I am not what I am

Orson Welles's movie Othello was completed with virtually no budget whatsoever. Welles paid for the movie himself. His funds dried up time and again, which is why it took almost four years to complete it. A little bit at a time. Filming was suspended and then picked up again. He'd star in someone else's movie, take the money and work on Othello, then go away and star in another movie. Like Carol Reed and Graham Greene's The Third Man. Then back to Othello it was. Othello wasn't quite produced shot by shot, but it's a close thing.

The whole project started badly (just after the disaster with his previous movie Macbeth which ended up being cut up and butchered quite severely as the studio didn't much care one way or the other - which is why Welles now felt that he had to have complete control over his film, however long it took to finish): the Italian backer went bankrupt. Iago, Everett Sloane, walked away during the early days of filming. Which meant that a great deal of film had to be re-shot. Sloane had played key roles in his previous movies: Bernstein in Citizen Kane and Bannister in Lady from Shanghai. He'd been with Welles ever since the Mercury theatre and radio days. Apparently there was real tension between the Sloane and Welles. Sloane was fed up with Welles's ego and quite possibly resented him. Maybe he was envious of Welles and his success. Which of course would have worked perfectly on film - Iago resenting and envying Othello (and who else would play the warlike Moor of Venice than Welles himself?). But Sloane decided to call it a day.

When Welles asked Carol Reed to approach James Mason for him for the role of Iago, Reed said Mason was all wrong and suggested the great Irish actor Micheál Mac Liammóir instead. Welles was sceptical but went along. So off the crew was to Morocco where the movie was to be filmed. Where, almost immediately, his Desdemona received a better offer and was out of there like a shot. Welles didn't let that minor setback impede the filming, he just started shooting around Desdemona, until he could get someone else.

Next the project was hampered and even seriously jeopardized by Mac Liammóir's sexual peccadilloes. The homosexual Mac Liammóir had a whale of a time picking up strange men all over the place. He especially enjoyed the company of policemen (and curiously enough quite a lot of them seemed to enjoy his company) and was constantly trying to seduce them. The governor had the film crew under surveillance and insisted that Welles read the reports daily. This embarrassed Welles a great deal. When Mac Liammóir found out that Welles knew exactly what he was up to and with whom he was delighted. It egged him on no end to have an audience for his rompy pompy. When the filming shifted to Venice Mac Liammóir was miserable as the move put an end to his happy carefree love life. He did however manage to have it off with a gondolier in so tempestuous a fashion that the gondolier was knocked right into the Canal Grande and almost drowned. Took a lot of money to hush it up.

Othello was Mac Liammóir's first movie even though he was in his fifties. (His only other notable film was the 1970 spy thriller The Kremlin Letter by John Huston in which Helsinki was tarted up as jolly old Moscow, as usual.) In Ireland he was a big name, a playwright, writer, manager, actor, designer, poet, painter, raconteur. He'd founded the famed Gate Theatre with his partner Hilton Edwards in 1928, played all the big roles, established himself as a stalwart champion of native Celtic culture. He wore an ill fitting black toupee, ever slightly askew, and painted his face a rather startling shade of orange. As if this wasn't quite enough he always wore a lot of mascara. According to Welles he looked like an "unemployed gypsy fiddler who ought to try and pull himself together." It was in fact Mac Liammóir who gave Welles his first professional acting job. That was in Dublin. Welles was sixteen at the time and loafing around the Irish countryside trying to become a painter. Which he soon chucked as he decided he wanted to be an actor instead. So he went to the Gate Theatre, bold as brass, and announced that he was an American actor and wanted a job. He also lied about his age. A complete fraud. Mac Liammóir took him on, maybe because he recognized something in young Welles, him being a complete and utter fraud himself. Mac Liammóir was in fact the ultimate fraud as everything about him was phony. He wasn't really Irish at all. He just made it up. He was a native Londoner called Alfred Willmore who just moved to Ireland, took a fancy to the place, learnt Irish, started using an Irish name, and told everybody that he was Irish. And everybody bought it. Which just goes to show that a successful actor really needs to be a huge fraud. (But fraudulence only succeeds when you're an interesting fraud, otherwise it's just a waste of everybody's time.)

Later the relationship between Mac Liammóir and Welles went sour. When Welles left the Gate he felt he'd been treated shabbily. Mac Liammóir, like Sloane, resented Welles's success and meteoric rise to fame. Who did this upstart boy think he was? Again, a good starting point for Iago and Othello, this mutual and heartfelt hostility and common grudge. You can't buy that stuff.

In 1952, at long last, the movie was finished - just in time for Cannes where it won the Palme d'Or. That didn't cut much ice with American distributors. Othello was released over there in 1955, after Welles had re-cut it and re-dubbed it. His recording equipment had been absolutely terrible and a lot of scenes had been shot with no sound at all. Interestingly enough he removed all of Desdemona's lines and did some of them himself.

Obviously, after all the work, all the effort, all the years he'd invested in the movie, all the money he'd spent on it, the movie was a complete commercial disaster. The critics quite liked it, the audience stayed away in droves.

How does the movie look today? Parts of it are superb, majestic, striking and visually exquisite. A lot of it, especially the bits in Venice, are cramped and poky, the pace is nervous, the images are never allowed to linger and have any sort of effect. There are too many words. The voice overs are horrible. The words eat up the power of the pictures and very much so vice versa. Shakespeare and film is never a happy match. In order really to do justice to Shakespeare on the silver screen one would have to cut most of the lines and tell the story in pictures instead of words, use the visceral poetry of images. Shakespeare's verse is too thick, too complex, too allencompassing, its texture too tightly knit to let anything else breathe in its vicinity. Unfortunately Shakespeare's words conjure up far more potent pictures than any film maker could. So most efforts are usually doomed before they start. Welles might have given it a very decent try, if only he'd have had money and time. It's painfully obvious that there was no money, even less time. He has the scenery, he has the settings, but such is his penury that he cannot stop to make use of them. There is no time. When you cannot show it you have to use a voice over. The dubbing is at times embarrassingly out of synch. Many of the shots are poorly lit, even alarmingly dark, which not only makes them look drab but also makes the action hard to follow even for one familiar with the play. A fight scene that was started in Morocco is finished in Rome. Because Welles ran out of money and had to go get some more.

But Iago is simply splendid. He's cold, scornful, superior. His unnaturally pale face is the face of debauchery and evil, his frigid little eyes as dead as his soul, his voice with it's almost charming (and inauthentic) Irish lilt seductive and seditious. He oozes menace and mendacity from every pore of his being. Many of his best lines are cut, his monologues are all gone, but still his presence is the very heart of the movie. Iago is the movie. He quite steals it away from Welles and his strangely subdued Othello. Even when Welles really gets going there's Iago behind him, lurking in the shadows, whispering, stirring it up, causing affray, undulating evil. That is what he does, what he is: "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe." Or: "Though in the trade of war I have slain men, yet do I hold it very stuff o'the conscience to do no contrived murder: I lack iniquity sometimes to do me service: nine or ten times I had thought t'have yerkt him here under the ribs." Splendid fellow, Iago.

Somewhere around the middle of the film or a bit thereafter things start improving markedly. The shots live and breathe, one gets a definite feel of the tragedy and its participants. This, I imagine, must be because we get scenes that were shot when doom wasn't imminent. When there were still prospects of a kind. And funds. The worst scenes, those shot in Venice, are the one's that open the movie. In them it is clear that all hope is lost.

But the end is good, solid, gripping. Desdemona's death grabs one by the throat, starts choking and won't let go.

Othello could have been Welles's independent masterpiece. Should have been. It isn't.

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