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With: Orson Welles, Micheál MacLiammóir, Robert Coote, Suzanne Cloutier, Hilton Edwards, Nicholas Bruce, Michael Laurence, Fay Compton, Doris Dowling
Written by: Orson Welles, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Orson Welles
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 93
Date: 05/10/1952

Othello (1952)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Green-Eyed Monster

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I was lucky enough to see the 1992 restoration of Orson Welles' Othello on the big screen, followed closely by the Criterion laserdisc version, which chose to showcase Welles' original cut; some experts claimed that the restoration compromised Welles' sound design. Either way, Othello is a stunning film.

Shakespeare's play is usually known for two things: it contains one of the best, early roles for black and dark-skinned actors, and the villain, Iago, is generally considered one of the best (if not the best) roles ever written. Welles chose to ignore both these factors, playing Othello himself (with dark makeup) and casting the not-very-interesting Micheál MacLiammóir as Iago. Instead, he focused on visually capturing the play's feelings of jealousy and betrayal with his always-astonishing, stark angles and shadows.

One of the most famous behind-the-scenes stories explains that, when a crate of costumes failed to arrive, Welles simply draped his actors in towels and shot a scene in a sauna. Of course, the mood matches perfectly. Someday I hope that a Criterion DVD will present both versions, along with Welles' hard-to-see 1978 documentary Filming Othello (his last completed film).

In 2017, the Criterion Collection made my dream come true. Their two-disc Blu-ray set includes not the 1992 restored version, but the 1952 version that premiered at Cannes and a slightly re-edited version that opened in New York in 1955. It frankly looks better than I've ever seen it before, and that includes my 1992 big-screen experience. The latter cut seems to be preferable by a slight margin, and it's the one that comes with a commentary track (the one recorded in 1994 by Peter Bogdanovich and scholar Myron Meisel for the laserdisc).

The second disc in the set includes several bonuses, not least of which is Welles' final official film, the documentary Filming Othello. It also includes the short film Orson Welles' Ghost Story, a Canadian TV documentary from 1994, and interviews with various experts and scholars, from Simon Callow to my friend Joseph McBride. The liner notes booklet comes with an essay by Geoffrey O'Brien.

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