A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Orson Welles' "Othello" is one of his least-seen films, but it inspired one of the best-known anecdotes about the master's impoverished work conditions. The movie was shot in bits and pieces between 1948 and 1951, with the actors sometimes languishing on location while Welles flew off to raise more money. Improvisation concealed a multitude of shortcomings. On the day when Welles was prepared to film the murder of Cassio, for example, the costumes had not arrived, or had not been paid for (the stories differ), and so he simply moved the scene to an old Turkish bath and dressed his actors in towels.
The result probably looks better than it would have otherwise, which is often the case with a Welles improvisation (he keeps the camera close to a flurry of blades and swordplay). But "Othello's" compromises were not all so happy, and the resulting film, made only a decade after the boy wonder had conquered Hollywood with "Citizen Kane," was a ragged production with a soundtrack that was badly out of synch. Even after winning the Palme d'Or at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival, it failed to open in America until 1955, and since then has been seen only rarely, in shabby 16mm prints.
Yet there was a film there. From its opening shots, where the camera looks down on a solemn funeral procession, "Othello" exhibits Welles' flair for dramatic compositions. Instead of the tame eye-level visuals of many films of Shakespeare plays, where the camera is content to watch great actors saying great words, Welles approached "Othello" as a work intended at least equally for the eye.
Part of his approach was born of necessity: He could not afford to record sound on many of his locations, and so he placed the camera to make the actor's lips invisible, shooting over shoulders or at oblique angles. He planned to dub the dialogue in later. He was also handicapped by a revolving-door cast; his final Desdemona, Suzanne Cloutier, was the third actress in the role. Continuity was made even more difficult because some scenes were shot on locations in two or even three different countries, a doorway in Morocco leading to a piazza in Venice.