Othello (1951)

A review by Shlomoh Sherman
April 6, 2017

Othello (1951)
"The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice" (original title)
Director: Orson Welles
Writer: William Shakespeare (play)
Stars: Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford, Micheál MacLiammóir, Robert Coote
Plot Summary: The Moorish general Othello is manipulated into thinking his new wife has been carrying on an affair with one of his officers, when in reality it's all part of the scheme of a bitter lieutenant named Iago.
Plot Keywords: Moor the person - father daughter conflict - father daughter relationship - place name in title - handkerchief
Taglines: Powerful drama of uncontrolled human emotion!
Genres: Drama - Romance
Parents Guide: No age rating for this film is available but due to the story contents; suggested sex and spousal murder; parental discretion is advised.
Official Sites: Official site from Carlotta Films US
Country: USA - Italy - Morocco - France
Language: English
Release Date: September 12, 1955 (USA)
Filming Locations: Mogador, Morocco
Company Credits:
Production Co: Mercury Productions, Les Films Marceau
Runtime: 90 min - 93 min (TCM print)
Color: Black and White
Cannes Film Festival 1952: Orson Welles won Grand Prize of the Festival
Fantasporto 1993: Nominated Best Film International Fantasy Film Award


For those of us who are Shakespeare aficionados, the story of Othello, The Moor of Venice, is well known. For those who are not familiar with the story, the major points of the plot are as follows:

Desdemona, the beautiful daughter of a Venetian aristocrat, elopes with Moorish military general, Othello, to the great resentment of Othello's envious lieutenant, Iago. Iago is familiar with Othello's weakness; Othello is an outsider who is intelligent and confident in military matters but socially insecure because he is visibly different due to the color of his skin. He lives constantly among, but separated from, other Venetians. Whenever they look at his black face, however brilliant a general he is, he knows the others are thinking "Yes, but he is not really one of us." He is constantly referred to as "The Moor," a representative African, while others go by their personal names and are seen as independent individuals. When other characters call him "black," they refer to his face but also to the concept of color symbolism in Elizabethan morality: White is honor, black is wickedness; white is innocence, black is guilt.

When faced with the prospect of managing love and marriage, Othello's inexperience undermines his confidence. Iago finds it easy to drive Othello to jealousy and to think that Desdemona is having an affair with another man because he already feels that her love for him is too good to be true. Othello sees Cassio, his other, more highly placed lieutenant, as the man she would turn to if she ceased to love him.

Iago is able to use his knowledge of Othello's insecurity, and with chilling malice whispers insinuating suggestions to his general to convince him that his worst fears about Desdemona's infidelity are true. Driven to fits of hysterical jealousy, Othello confronts his wife with accusations of cuckolding him and is not disuaded by her protests of innocence. Working himself into a maniacal rage, he kills Desdemona in their bedroom. It is obvious that Shakespeare sets the murder scene in a room where intimate physical relations usually take place. Othello believes that his wife has sinned in a bed so she must be punished in a bed. Filled with remorse over killing his beloved wife, Othello commits suicide and falls on the bed beside his dead wife.

Iago himself comes to a deseredly bad end when his role in the deception of Othello is discovered. He is tortured and executed.

Iago is perhaps the most evil character in Shakespearean plays. Shakespeare leaves the motives for his actions unclear. Many have speculated that his hatered toward Othello may have stemmed from his anger at Othello for passing him over as first lieutenant or from suspicion that his own wife may have committed adultery with Othello. The absence of a motivating factor in his actions makes his character seem even more evil.

Shakespeare is the master of irony.

In Act 3, Scene 3, Iago is explaining to Othello why he is loath to state his insinuations about Desdemona explicitly. It's that once you besmirch somone's name [reputation], there is no telling what repercussions will follow:

IAGO: Nor for my manhood, honesty, and wisdom to let you know my thoughts.
OTHELLO: What dost thou mean?
IAGO: Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. 'Tis something, nothing. 'Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands. But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.

Ever since I heard these lines spoken by my Middle School English teacher, they have enthralled me because of the fact that they are spoken by an arch villain. In fact, I have paraphrased the lines as comic self-deprecation. I once said to my ex-wife, 'He who steals my purse steals trash. But he who robs me of my good name also steals trash.' The ex did not think it was funny. In fact, she got pissed off. There is simply no accounting for taste.

In this climate of political correctness, Orson Welles, were he alive today, would not likely be portraying a Moor since there would be an uproar regarding a white man playing the role of a Negro. Consider the recent strident response on the part of some overly sensitive reviewers reegarding Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson in an episode of URBAN MYTHS, the British Sky Arts comedy series.

