An enthusiastic amateur magician, Orson Welles undoubtedly wished he could have used some of his act in bringing his cinematic vision before the public. His latest film, Othello—which had won the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1952—premiered in Portugal on November 7 and in France 12 days later. Amazingly, it would be three years before it would come to the United States. Even more astonishing, however, was that this—the first self-financed motion picture by an American—had already taken two years to shoot and two more years to edit.
You can view Welles’ movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s Moor of Venice in several ways. One, simply, might be as part of a 30-year set of productions reflecting his fascination with the Bard (also including, for film, the 1948 Macbeth and 1966 Chimes at Midnight; on the stage, the 1937 modern-dress Julius Caesar that had first put Welles on the cultural map; and, on radio, in 1936, Hamlet, followed two years later by Julius Caesar). The other is as a helter-skelter—half-mad, half-heroic—attempt to live down a Hollywood reputation as a director who could never finish his work, dating back to The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Without a studio—or even a constant producer—to back him, Welles was forced to put it all together himself. Though his directing services were not wanted in Hollywood, his acting services were still in demand, his tax consultant told him, producing $100,000 a picture. That might mean that Welles might have to appear in a movie that he regarded as substandard, such as Prince of Foxes, but at least it paid his (often hefty) bills—and, the actor-hyphenate figured, he would use the funds from these appearances as seed money for films he intended to direct.
That scenario should sound familiar to fans of independent cinema. John Sayles has used a variation of it (writing screenplays for others, rather than appearing in their works), and John Cassavetes has been credited with launching the independent film scene in earnest in 1959 with Shadows. But Welles got there a decade before Cassavetes, and a quarter century before Sayles. (Moreover, while Sayles has been able to rely on his creative and off-screen partner, Maggie Renzi, Welles’ European labors rested increasingly on his own shoulders, as his producer from his Mercury Theatre days, Richard Wilson, elected to stay in the United States after his boss decamped for the continent.)
Much like Woody Allen today, Welles saw a golden opportunity to make films cheaply in Europe, outside the U.S. studio system. For one thing, he had contacts in the Italian film industry, and, as Seth Alexander Thévoz notes in a pos tfor the blog I.B. Tauris, “many European countries had growing post-war film industries, propped up by generous state subsidies in France, Italy and Spain.”
Those hopes were misplaced. Financing seemed to evaporate just as a new scene was ready to be shot, forcing Welles either to run off for another quick-and-dirty acting payday or to think of another creative way of making do with what he had.
Not every instance of the latter was equally inspired. “Every time you see someone with his back turned or with a hood over his head, you can be sure that it's a stand-in,” French critic Andre Bazin quoted the director in Orson Welles: A Critical View (1972). “I had to do everything by cross-cutting because I was never able to get Iago, Desdemona and Rodrigo, etc., together at once in front of the camera."
If that sounds like something like using a stand-in for the deceased Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, another scene stands up brilliantly. Assured that costumes would be ready for the murder of Roderigo, Welles discovered they weren’t. At this point, he decided to go ahead anyway and film the murder in a Turkish bath, with the actors wearing only towels. It’s the culmination of Cassio’s pursuit of Iago’s witless confederate through a labyrinth, a metaphor for the unnerving pursuit of truth in an environment created by Iago, a master of deceit.
Limits imposed by the ad-hoc financing, different locations and crew skill levels consistently determined Welles’ methods:
*Technical skills of the European crew did not match those of American studios, so Welles dispensed with the long takes he had favored as recently as Macbeth (1948).
*Shooting was so prolonged that some actors opted out from continuing—and Welles himself ended up recasting. Thus, Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein of Citizen Kane) was replaced as Iago by a friend Welles knew from early in his career in Ireland, Michael MacLiammoir, and Suzanne Cloutier was the third actress slated to play Desdemona.
* Welles could not afford to record sound on some of his locations, so he had the lines dubbed after filming was completed. Sometimes he himself dubbed the voices.
* Three times, Welles was forced to shut down production until he could either earn the money himself or prevail on someone to bail him out. For that reason, Welles might splice together a shot of an actor, then his own response, filmed a year later and in another country.
Shakespeare purists were not enamored of Welles’ adaptation: The running time of the film was only 91 minutes (in contrast to the Laurence Olivier version of 1965, which ran for 175 minutes, and the 1995 Laurence Fishburne-Kenneth Branagh version, which clocked in at 123 minutes). Whole chunks of dialogue were deleted, with some scenes transposed. In particular, several critics criticized the film’s audio quality when it finally premiered in the United States in 1955.
Forty years after the film was shown at Cannes, Portugal and France, Welles’ daughter Beatrice Welles-Smith, teamed with Chicago producers Michael Dawson and Arnie Saks to restore the film to something close to her father’s ambitions. The revamped version featured a long-mislaid 35mm master negative of the movie, along with a re-score with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the Lyric Opera Chorus.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times expressed the feelings of many colleagues when he observed that the film “doesn't rank below Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, but alongside them."