additionally, the second disc holds a short film entitled Return To Glennascaul, made in 1953 by actors MacLiammóir and Edwards while on a hiatus from shooting Othello. Welles stars in and narrates this twenty-eight minute long ghost story. In the film, Welles is driving through the Irish countryside late at night when he stops to pick up a man whose car has stalled out on him. This passenger then tells Welles of a strange event that took place in this same location years ago. Peter Bogdanovich provides an introduction to the piece, which is quite an entertaining short with a nice, spooky atmosphere.
Souvenirs d'Othello is a forty-nine minute long documentary made in 1995 about actor Suzanne Cloutier directed by François Girard. Here the actress that played Desdemona discusses, by way of a host of archival clips, what it was like working with Welles in Venice. There's also a twenty-two minute long featurette here called Filming Othello wherein we learn by way of a talk with Welles biographer Simon Callow how and why Welles wound up moving to Europe and what transpired to allow him to make this particular picture before then getting into some of the details behind the troubled production. Also on hand is a nineteen minute long interview with François Thomas, the author of Orson Welles at Work, that covers the origin story behind two versions of the movie that are included in this set. It's an interesting history lesson and a look at Welles unique creative process. Criterion has also included an interview from 2014 with Welles scholar/biographer/author Joseph McBride that runs thirty-three minutes in length. He speaks about the two different cuts of the film, its rocky production history, what makes the movie stand out not just in the landscape of Welles' films but in regards to other Shakespearian adaptations. Also worth checking out is a new twenty-two minute long interview with Ayanna Thompson, a Professor of English at George Washington University and the author of Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, And Contemporary America. As the title alludes, the focus here is on the issue of race as it occurs in Othello and Thompson does an interesting job of dissecting whole these issues are dealt with in the story and how they affect the outcome.
The two Blu-ray discs in this set are housed inside a standard sized Blu-ray keepcase that also contains an insert booklet of liner notes from film critic Geoffrey O'Brien as well as credits for the feature and for the Blu-ray release itself.
Orson Welles' version of Shakespeare's Othello is impressive. Not only is it a striking work of visual art but it's also a well-acted and beautifully assembled take on one of Shakespeare's finest works. This new two-disc edition from The Criterion Collection presents two cuts of the film in great shape and a host of excellent supplements. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.