Archive for the ‘Othello (1955)’ Category

Spine # 870

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: October 10, 2017

Region: Region A


European – 01:33:31

US/UK – 01:30:59

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English (SDH)

Ratio: 1.37:1


European – 30.51 Mbps

US/UK – 30.51 Mbps


“I could never better stead thee than now. Put money in thy purse. Follow thou the wars, defeat thy favor with an usurped beard. I say, put money in thy purse.” -Iago (Othello, Act 1, Scene 3)

Orson Welles’s Othello is probably known more for its legendary production history than it is for its cinematic merits—and it does have merit that goes well beyond what anyone should expect from a film made under the conditions in which it was created. Understand before we go any further that this shouldn’t suggest that it is perfect or even the “flawed masterpiece” that some scholars have labeled it. What’s more, the film wouldn’t hold up if one examined it as a proper adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. In fact, one would wager that purists will probably hate it without even giving a second thought to the film’s strengths. When examined as a mood piece or a small thriller quite separate from the original work, it holds up much better.

However, one shouldn’t be led into believing that the final film hasn’t been scarred by its production limitations. In fact, there is a blemish for every serious challenge that Welles faced throughout the four year production (1948-1951). Why did the production last four years? Well, the director didn’t have any money to put in his purse. The director would shoot scenes when money was available and stop when these resources dried up so that he could go find or earn more funds. In fact, he performed in The Third Man during one of these extended breaks in the production schedule.

There is a famous anecdote about a scene in the film depicting the murder of Cassio—a scene that Welles has set in a Turkish bath house for the simple reason that there weren’t any costumes available for the scene. Various participants give a contradictory accounting as to the reasons for this: some say that there wasn’t enough money to pay for them yet, while others claim that they simply hadn’t been finished. Either way, Welles couldn’t afford to shut down production until the costumes were available. The result is one of the film’s most striking and cinematic sequences.

Such issues were frequent throughout the shoot, and Suzanne Cloutier once claimed that “no one connected with the picture knew what would be happening from one day to the next.” It isn’t any wonder considering that the film seems to have been created with nothing but an incredible amount of tenacity—and the talent of Welles and his faithful collaborators. Unfortunately, tenacity couldn’t provide the resources necessary to provide adequate production sound, and nearly the entire soundtrack was created in post-production. The result is an out-of-synch soundtrack that is incredibly distracting to the viewer.

Other issues are the result of the aforementioned extended piecemeal production that spanned not only years, but also a variety of locations (including Morocco, Perugia, Venice, Rome, Paris, and Italy). There are times throughout the film when Welles will cut from an actor in one country to a different angle of the same actor in another country that was shot either years later or years earlier. It works better than one might expect, but it would be misleading to imply that the seams aren’t at times all too evident.

Orson Welles once stated that a director is a man “who presides over accidents.” This seems to paint a much better picture of the filmmaker than the decidedly erroneous notion of the “infant terrible” perfectionist that the history books seem intent on selling to the universe. In fact—in the case of Orson Welles—it might be said that the director is a man who presides over chaos.

Fortunately, all of the soul-crushing production headaches resulted in a kind of triumph for Welles. The film was lauded a triumph by European critics and it took home the Golden Palm award for best film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1952. However, the suits in Hollywood didn’t care about such success—a film is only successful if it sets the box-office on fire. Since the American public didn’t have much interest in a black-and-white Shakespearean art film, and it only pulled in around forty-thousand dollars when it was finally released in America in 1955 by United Artists. It was quickly pulled from distribution and went largely unseen until 1992 when it saw a somewhat questionable restoration by Michael Dawson, Julian Schlossberg, and Beatrice Welles. When the controversy of that release died down, it again descended into relative obscurity… until now.


The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 Stars

Criterion has once again given cinephiles a beautiful Blu-ray package. The special 2-disc set looks like most of their standard single disc releases. Both discs are housed in their standard clear case with a cover sleeve featuring a new cover taken from one of the film’s frames (which was credited to Sarah Habibi). Inside the case, there is a leaflet featuring an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and the usual technical credits.

Both disc menus make use of stills from the film coupled with the film’s music, and they are up to Criterion’s usual high standards. Those who own other Criterion discs will know exactly what to expect.


