Othello (1951)A review by Shlomoh Sherman
April 6, 2017
"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
Release Date: September 12, 1955 (USA)
Filming Locations: Mogador, Morocco
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.
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."
Read the whole ridiculous article at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/urban-myths-michael-jackson-blackface-white-actors-representation-a7527371.html
I quote from Abhijoy Gandhi [Philadelphia, USA] January 10, 2004 review: THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO: THE MOOR OF VENICE, (1951)
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?
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Read about this version of Othello On the Internet Movie Data Base
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
To read a Home Literature Othello Introduction analysis of the play originally found at
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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