European Film: Othello (1952)

Welles plays the title role in this 1952 Shakespeare adaptation, which he also directs. The film also stars Suzanne Cloutier and Micheal MacLiammoir.

The latter was difficult to woo. He was an old friend of Welles’s, but he thought of acting on the screen as slumming, later telling Welles biographer Charles Higham that Hollywood was “a collection of shacks at the end of a poisoned rainbow.”

As for Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona, she was chosen at the end of a long process. The first candidate was Italian Lea Padovani, with whom Welles was locked in a passionate affair. She spoke little English, and ultimately was scratched. Welles briefly considered Cecile Aubry, and then mounted a protracted search. Betsy Blair did some shooting, but was replaced by Cloutier in August of ‘49. They were then shooting in Venice, and would soon move to Rome.

Higham claims that a shot in which Welles had to smack Cloutier in the face was particular arduous, since Cloutier would flinch with each take. He also asserts, without explanation, that “no one connected with the picture knew what would be happening from one day to the next.”

It would be hard to predict an amazing moment between Welles and Francesco Lavagnino, one half of the film’s composing team. Scoring a steam bath scene, neither great mind was satisfied with the melodramatic score Lavagnino had written thus far, and agreed that they’d sit in silence, count to three, and blurt out whatever came to mind. At the end of three, the two men, remarkably enough, shouted, in unison “mandolins!” Mandolins it would be for Welles’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello.

The score would also include the work of a 200-member orchestra, conducted by Franco Ferrara.

Financing the film proved to be a matter that required tremendous legwork for Welles, as was the case with most of his films. He had a hard time paying Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards until well into the nearly four-year-long production, extracting much free labor from his increasingly disgruntled friends. In Nov. 1950, he finally paid the two enough to keep the repo man from taking their possessions, and production of the movie moved forward.

Of the finished product, Higham writes
The opening is remarkable: a shot of Othello’s
face, frozen in death, as he is laid out for an elaborate
funerary procession and carried by pallbearers across
the battlements of a castle against a sky full
of cumulus clouds.
The movie took the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Biographer Barbara Leaming, however, cautions it would be a mistake
to think that the great artistic success of Othello would considerably
improve Orson’s reputation. In the State’s the unusual way in
which he had made his new movie seemed like further proof
of the eccentricity, the queerness that Hollywood had
ascribed to him all along.
Higham, Charles. Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of An American Genius. New York: St. Martin’s. 1985.
Leaming, Barbara. Orson Welles. New York: Viking. 1983.


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