Picture Quality:

5 of 5 Stars

Criterion provides not one but two 4K restoration transfers on two separate discs:

The 1952 European Version was scanned in 4K resolution from a 35mm fine-grain master positive, and the resulting image is absolutely gorgeous. The film has never looked better on home video—although this isn’t saying nearly enough considering that it never really looked terribly good on home video until this release. Fine detail impresses here as does depth, clarity, contrast, and shadow detail. Any flaws are obviously inherent in the original source and never become problematic. The restoration work ensures that distracting anomalies such as dirt, scratches, damage, and other unfortunate issues never become problematic (even if the occasional speck of dirt remains).

The 1955 US/UK Version doesn’t look quite as good as the European transfer—especially in terms of density (which has some unfortunate fluctuation issues) and detail. The gradients between the various shades of gray aren’t as balanced as they appear in the other version either. However, these issues are source related and it would be a mistake to imply that the overall image quality isn’t remarkably better than anyone would’ve previously had reason to expect. It’s probably safe to say that this is the definitive transfer of the 1955 version of the film. On a positive note, there is slightly more information in the frame.

Interestingly, Criterion has chosen not to include the highly controversial 1992 restoration cut and its stereo sound mix. The reasons for this are probably obvious to Criterion enthusiasts.


Sound Quality:

4 of 5 Stars

The restoration team has also cleaned the monaural soundtrack (which was taken from composite fine-grain prints) so that listeners will not be bothered by such annoying issues as hiss, hum, crackle, clicks, thumps, or any other unfortunate audial blemishes. The LPCM transfer of this restored track is therefore the best anyone can really expect from this particular film’s original elements. Unfortunately, there are plenty of source related issues resulting from the troubled productions. Perhaps most distressing is the slightly uneven and not always entirely discernable dialogue (which can also be poorly synched).

Purists were infuriated when the team behind the 1992 restoration built the track from scratch and tweaked the edit to put the track in slightly better synch, because it wasn’t representative of Orson Welles’s original film. Criterion is devoted to presenting films as they were shown during their original release, and this track accomplishes this. The fact is that in this particular case, one cannot have it both ways.


Special Features:

5 of 5 Stars

Feature Length Audio Commentary featuring Peter Bogdanovich and Myron Meisel

The 1955 cut of the film includes this archival commentary track with Peter Bogdanovich and Myron Meisel—two scholars who are well versed in Welles history. The track was recorded in 1994 and finds both Bogdanovich and Meisel in good form as they spend the duration of the track discussing its troubled production history and telling amusing anecdotes about the director. It is surprisingly informative and engaging for what is essentially a third-party track, and it adds an enormous amount of value to the package.

Filming Othello – (01:23:02)

Filming Othello

Criterion generously includes a nice 2K scan of Filming Othello taken from the film’s original elements. It is often cited as Orson Welles’s final competed film—although one has difficulty considering it as an official part of his official canon of work any more than one would place the Quentin Tarantino-directed episode of “ER” in the list of that director’s primary works. It belongs somewhere else—perhaps under the heading of “other projects.”

It’s certainly an instructive viewing experience, and one feels that the director relished the opportunity to dabble in his favorite medium once again—even if it is essentially a retrospective essay film produced for West German television that never approaches the creative brilliance of F for Fake. However, there is a certain poetry to the fact that this 16mm production was also produced over a period of four years (1974-1978).

The heart of the film is an extended conversation between Micheál MacLiammóir, Hilton Edwards, and Orson Welles that was shot in Paris, France, in 1974—but this conversation isn’t the only reason to see this film, which begins with an introduction by Welles himself as he sits somewhat stoically behind a moviola (an image that probably won’t surprise anyone who has already seen F for Fake.

“This is to be a conversation, certainly not anything so formal as a lecture, and what we’re going to talk about is Othello, Shakespeare’s play and the film I made of it,” he announces before he leads into the events that led to the troubled production and indeed some of the challenges that plagued him throughout the experience. This portion of the film isn’t terribly different from most interview footage, but he soon introduces the aforementioned conversation with MacLiammoir (Othello’s Iago) and Edwards (Brabantio) which he has brought upon his moviola for our benefit. The footage plays on this machine before we cut into the actual footage. The three gentlemen discuss the themes inherent in the original play and possible character motivations—including those added to Iago’s character by Welles for the film’s production. It’s an interesting conversation that should appeal to anyone who admires either the film or the Bard’s original play. When the footage of this conversation comes to an end, we return to Orson Welles as he announces that he ran out of footage well before they ran out of conversation.

