Analysis of a Sequence from Orson Welles’s The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice

Othello Orson Welles

Produced, adapted for the screen, starring, and directed by Orson Welles (1952, US/Italy – 93 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 1.33:1 – Drama)

I include this brief look at a sequence from Orson Welles’s visually stunning Othello (1952) as a masterpiece in its own right, and as a stylistic comparison to another great, and radically different, Shakespearean film, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), his free adaptation of King Lear.

Although there have been many films based on Shakespeare, ranging in style from Zeffirelli’s realistic (by Hollywood standards) Romeo and Juliet (1968) to Baz Luhrmann’s fascinating hyper-camp 1996 version of the same play, I have seen none which surpasses Welles’s Othello or Kurosawa’s Ran. (Here are my choices for the 10 best Shakespeare adaptations.) Intriguingly, Welles and Kurosawa take radically different visual approaches. Yet both filmmakers are not only faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare, but revelatory about the deepest, and most unsettling, nature of his work.

This opening shot of Ran, despite the stillness of the four horsemen waiting in motionless silence, features intense visual dynamics: The contrast of earth and sky, the severely limited number of visual planes (this effect was produced by using a telephoto lens and shooting a great distance from the actors), the tension produced – despite the bright full sunlight – by having each of the four horsemen staring in a completely different direction, plus the ominous effect of those massing thunderclouds. This one image sets up the entire film, both visually and dramatically: Those four warlords, standing at sharp right angles, will soon pull apart not only each other but their entire world.

In Othello Welles captures Shakespeare’s dense, visceral imagery – and the emotional turmoil of the doomed title character – through tortured deep focus compositions, extreme contrasts of light and shadow, and some truly vertiginous angles. He brought together an eclectic range of influences, including German Expressionism, exemplified by Wiene’s disturbingly angular The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Eisenstein’s baroque Ivan the Terrible films (1943 and 1946), and Film Noir. Welles’s own The Lady from Shanghai (1948) is a superb example of that genre; and he had recently starred in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), whose famous ‘chase through the sewers of Vienna’ bears comparison with the sequence highlighted here.

But his style in Othello is unique and dead on, as you can see in the frame included above, in which the jealous Iago’s foolish dupe, Roderigo, lures the drunken officer Cassio into a duel. Note the seemingly endless labyrinth of vaults, made even more disturbing by the compounded reflection in the stagnant water, which you can almost smell. For comparison with Shakespeare, here is Othello [free online]; and here is a direct link to Act II, Scene 3, which corresponds to the film sequence we are looking at. Welles, despite his lifelong devotion to Shakespeare, jettisons virtually every line of the text, and instead recreates it through image and sound of extraordinary, and revealing, dramatic intensity.

Note especially the connections between Iago’s monologue, with its crazed imagery (“turn’d almost the wrong side out”), and Welles’s visual strategy, which both encapsulates and, through its sheer cinematic mastery, rises above the antagonist:

IAGO: If I can fasten but one cup upon him,
With that which he hath drunk to-night already,
He’ll be as full of quarrel and offence
As my young mistress’ dog. Now, my sick fool Roderigo,
Whom love hath turn’d almost the wrong side out,
To Desdemona hath to-night caroused
Potations pottle-deep; and he’s to watch:
Three lads of Cyprus, noble swelling spirits,
That hold their honours in a wary distance,
The very elements of this warlike isle,
Have I to-night fluster’d with flowing cups,
And they watch too. Now, ‘mongst this flock of drunkards,
Am I to put our Cassio in some action
That may offend the isle. — But here they come:
If consequence do but approve my dream,
My boat sails freely, both with wind and stream.

Welles’s visual genius is so awe-inspiring that I think too much has been made of this film’s infamous logistical problems. It has been said that economic necessity forced Welles to shoot at oblique angles, so that we only rarely see the actors’ mouths moving. That allowed him to forgo shooting synchronous sound; instead, dialogue, sound effects, and music were cost-effectively added in post-production. Also, Welles had to shoot the picture piecemeal between 1948 and 1951, often leaving his cast and crew (which saw many desertions over the years) stranded on location, all over the Mediterranean, as he flew off to do a quick acting job to cover his own payroll. Although Othello won the Palme d’Or at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival, it was not seen for three more years in the U.S., where it quickly sank into obscurity until it was painstakingly restored and rereleased, to enormous acclaim, four decades later… which was a decade after Welles had died.

Such anecdotes are admittedly entertaining, but ultimately what matters is what Welles put on the screen, and that is a visual masterpiece. Below are six representative frames from the approximately 100 which comprise this stunning sequence (which begins Chapter 4 on the DVD from BWE Video and Image Entertainment).

Shadows of drunken revelersCrowd gapes down at Cassio and Roderigo fighting
Alarms are raised, as confusion grips CyprusNote the godlike high angle and tortured composition, as Othello (Orson Welles) – in command of Cyprus – rushes from his wife to investigate the melee
Ineffectual, gawking soldiers scurry about
Othello (center), dwarfed by vaults and shadows, tries to restore order

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Jim's Film Website
Jim’s Film Website

Reviewed May 17, 2003 / Revised January 24, 2021

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