Othello (1951): The Whole World in Collapse

The Criterion Collection

Orson Welles once said that, rather than focusing on the individual man, his Othello depicted the “whole world in collapse.” It certainly triggered the collapse of his own; in many ways,  Othello was the beginning of the end. Filmed over three years through budgetary and marital collapse, and the loss of cast and crew for months on end as they sought to make enough money to live, Othello was the production that first sowed the seeds of doubt amongst his backers. 

The buck had to stop with him, after all. Othello featured Welles (as many Welles productions do, barring any particularly pernicious conspiracy theories regarding writing credits) as actor, writer, and director. Control freak and perfectionist that he was, Welles could never bear to leave a single frame flawed, spending years of his life creating masterpieces long after others had moved on. The three years of production that Othello ran to—an appallingly long time by 1940s standards—became the genesis of the Wellesian myth: Orson could sell financiers a dream, but never bear to complete it. Having alienated the studios with Citizen Kane, Othello would estrange the few other sources of money still willing to work with him.

Othello’s plot revolves around the titular character, a North African moor employed as general of the Venetian Republic who has fallen desperately, erratically in love with the senator’s daughter, Desdemona, with whom he elopes. The same heroism that enraptured his young bride drives repulsion and envy within Venetian society. Among them is Iago, who decides to use cunning and malice to bring down the man he can’t openly insult. Othello, having recently been given command of the Venetian armies on the island of Cyprus, is too powerful a military commander and too popular a man to take down openly; however, he has a deep, hidden wound of insecurity. The men around Othello are too loyal to betray him, and least willing of all is Cassio, a decent and honorable captain. Their honor prepares them well for battle and poorly for subterfuge; their naivete is their downfall. Iago plots. What could be a greater humiliation than cuckoldry? In the space of days, Iago goes from planting the smallest seed of doubt that Desdemona may be unfaithful to her husband—with his captain, no less!—to convincing Othello that both she and her ‘lover’ must die—the former by Othello’s hand, the latter by Iago’s.

Into this story—Iago’s scurrilous insinuations that the innocent Desdemona is betraying her husband with Cassio, the descent into madness that Othello suffers—Welles cast himself in the titular role. Welles, 26 at the time of Citizen Kane’s release, understood only too well what it was like to be the outsider, envied and rejected by those he most hoped to emulate; his understanding of marital collapse and madness would be perfected during its production.

From the outside, it’s easy to miss just how unfortunate Othello’s production was. Every member of the cast and crew—with the sole exception of the unnamed soul who was placed in the movie as thanks for helping to secure one of its many funding attempts—is a master of their craft. Welles had a long history of acting in and directing Shakespeare’s plays, and the actors he chose to fill the supporting roles were those he had grown up watching. A rarity for troublesome shoots in far-flung countries, the on-set relationships between cast and crew were comradely. Any troubles experienced seemed to bring them ever-closer together, and were considered somewhat fun challenges to be overcome. The actors considered it a madness—but a great and exciting madness. Enthusiasm never waned.

Welles made Othello in his mid-thirties. He would later come to rue his relative youth in playing the role, but without the rigor and enthusiasm that same youth brought to the picture, a very different film may have been made. Arriving in Mogador (now Essaouira) to start filming, Welles discovered that his financier had gone broke on the flight over; he was surrounded by a crew that had already been paid, a location that had already been set, and actors ready to start. In fact, everything was sorted, with the sole exception of the wardrobe.

In the picture, before Othello can develop the coldness needed to kill his wife, he decides that Cassio must die. The naive wastrel Roderigo is duly sent to assassinate the lieutenant as he bathes, like a praetorian of yore. Creeping through the bathhouse, sword clenched in his hand, he can barely see through the steam. His fellow men are naked, dozing woozily as if on opium, as he feverishly hunts his prey. But this Turkish bath scene doesn’t exist in Shakespeare’s Othello; when Welles found himself without money, he looked to the Jewish quarters of Mogador, whose tailors told him that the costumes wouldn’t be ready for another three weeks. Faced with the challenge of shooting a costume drama without costumes, Welles decided that Roderigo could be murdered nude while bathing. And so the scene was born.

