Review: 'Othello' ★★★ 1/2

Orson Welles' 'Othello' a work of complex origin

'Othello'

Scene from "Othello." (A Castle Hill Productions, Inc. / April 24, 2014)

Othello, the Moor, contends with a lot in the tragedy bearing his name, beginning with an undermining confidant and ending with a murdered wife, among other casualties. Shakespeare's noble but gullible creation is also an epileptic, and the overall visual attack of the 1952 Orson Welles film of "Othello," back for a week-long run in a fresh digital presentation at the Gene Siskel Film Center, approximates a seizure-like intensity.

I first encountered Welles' "Othello" in the early 1980s, via a film programmer's bootleg copy made from a 16mm version projected on a bedsheet. The movie, which Welles shot in Morocco and Italy between 1948 and 1951 whenever he had enough money to continue, underwent a controversial restoration in the early 1990s. The re-recording of the musical score and the sound effects gave the picture a strange, dislocating vibe, a mismatched quality which remains in this new digital cinema package version.

But the film's often striking beauty more than compensates. The miracle, really, is that any catch-as-catch-can Shakespeare film utilizing several different cinematographers and editors could retain a unified style, stark and full of doom.

"I never had all the actors at the same time," Welles told Andre Bazin and Charles Bitsch in 1958, when Welles was at the Cannes Film Festival. "Every time you see someone with their back turned, or with a hood on their head, you can be sure that it's a stand-in. So I had to do everything in shot, reverse-shot because I never managed to unite Iago (played by Micheal MacLiammoir), Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), Roderigo (Robert Coote) and others in front of the camera....I prefer, of course, to control the elements that are in front of the camera while it is shooting, but that demands money and the confidence of your backers."

Necessity was the mother of all sorts of creative inventions in Welles' "Othello." The film's most famous sequence, Iago's murder of Rodrigo, was staged and filmed in a Turkish bath because the costumes didn't arrive on set in time. (Welles scholar and Chicago-based film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum details this and other matters in his excellent book "Discovering Orson Welles.") This is not a film showcasing its performers. Welles' Othello lacks dynamic variety, though there are some fine, sad, strong moments. But unlike Welles' previous Shakespearean film effort, the soundstage-bound "Macbeth," this one's true, open-air, vibrantly conceived cinema, and it points the way to one of Welles' true masterpieces, "Chimes at Midnight," a decade later.

The latter, rumor has it, is underdoing a badly overdue restoration funded by its Spanish rights holders. I can't wait; meantime, it's good to see "Othello" again, more or less as its maker intended it.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"Othello" - 3 1/2 stars

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1:33

Opens: Friday and runs through May 1 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

CHICAGO

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