Orson Welles’s Othello

The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1952) is an adaptation by Orson Welles of Shakespeare’s play. It was filmed between 1949 and 1952 in Morocco and Italy. The cast includes: Orson Welles (as Othello), Micheal MacLiammoir (Iago), Suzanne Cloutier (Desdemona), Michael Lawrence (Cassio), Fay Compton (Emilia), Hilton Edwards (Brabantio), and Robert Coote (Rodrigo). Photography was by Anchise Brizzi, G.R. Aldo, and George Fanto. Screenplay was by Orson Welles. Music was by Francesco Lavagnino and Alberto Barberis. The film was produced and directed by Orson Welles.

The film begins and ends with the funeral procession for Othello. The pallbearers who carry his casket are silhouetted against the sky as they walk uphill. Soldiers drag Iago forward by a chain around his neck, and then shut him into a cage. The cage is hoisted in front of a castle wall.

The plot of the film begins in Venice, where Othello and Desdemona meet and are secretly married. Othello is a Moorish general who serves the Venetians. Desdemona is the daughter of a Venetian senator named Brabantio. Iago hates Othello, because Othello has promoted Cassio to lieutenant. Iago, an ensign, feels that he has been slighted, and that he is more worthy of the promotion. Iago is determined to take revenge against both Othello and Cassio.

Othello is sent to Cyprus, where the Venetians are at war with the Turks. Cassio is involved in a drunken brawl arranged by Iago, and is removed from his position as an officer by Othello. When Desdemona tries to intercede for Cassio, Iago skillfully insinuates to Othello that Desdemona is in love with Cassio. Othello is driven mad with jealousy, and rashly agrees to Iago’s plan to kill Cassio. Cassio is wounded by Rodrigo, but escapes, and Iago kills Rodrigo so that the conspiracy against Cassio and Othello will not be revealed. Othello refuses to believe his wife’s protests of innocence, and kills her, smothering her as she lays in her bed.

Iago’s wife, Emilia, is horrified by what has happened, and reveals Iago’s responsibility for the tragedy. Iago stabs and kills Emilia, and is then arrested and taken away to be punished for his crime. Othello is tormented by guilt for having killed his wife, and stabs himself. He dies, falling on the bed beside the body of Desdemona.

The tragedy occurs partly because Othello is blind to the deceitful nature of Iago. Othello is, by nature, trusting and generous. Iago, on the other hand, is a manipulator, and is determined to take advantage of those who trust him. Iago tells Othello that Desdemona is in love with Cassio, and that Desdemona has been unfaithful to Othello. Shakespeare’s play examines the conflict of truth and falsehood, honesty and deceit, innocence and guilt, faithfulness and betrayal.

Iago plays upon Othello’s weaknesses: his generosity, his trusting nature, and his jealousy when his love and passion are aroused. Othello’s jealousy overrules his reason, and his passion overpowers his judgement.

Othello’s blindness to the faithfulness of his wife is replaced too late by his insight into her love and devotion. He realizes that his moral blindness has caused his complicity with Iago’s treacherous plot, but only after committing himself irreversibly to the evil scheme by murdering Desdemona. Othello’s remorse leads to his suicide.

Welles’s film is visually stunning. The photography uses an interplay of light and shadow, height and depth, castle ramparts and subterranean corridors, day and night. Many of the scenes are filmed under the vaulted ceilings of Moroccon citadels.

The performances are splendid, with Welles portraying Othello as a flawed lover, caught between intrigue and honesty. Welles’s Othello is a vulnerable hero, characterized by both brutishness and sensitivity, baseness and nobility.

Copywright© 2000Alex Scott

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