Another interesting aspect of the program is the brief footage from a post-screening question and answer session held in 1977. It is much too brief, but one is grateful that it has been included in any case. Shortly after this portion of the film, Welles gives the viewer his closing statement. It is a perfect statement that probably says everything that the director felt about the film:

“…There are too many regrets, there are too many things I wish I could have done over again. If it wasn’t a memory—if it was a project for the future, talking about Othello would have been nothing but delight. After all, promises are more fun than explanations. In all my heart, I wish that I wasn’t looking back on Othello, but looking forward to it. That Othello would be one hell of a picture.”

Apparently, the film enjoyed a screening at the 1978 Berlin Film Festival, but it had fallen into obscurity until very recently (much like Othello itself).

Return to Glennascaul (1953) – (28:06)

Return to Glennascaul

Hilton Edwards directed this short film starring Orson Welles as himself and was made during a lull in the production of Othello. It tells a rather simple but diverting story: While driving in rural Ireland during a break in the shooting of Othello, Welles offers a ride to a man having car trouble. The man ends up telling him a strange story about a pair of women who once flagged the man down. It turns out that the women were ghosts. Other details are best experienced by the viewer as it is a charming diversion that should satisfy viewers. The short was nominated for an Academy Award and adds value to an already amazing collection of supplements.

The film includes a short introduction by Peter Bogdanovich.

Souvenirs d’Othello – (48:46)

Criterion also includes a French-Canadian television documentary entitled Souvenirs d’Othello about Suzanne Cloutier (Desdemona) directed by François Girard. The program centers on a few interviews with the actress as she remembers the production of Othello (which she claims was the highlight of her life). Her memories of Orson Welles and his drive to complete the film in the face of numerous impediments are of enormous value. There are a number of revelations to be found here, and they should all please those who—like Cloutier—admire the film work of Orson Welles.

Interview with Simon Callow – (21:55)

Simon Callow (author of Orson Welles: Road to Xandu, Orson Welles: Hello Americans, and Orson Welles: One Man Band) discusses the production of Othello in some detail. The discussion covers a variety of topics, including the changing cast decisions, the trials of the lengthy shoot, and the director’s relationship with actors. There is the occasional erroneous claim, and a few of these will be obvious to even casual fans (such as his claim that Filming Othello was produced in the late 1960s). One imagines that the producers of the interview chose to exercise diplomacy and not correct these false statements.

Interview with François Thomas – (18:12)

François Thomas (co-author of Orson Welles at Work) discusses the two different cuts of the film and the differences between them from the obvious differences between the spoken and written credits to the small subtle alterations made to the later version of the film. His observations are interesting and useful to viewers and should clarify a great deal for those who don’t wish to dissect such things for themselves. This should also add to one’s appreciation of the film.

Interview with Ayanna Thompson – (21:12)

Ayanna Thompson is the author of Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America and a number of other Shakespeare-related texts. Her discussion here is an interesting addition to the disc that covers territory that isn’t really touched upon in any significant way in the other supplements. Thompson reflects on the history of the portrayal of Othello by white actors and Welles’s historical voodoo production of Macbeth that utilized black actors. One actually wonders why the director didn’t cast Canada Lee in the role of Othello (since the director had worked with the actor on the stage). He would’ve been amazing.

Joseph McBride on Orson Welles – (32:44)

Finally, Criterion includes a 2014 ‘Fiction Factory’ interview with Joseph McBride (author of a number of film related books, including What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? – A Portrait of an Independent Career). A number of pertinent topics are covered here and they range from those specific to Othello to more personal subjects like the Hollywood blacklist, and Welles’s move to Europe. It’s another very solid addition to Criterion’s rich supplemental package.


Final Words:

This is an essential package for Orson Welles fans! The prospect of owning incredible transfers of two different cuts of Othello would be incredibly exciting all on its own, but Criterion has seen fit to include a 2K scan of Welles’s feature-length film essay entitled Filming Othello in this package as well! In addition to this, they include an Oscar-nominated short film made by Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards during one of the many lulls in Othello’s piecemeal production, over an hour and a half of scholarly interviews about the film, and an informative commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich and Myron Meisel. Those who aren’t impressed will want to check their pulse and seek immediate medical assistance.