"The ship hit the rocks, thankfully, and the programme has now been cancelled, a decision taken mainly due to objections from the Jackson family. Fiennes said of Jackson: 'He definitely had a pigmentation issue and that’s something I do believe, so he was probably closer to my colour than his original colour.' Being white is an exclusive and privileged club. One has to do more than lighten one’s skin to be granted membership."
- Claudia Tomlinson @CS_Tomlinson Saturday 14 January 2017 15:50 GMT

Read the whole ridiculous article at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/urban-myths-michael-jackson-blackface-white-actors-representation-a7527371.html
And then the rebuttal: URBAN MYTHS DIRECTOR DEFENDS CASTING OF WHITE ACTOR AS MICHAEL JACKSON at https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/jan/10/urban-myths-director-defends-casting-of-white-actor-as-michael-jackson

I quote from Abhijoy Gandhi [Philadelphia, USA] January 10, 2004 review: THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO: THE MOOR OF VENICE, (1951)
The recent restoration of Othello brings to cinematic space the magic of another masterpiece from Orson Welles. To think that a whole master negative of this film (which won the Best film at Cannes in 1951) was lying abandoned in a New Jersey warehouse, was discovered by accident and is the reason for this print that we now have access to, is enough to send shivers down the spine of any Welles-phile.
The figure behavior of Micheál MacLiammóir is utterly convincing as the detestable Iago who is consumed by jealousy and rage at being overlooked as the second-in-command. But the person to steal our hearts is Suzanne Cloutier who portrays the fair-dame Desdemona. She is every bit as dainty as we would have imagined her to be.
Cinematography: As we have come to expect, Orson Welles has a unique cinematic language, through which he creates a Wellesian world of skin-burning close ups, dutched crazy world-frames and low angle shots to create a tense atmosphere of foreboding. Time and again Welles plays with foreground element to reveal psychologically subjective and meta-diagetic moods while cleverly using the depth in the frame to forward the narrative and plot the next progression. The title shots of the film are harrowing in their effect, with the interplay of high-contrast earth and sky contours that at once establish the mood for an intense cinematic experience.

I mention the Abhijoy Gandhi review especially since he addresses Welles' cinematic directional style which boosted him to fame with his 1941 classic, CITIZEN KANE. At age 25, Welles showed himself a cinema genius. The stark black and white images shot from sometimes grotesque angles highlight the riveting drama playing out on the screen. This in concert with Welles' majestic acting stlye, his mesmerizing voice, his unforgettably attractive face, create movie magic.

"Welles was striking to all who encountered him, both in terms of of his spirit and his appearance. He filled up the room with his confident, sometimes domineering personality, and possessed good looks to match. Photos from his teenage years show him gazing impishly into the camera with piercing brown eyes. His face is diamond-shaped, curving in sharply at the jaw to a point at the chin. His walnut hair was swept up and slicked back into a look of sophistication. He looked older than he was throughout his formative years, with a voice that sounded quite a bit older."

I have seen Welles in at least one other Shakespearean play done as a film - Macbeth, in which he plays the Scottish king destined for both greatness and decline, much like Othello. His screen presence always excites me. Maybe I am a Welles fan because all my adult life, people have told me that I resemble him, more so when we were both younger than now.

Shakespeare is the unequaled master of our noble language and Welles is the almost unequaled interpreter of his opuses, rivaled only by Olivier.

Did You Know?

Orson Welles was able to trim the play's usual running time of 3 hours down to a more manageable 90 minutes.
Orson Welles' daughter, Beatrice Welles, spent over $1 million on a restoration of the film in 1992. This included enhancing picture quality, re-syncing the audio, adding extra sound effects and re-recording the score in stereo. However, many critics felt that the restoration was ill-advised as it seemed to be based on a re-edit and not the original print that was screened to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival in 1952. This, the 1952 version and the 1955 cut for the American market all remain out of print now, due to legal actions brought about by Beatrice.
The movie was shot over three years and production was stopped twice, mainly because Welles ran out of money. He then starred in the films The Third Man (1949) and Prince of Foxes (1949). He took his payment from those films and used them as money for "Othello".
When he made The Black Rose (1950), Orson Welles insisted that the coat his character wore be lined with mink, even though the lining would never be visible in the finished film. The producers acquiesced to this demand. When the shoot was over, the coat disappeared. In "Othello", Orson Welles can be seen wearing the same coat,
Roderigo's murder in a Turkish bath was devised in that manner because the costumes had been impounded due to non-payment.
According to Welles scholar Jonathon Rosenbaum, not until the final stages of production did the film's producers know that Welles had made two separate versions of the film, one for America and another for Europe (which is the one that premiered at Cannes in 1952.) The restored "Othello" ignored the European elements. In the European version the credits are spoken by Welles, and there is no narration.
Micheál MacLiammóir (Iago) and Hilton Edwards (Brabantio) were lovers in real life.
Welles had another actress, Gudrun Ure, dub all dialogue of Suzanne Cloutier. Ure had previously played the part of Desdemona opposite Orson Welles' Othello on stage.
Suzanne Cloutier was a late replacement for Lea Padovani and Micheál MacLiammóir was a late replacement for Everett Sloane.
The lengthy shoot is chronicled in-depth in Micheál MacLiammóir's book "Put Money in Thy Purse".
When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1952, it did so under the Moroccan flag as Orson Welles was unable to obtain American distribution. He would have to wait another 3 years before that became a possibility.
Suzanne Cloutier, who plays Desdemona, was actually the third actress to play the part during the lengthy shoot. One of the others was Cécile Aubry, who left the shoot when she was offered The Black Rose (1950), only to bump into Orson Welles on that set once more.
The only feature film of famed Dublin actor Micheál MacLiammóir.