This wasn’t the only instance in which Welles’ enthusiasm turned disadvantage into opportunity. Unable to afford costly studio sets, the castles hurriedly found on location were spartan enough to be lit in a particularly haunting, madness-inducing manner. The natural sounds that surrounded the filming locations—creaks, echoes, shouts, wind—were put to use as grotesque terrors that haunt the isolated characters. Shadows, too, distort in tandem with the stability of their owners. Each character becomes alienated from their brethren, and yet they’re all trapped on the same bleak island. As Welles puts it in the documentary Filming Othello (1978), “Ceilings bear down, walls become overpowering, the world seems to be closing in.” 

This narrowing of the world makes Othello’s madness more convincing. Desdemona’s death is “the cause of [his] soul,” an almost unbearable cause. But not quite unbearable enough. “Yet she must die,” Othello whispers as the camera’s focus starts to shake, “else she’ll betray more men.” Desdemona doesn’t sleep; she knows that she’s innocent and can feel no peace with his belief in her infidelity. She is as obsessed with her innocence as he is with her guilt. Othello extinguishes the candles on her altar and walks to her in bed.

In a previous love scene with Desdemona—her hair swept out on the bed as if she were Veronica Lake—Othello was carefully chaste (a preference Welles would only cast aside during his relationship 30 years later with Oja Kador). Her husband imparts a kiss upon her lips. The screen fades to black.

If only that were to happen in her death scene. This time, by her bed, he neither touches nor kisses her. Instead, he walks behind her, stops, and looks down on her as if she is the devil incarnate. We’ve watched Welles perform with startling beauty for 90 minutes; here, he transforms into a demon. His distorted, rabid-white eyes stare at the woman he’ll soon strangle. The look is repulsive, horrific. In his murderous rage, Othello has become subhuman, but when Desdemona opens her eyes and turns her face to him, he’s handsome again—his humanity is restored. This is perhaps crueller: Othello isn’t killing her in a frenzied, bestial rage. It’s all been carefully planned; he allows her a confession before taking her life, which is both more torturous and kind. The death sentence is final. She won’t escape. 

He stares down at her, sheet in hand, the whites of his eyes a cruel light, his face ensconced in shadow. For a split-second, Welles allows us to see Desdemona’s eyes wide open with fear before the same sheet covers her face and is pulled into her mouth. He strips away her life but not her beauty—her most feminine and beautiful features protrude through the fabric, begging him for a clemency that won’t come. He kisses her last breath as he murders her. To Welles, Othello’s killing of Desdemona “is a dark ritual recalling the wedding in Venice,” almost obscene in its eroticism.

The aspects of the scene that make it most striking are simple: lighting, shadow, a strip of fabric. They’re also cheap. The lack of money created a set with an atmospheric austerity. Fortunately, Shakespearean dialogue is made for a set more humble than that of a film studio. Old, draught-ridden castles don’t detract from it, but offer the perfect stage. The vaulted fortress, the empty corridors, the vast ocean—there’s no chance of a happy ending in this place.

The camerawork capitalizes on these disconcerting elements to create a sensation of vertigo. Unlike a theater stage, the camera can jerk and roll to induce the feeling of Othello’s seizure in the audience, all in stark contrast to the harmonious, effete Venice, morally loose and culturally gifted. Only in a harsh land can Iago triumph.

Shakespeare’s Iago compares himself to a spider carefully trapping its prey, but his motives are less blatant. Actors who have played Iago have grounded his cruelty and deviousness in any number of motivations; while Laurence Olivier in his 1965 portrayal would envision Iago’s great cruelty as stemming from repressed homosexuality, Welles gave Micheál Mac Liammóir the direction that Iago was impotent. It’s no coincidence that the opening line in the film—“I hate the moor”—is purred by Iago as he watches the newlyweds scurry from the altar to the bedroom. Sexual self-revulsion, class, and racial resentment are often entwined in depictions of the character, though Welles recognized that Iago’s great evil ultimately comes from the apparent lack of cause: he takes pleasure in the cruelty itself. “Iago is a slave,” Welles would tell Mac Liammóir. “He has the heart of a slave, he has the special cunning and all the artful hypocrisy of the slave who revels in the condition of slavery. Iago says, ‘We cannot all be masters, nor all masters cannot be truly followed.’ The irony is satanic.” 

Iago takes great delight in being able to “ensnare as great a fly as Cassio” with such small, delicate moves. It’s this great malice that traps him in his own prison—the iron cage that Welles hangs above the ramparts, in which Iago will slowly die. In the opening scene, his half-lidded eyes look on all with judgment, even encaged as he is above the funeral procession of his Lord and Lady.

