Criterion Blu-Ray Review: Orson Welles’ ‘Othello’

Othello was the last Orson Welles movie I saw for the first time. When I was working through his filmography in college – when I learned that there was a whole world of great films after Citizen Kane – his Shakespeare movies seemed exotic. They were impossible to find. I only saw MacBeth and Chimes At Midnight because Hofstra had VHS copies (in the case of Chimes, I’m pretty sure it was a bootleg). MacBeth and Chimes still hadn’t been released on DVD or Blu-Ray in the U.S. yet. Today, you can get them both.

Othello felt like another gem I would never see. Thankfully, a year or so ago, TCM did a Welles Star of the Month, so I finally got to see it. Then, Criterion announced a two-disc Blu-ray set. But even then it looked like it wouldn’t happen because the release was pushed back a couple of months.

Finally, the Blu-ray came out earlier this month. We can now all see the film for what it is – one of the greatest Shakespeare adaptations of all time. Welles’ Shakespeare films are unique in that he freely adapted from the Bard’s words to craft cinematic adaptations that still retained the spirit of the original text.

Welles’ Othello runs just 93 minutes, but the heart of the play is there. Iago (Michael MacLiammoir) convinces Othello (Welles) that Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier) is having an affair with Cassio (Michael Laurence). Of course, that’s not true. Iago does this out of jealousy of The Moor. In Welles’ version, Iago is impotent. He wants a higher status and sees destroying Othello as the only way to get it.

Othello is also a play about race, but that’s not an angle Welles plays up. Indeed, it looks like Welles would have rather played Othello without wearing blackface if he could have. Welles doesn’t completely cut it out, as its an important part early in the film when he confronts Desdemona’s father, but from then on, it falls by the wayside. Welles is more fascinated with the relationship between Iago and Othello.

The performances are also incredible, despite Welles’ penchant for post-dubbing giving the film an odd look. Surely if the film were more widely seen, MacLiammoir would have earned an Oscar nomination. Welles always worked well with actors who could be as imposing on the screen as himself, like Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil‘s Charlton Heston. MacLiammoir is no different.

The Blu-Ray

This might just be Criterion’s best release of 2017. The two-disc set is stacked to the brim, staring off with 4K restorations of both the 1952 European and 1955 U.S./U.K. versions. Both look fantastic, which is a miracle. The stark, black and white photography is wonderfully preserved.

The ’55 version looks a little weaker surprisingly and there aren’t actually too many differences from them. The ’55 version has text opening credits, robbing the film of its theatrical, spoken-credit opening. Welles also used a different actress for the voice of Desdemona. (Between the release of 1952 and 1955, Welles starred in a stage production of Othello and decided he liked his stage version of Desdemona better than Cloutier.) Also, the ’55 version is two minutes shorter.

Now on to the supplements. Once again, this is one of the classic Criterion “film school in a box” set.

Disc 1:

  • Commentary – Criterion included the 1995 laserdisc commentary with Peter “Don’t Forget I Knew Orson Welles” Bogdanovich and scholar Myron Meisel. The laserdisc edition included the ’55 cut, so the commentary goes with that version of the film. Meisel is more interesting to listen to, since there’s only so many times we can sit through Bogdanovich telling his stories about how he met Welles.

Disc 2:

  • Filming Othello – Welles’ last completed film project was Filming Othello, the first in a planned series of essay films about his movies. Running 84 minutes, it is incredible. It is literally just Welles sitting and talking about the movie and Shakespeare for an hour and a half. But he is so engaging, so dedicated to the material even at this stage of his life that he completely engages you. He also included a brief interview with MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards, as well as a Q&A session from a screening of Othello in Boston.
  • Return to Glennascaul – During a break in filming, MacLiammoir and Edwards made this brief short film of an Irish ghost story narrated by Welles. It was nominated for the 1952 Oscar for Best Short Subject and is a delightful find. It looks like Criterion picked it off of a videotape, and it includes a short Bogdanovich introduction.
  • Souvenirs d'”Othello” – This is a 49-minute Canadian documentary featuring an interview with Coultier.
  • Simon Callow – Actor and Welles scholar Simon Callow contributed to Criterion’s Chimes release, so it only makes sense for him to contribute here. In 22 minutes, Callow discusses Welles’ relationship with MacLiammoir, the difficult production of Othello and other events in Welles’ life during the 1950s.
  • Ayanna Thompson – This is the kind of piece that explains why Criterion is the best at what it does. Here, Ayanna Thompson, an English professor and the author of Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, And Contemporary America, discusses the relationship between race and Shakespeare, specifically in Othello. She discusses the history of white actors playing the Moor and how Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson played Othello. She also discusses Welles’ portrayal of race in his film, praising him for not playing to stereotypes. However, she wonders why Welles played the part at all, since he must have been aware of Robeson.
  • Joseph McBride – This 33-minute interview with author Joseph McBride looks like it was produced for a European DVD release. He talks about many of the same subjects heard in previous features on the set, but it’s a nice inclusion anyway.
  • Francois Thomas – French historian Francois Thomas explains the differences between the two versions of Othello in this 18-minute interview. (Thomas previously appeared on the Criterion edition of The Immortal Story to talk about the different versions of that film.) Curiously, Thomas does not mention the critically drubbed 1990s restoration of Othello by Welles’ daughter Breatrice.

I can’t say too much more about this release other than that it is absolutely essential.

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