Orson Welles Gives Praise to the Bard

Following the tepid reception of his low-budget Macbeth (1948), Orson Welles left Hollywood altogether and made way for Italy and then Morocco, where he embarked on another, even more radically stripped-down Shakespeare adaptation. Distinguished by its rough-hewn atmosphere and intense performances, the independently made Othello—which condenses the story of a Moorish general in the Venetian army (Welles himself), his new wife Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), and his envious underling Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir) to a lean hour and a half—was the result of a famously arduous shoot. Although it won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1952, the film did not find distribution in the U.S. until 1955, and it was widely derided there as slapdash and self-indulgent. For his last completed feature, 1979’s Filming “Othello,” produced for West German television, Welles reflected back on the making of his original film, a process that encompassed three years and numerous disruptions in funding. In the above clip—taken from Welles’s essay film, included in its entirety on our packed new edition of Othello—the filmmaker airs his uncertainty over the ultimate value of his own shoestring version of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. The intervening decades, though, have left little doubt that Welles’s formerly divisive Othello is a work of exceptional visual power and dramatic force.

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