While Iago could only enjoy his triumph in the harsh, militaristic land of Cyprus, Othello was described by Welles as “a movie without a country.” It was financed by so many disparate sources that no single one could take credit for its birth. When entered into the Cannes Film Festival, it was the first and only picture to have no national delegation, which it had lost along with its first round of funding over three years prior. Forced to attach the film to a particular nation, Welles chose Othello’s homeland. He knew that he had won the Palme d’Or when the head of the festival ran to his hotel room hours before the award ceremony and frantically asked what the Moroccan national anthem was. Welles found himself just as nonplussed as the festival head, and, according to the book This Is Orson Welles (1992), suggested that the band play “something vaguely oriental from one of the French operettas.” 

Much like it had in the Turkish bath scene, Othello’s homeland found its way into the film, despite its absence from the play. Morocco made a perfect—and cheap—stand-in for Cyprus, one of many improvisations that would keep the film afloat. “Nothing was in continuity,” said Welles. “There was no way for the jigsaw picture to be put together, except in my mind. Over a span of sometimes months, I had to keep all the details in my memory.” Welles had a crew of 35, but had to take long breaks in filming to go off in search of money to continue shoots, during which most of his crew would find work elsewhere. Welles would find himself picking up “in the middle of a scene, even a sentence, with a new cameraman, who had seen nothing of what had been done before”—a situation that would result in months of careful work and planning thrown away with a new vision in its place. The contours of Othello turned with the wind.

The castle they used was not one but many—one part Safi, one part Agadir. A lack of studio backing unexpectedly made for a better picture, as stone was superior to cardboard. The shoots took place across nine different towns in Europe and Africa. One character will speak over his shoulder to another, and the following cut will be from another continent a year later. In one scene, in which Roderigo punches and kicks Cassio, the reaction shot to said blows was filmed three years and a thousand miles apart. The armor, shot well enough to disguise, was made out of sardine cans.

The only thing wrong in the eyes of the director was his age. Orson was unhappy with his youth: “I should have been older when I made the film. I would have known more about the part, and I should have seemed older, I should have played it older.” Despite his future judgment, Welles was hardly unfamiliar with dramatic passion at that age. During the filming for Othello, his estranged wife Rita Hayworth sent for him, writing that he should “come tonight.” Terrified that something awful had happened to her, Welles flew among boxes on a cargo plane to meet with her. When he arrived at the suite, he found her in a negligee, hair fluttering in the Mediterranean breeze, begging him to return to her. “But by then I was crazy for this ugly little Italian girl,” Welles would later tell actor Henry Jaglom over one of their long, drunken lunches, transcribed for Peter Biskin’s My Lunches With Orson (2013). Hayworth asked for him to hold her while she slept. Five days later, she married Aly Khan. 

While Hayworth was fleeing Hollywood, Welles was out panhandling for more money. On-set finances were rough. Welles was always willing to exaggerate the amount of his own capital that he would invest into films. After shaking down the pockets of every financier in the English-speaking world, he started on the ones that needed a translator before dipping into his pockets to support an extra week of shooting—only to decide that more money needed to be found elsewhere, delaying filming even further. In the meantime, his Shakespearean actors would, inevitably, return to theater work and be unable to run away to either Rome or Morocco for the length of the season. 

The perpetually haphazard nature of Othello’s production cast a long shadow over Welles’ ability to secure money. He could no longer guarantee a smooth, successful production. When Alex Trauner, the production designer on the film, later spoke admiringly of the director’s ability to self-destruct a picture, he tanked Welles’ financial hopes further. The destructive impulse Trauner diagnosed in him would only grow with time. In the early ‘50s, Welles’ pictures would take four or five years to complete. By the ‘70s, many were left unfinished. Othello may have swept Cannes, but it also created a powerful myth that followed its director for the rest of his life. Whispers abounded—Orson couldn’t bear to finish a movie, to be parted from his creation. He would rather suffer years of torment than cut it once and for all. Welles struggled for the rest of his career to convince anyone to invest in a picture they couldn’t be sure would ever be released. 

Othello is far better than it has any right to be. It’s testament to Welles—as a studio outsider alienated from many sources of stable funding, and his immense skill as a young, fruitful director—that no one leapt from a rampart or retired from acting. Logistical problems abounded with a budget tiny enough to kneecap any other major film, but it’s a calamitous budget in the hands of Welles—and therefore a triumph. The director’s rich history with theater productions and mastery of the camera are in perfect marriage. The picture is a fever dream in both production and result—the former a nightmare, the latter bliss. Othello is magnificent, despite it all.