Othello should not exist. Not William Shakespeare’s venerable play, one of the great tone poems to dueling egos and wanton desire filtered not through hero and villain but split personalities tearing each other apart until neither can have what they want. But Orson Welles’ Othello, a work of ramshackle, stitched-together genius if ever humankind has produced one. It isn’t Welles’ greatest film, but it is likely the surest explanation of his unmatched gall, of his unending sweat, and of the limits, or lack thereof, of his genius.
Of course Welles the poster-boy wunderkind of Hollywood splendor, given full control over the powers that be to unleash his vision on the world, could release a masterpiece. Citizen Kane, Welles’ first film, and the first of many to serve as parables of his own brilliance and folly, was practically bred to be a work of unparalleled craft. It was almost an ordained masterpiece from its very inception; Welles had the hounds of Hollywood at his feet. An achievement, sure. But with Othello, he unfolded a masterpiece in piece-meal fashion, without anyone’s help, desperately working to clot the blood of a film barely stapled together with odds and ends over years of stilted, stuttery production. Nothing more could showcase the singular auteurism, the singular genius, and the singular madness of Orson Welles. This film is his ultimate statement of “my way or the highway” determination.
Surely, you know the tale in its broad strokes, and in a literal sense, Welles rests on Shakespeare for the names and the visages. Othello (Welles himself), who demands, Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir) who schemes, and Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), who deceives, evoke Shakespeare’s play of the same name, but they are abstractions here. The archetypes remain, but whatever original vision Welles had for them in his film, he distorts them. Through accident, surely; how could one continue their vision when production ended and began several times, across several countries, and with several casts and crews? It is no secret that Othello was a film birthed by the blind spaces and the crevices between Welles’ hectic schedule. When he had a day, he filmed something, with no matter for whether logic or consistency ensured the blocking or framing matched within scenes. Othello is the great accidental masterpiece of cinema.
But accidental denies the role of Welles the crafty demon, equal parts snake and bull. Surely, accidents happened with Othello, and it would be incredible to claim it came out of the meat grinder as the film Welles initially imagined in his notebooks. Yet, something about the finished project feels uniquely Wellesian. Go ahead and say what you will about his ego and his brusque, madcap qualities that turned him away from Hollywood and turned Hollywood away from him before he even had time to enjoy his success with Citizen Kane. But with Othello, Welles was left stitching together a film by the seams, pretending it was working until he had no choice but to give in and let its failures, its accidents, become its beauty. Welles had already developed a reputation by 1952 for his preemptive demeanor, finishing the sentences of his crew members and producers until only his word stood. With Othello, he proved that he could adapt like no one else, and that he would not, no matter what, give up on a film he had in his mind. If he couldn’t take the road he wanted to, he would form his own road. If that didn’t work, he would smash all the roads he could find together until it resembled the abstract idea of a road, and he would stride across it gallantly.
Welles wasn’t foolish though; the manner in which Othello was cobbled together could not produce a conventional narrative work of cinema, and Welles didn’t even try. Everything about Othello stands up with its abstract, frazzled, jagged, filthy-mess qualities and announces them with bold, freewheeling scrawl. Location proves meaningless as reality; we aren’t watching a sensible place, for Othello was filmed across nation and time in a way that would not afford continuity of place. Welles was obviously aware of this, and he goes in a different direction that openly addresses how surreal the filmmaking process was, how artificial the locations looked. The caverns and precipices and unnatural angles of the film becomes a puzzle-piece out of M.C. Escher or Pablo Picasso. We are watching a Dadaist deconstruction of film and filmmaking strewn out before us, stricken with an illness to form or reason and bellowing about that illness like a battle wound of pride. If Welles was a difficult man who didn’t heed warnings, a man who rode into cinematic battle when it was uncalled for, and a man who may have destroyed himself in doing so, a film like Othello is the damage he could leave in his wake. Who are we to deny Welles his damage, especially if he is going to display the wounds of his filmmaking process so proudly?
The critically wounded and deformed assembly of images and edits only vaguely conforms to cinema as it was before 1952. It sees Welles at his maddest and most huffing, breaking down the walls of cinema and giving us movie-making by the shards. And shards it must be; something about the piece not only redefines Shakespeare, but captures the maddening essence of the play all the more-so. It finds a visual language for deceit and treachery and desire clawing at and festering inside a human soul, evoking the ways in which Othello is blinded by his hubris and Iago desperately desires Othello’s place, or at least his attention. The canted angles, the vicious anti-continuity editing, and the mesmerizing, transformative depth-of-field (which approximates the always-watching paranoia of characters who circle around one another like vultures but never quite see eye to eye) bare the souls of these characters completely raw. The effect is mesmeric; the only regular tide Othello knows is that of ceaseless incompleteness and ever-cascading change.
Watching this bandaged film and trying to peel away the bandages is one of the great film watching experiences. It dissects the very idea of what a film is to the ground, begging that we reinterpret how a movie is made and what auteurism even means. It is a hurting film, but no one hurts like Orson Welles. It remains, sixty-three years later, arguably the most live-wire Shakespearean adaptation ever released, largely because it takes so many liberties with the material and is so cinematic. This is not skillfully preserved Shakespeare, but intimately bracing Shakespeare, and playfully eruptive Shakespeare. Shakespeare for a new age. A Shakespeare that shouldn’t exist. Orson Welles’ Shakespeare, and it could only ever be Orson Welles’ Shakespeare. By Orson Welles, and probably only for Orson Welles, and that is what makes it so perplexingly astounding. More than any of his films, it feels like the one he had to make to restore, or to destroy, his sanity.
Bruised, broken, and absolutely shattered by the strenuous tension of adaptation, Othello feels less like an adaptation of Shakespeare at all and more like a commentary on, or embodiment of, the act of adapting a work of art, a reflection of the push-pull between the inertia of the existent text and the creative charge of the new artist. Welles’ uniquely splintered vision is an externalization of the fractured process of any artistic re-reading, a work that does not sand down adaptation into its own perfect form but opens up the lesions and wounds of the process of adaptation heavily scored by the gaps in two artist’s ideologies. Welles’ Macbeth remains an incisive and able-bodied depiction of Shakespeare, but the remarkably more provocative Othello feels like a dialectic between the bard of one language and the bard of another, the language of cinema.