Narrator: There was once in Venice a moor, Othello, who for his merits is the affairs of war was held in great esteem. It happened that he fell in love with a young and noble lady called Desdemona, who drawn by his virtue became equally enamoured of Othello.
Iago: Oh beware, my lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.
Othello: When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak of one who loved not wisely but too well, of one not easily jealous but, being wrought, perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, like the base Indian's, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe. Set you down this.
Iago: I hate the Moor.
Othello: She gave me for my pains - a world of sighs.
Othello: And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her, I should but teach him how to tell my story And that would woo her.
Othello: She loved me for the dangers I had passed, And I loved her that she did pity them.
Brabantio: Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. She has deceived her father, and may thee.
Othello: Iago. Iago! Honest Iago,
Iago: I will wear my heart upon my sleeve.
Cassio: Reputation, reputation, reputation! I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago! My reputation.
Iago: Reputations are got without merit and lost without deserving.
Iago: Our general's wife is now the general.
Iago: I know our country disposition well. In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks they dare not show their husbands. Their best conscience is not to leave 't undone, but keep't unknown.
Othello: Her name, that was as fresh as Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black - as mine own face.
Iago: I lay with Cassio lately and, being troubled with a raging tooth, I could not sleep. There are a kind of men so loose of soul that in their sleep will mutter their affairs. One of this kind is Cassio. In sleep I heard him say "Sweet Desdemona, Let us be wary, let us hide our loves." And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand, cry "O sweet creature!" and then kiss me hard as if he plucked up kisses by the roots that grew upon my lips. Then, laid his leg over my thigh, and sighed, and kissed, and then cried "Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!"
Othello: Damn her, lewd minx! O damn her!
Othello: Oh now, forever, farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content! Farewell the plumèd troop and the big wars that makes ambition virtue! Oh, farewell! Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump, the spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife, the royal banner, and all quality, pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
Desdemona: By heaven, you do me wrong!
Othello: Are you not a strumpet?
Desdemona: No, as I am a Christian. Heaven forgive!
Othello: I cry you mercy, then. I took you for that cunning whore of Venice that married with Othello.
Emilia: I don't think it is the husbands' fault if wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties and pour our treasures into foreign laps or else break out in peevish jealousies, throwing restraint upon us. Let husbands know their wives have sense like them. They see and smell and have their palates both for sweet and sour, as husbands have. What is it that they do when they change us for others? Is it sport? I think it is. And doth affection breed it? I think it doth.
Othello: It is the cause, it is the cause, O my soul. Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars. It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood, nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow and smooth as monumental alabaster. Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.
Othello: Come, Desdemona, I have but an hour of love, to spend with thee. We must obey the time.
Iago: Our general cast us thus early for the love of his Desdemona. He hath not yet made wanton the night with her, and she is sport for Jove.
Cassio: She's a most exquisite lady.
Iago: And, full of game, I warrant. What an eye she has - to provocation.
Cassio: I and yet I think right modest.
Iago: Well, happiness to their sheets.
Othello: If I were now to die, 'twere now to be most happy, for I fear my soul hath her content - so absolute. But not another comfort like to this - succeeds in unknown fate.

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Cast overview, first billed only:
Micheál MacLiammóir ... Iago
Orson Welles ... Othello
Robert Coote ... Roderigo
Suzanne Cloutier ... Desdemona
Hilton Edwards ... Brabantio
Nicholas Bruce ... Lodovico
Michael Laurence ... Cassio
Fay Compton ... Emilia
Doris Dowling ... Bianca

To see the complete text of the play OTHELLO from the Gutenberg Project, click HERE

To read a Home Literature Othello Introduction analysis of the play originally found at
at http://www.shmoop.com/othello/ click HERE

To read about a comparison between Othello and president Obama click HERE

To read a recent addendum to this review which will help you understand several other issues concerning the character of Othello and other productions of it click HERE

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