I AM NOT WHAT I AM: ORSON WELLES’ OTHELLO (1952)

April 29, 2014

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Othello (1952) marked the beginning of Orson Welles’ exile from Hollywood, its funding provided by an Italian businessman soon to go bankrupt. It was the first of endless financing troubles that would plague his prolific years abroad. After he made the budget-strapped studio bound Macbeth (1948) for Republic, he was eager to make a full dress Shakespeare adaptation with elaborate sets designed by Alexandre Trauner. When the cash disappeared, he improvised, with Trauner becoming a location scout while locals were hired to sew period-appropriate clothing. The itinerant production moved between in four towns in Morocco and five in Italy. Shot over the course of two years, as Welles took on acting jobs to raise money, the film is a dizzying patchwork. Welles adapts his style to the circumstances, mostly abandoning the long takes so admired by Andre Bazin, and turning to rapid, jarring edits to sew the disparate material together. It was the first time he had final cut since Citizen Kane, and the result is vertiginous and disorienting, both a reflection of Othello’s deteriorating psyche and the jury-rigged nature of the film’s production.

A new 2K scan of the controversial 1992 restoration is now touring the United States courtesy of Carlotta Films, and has began its run at Film Forum in NYC and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago (see all the future venues here). The original score and sound effects were re-recorded, an attempt to bring a 1950s film up to 1990s technical standards that replaced the audio instead of preserving what Welles produced (read Jonathan Rosenbaum for more details). With that caveat stated, this strange and hypnotic movie has never looked better.

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After he completed shooting Macbeth in July of 1947, Welles went to France to develop an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac with his production designer Alexandre Trauner. Welles recounts that project’s implosion in his essayistic documentary Filming Othello (1978):

suddenly Alexander Korda, who was our producer, came to me and said, “my dear fellow I need dollars. I want to sell it to America.” He did, Jose Ferrer played it and got the Academy Award, and that’s the end of that story. It was supposed to be commercial, and it wasn’t, it was supposed to make me rich, and it didn’t.

So instead Welles took an acting job as the occultist Cagliostro in Black Magic (1949), which was made at Scalera Film Studios in Rome. There he found a potential patron in Michele Scalera, who agreed to fund his Othello, although he pushed for an Italian cast in order to receive grants from the government. Welles had already cast Italian actress Lea Padovani as Desdemona, with whom he was pursuing a very public romance. Their relationship became instant tabloid fodder. Padovani recalled that:

A genius like that does nothing by halves, and for him love was a delirium…. He was capable of unforgettable things. One day at the Caffe Cipriani in Venice he got down on his knees, kissed the edge of my skirt, and pronounced my name quietly. I was breathless with emotion.

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Their affair was brief and ended noisily – she reportedly knocked him out with a door stopper. Regardless of the details of their affair, she was off the movie. In his new book Orson Welles in Italy Alberto Anile reports that Welles was forced to trash the film he had shot with Padovani, reported by the Venetian press as 3,000 meters, or one hour and fifty minutes of material. He then had to re-trench and re-envision the movie, while Scalera was conning the Italian government. Scalera applied for a permit to shoot Othello in English and Italian, and listed Vittorio de Sica and Gina Lollobrigida among the cast to pass the Italian actor quota, despite the fact they would not appear in the film. At this time Betsy Blair, Gene Kelly’s wife, had become the nominal Desdemona, and was in Mogador when Welles heard the news that Scalera was withholding funding, and that the period costumes would be held up in storage. The common story is that Scalera went bankrupt, but Anile writes that though he was losing money, Scalera was not broke. It was a power play to get Welles to leave Africa and return to Italy so he could maintain more control over the production.

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Scalera’s ruse failed, as Welles and his team kept finding creative solutions to their money problems. They famously shot Roderigo’s death scene in a Turkish bath, so there was no need for the costumes, while a thick wall of steam obscured their sparsely detailed set. While the idea has always been attributed to Welles, Blair recalls that it was conceived by Trauner, whom she saw sketching the concept and pitching it to Welles, who ecstatically agreed to it. No matter who the idea originated with, it represents the openness of Welles’ team and his artistic credo. Welles said, “It’s a basic part of the way I work with a group of people — I always move. Not because I’m patient, but because of what I think will happen to the picture if I don’t.” Another of those movements was firing Blair and finally settling on Canadian actress Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona. Welles was afraid of rigidity setting in, and always kept the production moving forward, even if it was in a series of herky jerky stops and starts.

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Eventually Scalera withdrew the remainder of his funds unless Welles returned to Italy, but the stubborn director was committed to his new vision. Enough so he began to fund it out of his own pocket from money earned at acting jobs (Prince of Foxes, The Black Rose). When watching Othello a single cut can span both years and continents. Despite the stressful, ad hoc circumstances, the film is remarkably single-minded in its visual scheme. It moves from the bright coastal light of the Mogador coast to the darkening cell interiors of Othello’s Moroccan castle. Latticework-spiderweb imagery abounds, each character crisscrossed by shadow and then further sliced by the aggressive editing, which never seems to let bodies complete a motion before cutting to a new angle, the world shifting beneath their feet.

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