Here's the review of OTHELLO that appeared in the New York Times when it opened in 1955, and a follow up article in the NY Times on the restored OTHELLO...
THE NEW YORK TIMES September 13, 1955
Film review by by Bosley Crowther
How much of Shakespeare's Othello you are likely to be able to perceive in Orson Welles's motion picture version of it, which came to the Paris yesterday, is something this dazzled reviewer would not like to have to guarantee. Shakespeare himself, set down before it, might have a tough time recognizing his play.
For the great Mr. Welles apparently decided, when he set out to make and play this film in the authentic locale of Venice some six or eight years ago, that the text and even the plot of the original were incidental to the dark and delirious passions enclosed in its tormented theme. That theme is, of course, the tragic downfall of a man racked by jealousy, aroused by the treacherous rumor-mongering and conniving of an ungrateful friend.
What matters it that Othello bears a sense of social stigma in the play, based on the fact that he is an alien, a professional soldier, and, particularly, a dark-skinned Moor? What matters it that Iago, his villainous and deceitful "friend," hates him because he fancies Othello has captivated his wife? These are details and motivations that have been completely overlooked by Mr. Welles. All that he seems to find intriguing are the currents of hate and villainy.
And so this extraordinary picture, which it took more than three years to make and equally as long—or longer—to re-dub and prepare for showing here, is strictly an un-literate, inarticulate, and hotly impressionistic film, full of pictorial pyrotechnics and sinister, shadowy moods.
Let's be completely forthright about the talent revealed by Mr. Welles. He has a wonderful skill at image-making but a blind spot where substance is concerned. For instance, he makes of the murder of Desdemona a chilling nightmarish display of stark faces, frenzied movements, architectural compositions, and shifting lights, cut into a montage with accompanying music and screams. But he backs up this hot, erratic action with little feeling for character or regard for the genuine human torment that is implied in this melodramatic display.
It would be hard to improve upon this rendering of Othello for sheer mise-en-scène. Mr. Welles has got Venice and Cyprus (or what passes for Cyprus) down to the ground. All the urbanity and stony beauty of the great Adriatic port and the island of Othello's triumph are made sharply visual in this film.
But, alas for the import of the drama! It is mainly spectacle—elaborate, expensive, complicated—with no continuity, meaning, or soul. Mr. Welles's own dusky Othello is a towering shadow of a man, monstrous in his pictorial movements but as hollow and heartless as a shell. And Michael MacLiammoir's Iago, which should be the sparkplug and fuse of the play, is not only vague in behavior but also almost impossible to understand. You can't expect much from an Iago when you can't hear the little that he says.
Suzanne Cloutier's Desdemona is a beautiful, frail, and gauzy girl who might be tremendously moving if you could sense her in relation to her man. But Mr. Welles has kept her an image of feminine anguish and nothing more. Her grief and the tragedy of her murder are purely theatrical displays. Robert Coote's Roderigo and the Cassio of Michael Lawrence are almost undistinguishable figures in a decidedly unclear plot.
There are flashes of brilliant suggestion in this tumbled, slurred, and helter-skelter film. But they add up to nothing substantial—just a little Shakespeare and a lot of Welles.
Produced and directed by Orson Welles; adapted by Orson Welles, from the play by William Shakespeare; cinematographers, Anchise Brizzi, G. R. Aldo, George Fanto, Oberdan Troiani, and Alberto Fusi; edited by Jean Sacha, John Shepridge, Renzo Lucidi, and William Morton; music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino; production designer, Alexander Trauner; released by United Artists. Black and white. Running time: 90 minutes.
March 1, 1992
ORSON WELLES OTHELLO MADE CHAOS INTO AN ART FORM
By Ben Yagoda
On Sept. 12, 1955, "Othello," a film produced and directed by Orson Welles and based on the Shakespearean tragedy, opened at the Paris Theater in New York. Reviewing it in The Times, Bosley Crowther wrote: "There are flashes of brilliant suggestion in this tumbled, slurred and helter-skelter film. But they add up to nothing substantial -- just a little Shakespeare and a lot of Welles."
Other critics concurred, as did the public. After a brief run, the distributor, United Artists, withdrew "Othello" from release.
On Friday, "Othello" finally gets another chance. It will open an engagement at the Cinema 2 in Manhattan, to be followed by a national release. "And thereby," as Shakespeare wrote in another play, "hangs a tale." It is the tale of a film made in fits and starts that more or less vanished and has now reappeared in refurbished form.
It begins in the late 1940's, when Welles went into exile from Hollywood. The half dozen years since his magnificent debut with "Citizen Kane" had proved that he and the studio system were fatally incompatible; since then, he had been in Europe, trying to finance his "Othello."
In the spring of 1949, cast, crew, equipment and the 34-year-old director assembled in Mogador on the Moroccan coast, which was to stand in for the Cyprus of the play. Only one thing was missing -- costumes; the supplier, it turned out, had not been paid. Welles scraped together enough money to hire a crew of local tailors to construct substitutes, but it would take them at least 10 days. What to do in the meantime?
Film a scene without costumes, of course. Welles decided to set the murder of Roderigo in a Turkish bathhouse and directed his crew to hurriedly transform a Mogador fish market. The actors wore only towels. As shot, the sequence is one of the film's most striking images.
And so it went. Welles would shoot until money ran out, then go off to on a fund-raising trip or acting job. (He created his unforgettable Harry Lime in "The Third Man" in the midst of making "Othello.") He would film whenever and wherever he could -- the locations included Venice, Rome, Paris and Perugia, Italy -- and daringly splice them together. In one scene, a closeup of Iago shot in Morocco cuts to a view of his back shot in somewhere in Europe. Amazingly, the cast and crew would always reassemble whenever Welles was ready for them.
"Sometimes we weren't paid," says Suzanne Cloutier, who played Desdemona to the Othello of Welles and the Iago of Micheal MacLiammoir. "But Orson Welles and Shakespeare -- it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
"Othello" was finally completed in 1952, in time for Welles to bring it to the Cannes International Film Festival. "Othello" was really a film without a country, so he jokingly entered it under the Moroccan flag. Only when the festival director came to his hotel room in a panic and asked if he knew the Moroccan national anthem did Welles learn that "Othello" was to win the Golden Palm award for best film.
But the Golden Palm meant little to a moviegoing public uninterested in black-and-white Shakespearean adaptations, and "Othello" did its quick disappearing act. Over the years, however, the film acquired a lofty reputation, as the first (and possibly most) purely cinematic version of Shakespeare ever. In his critical study "The Films of Orson Welles," Charles Higham called it a work "of perfect unity, balance and order" and concluded, "Welles never made a more coherent and beautiful film."
Cut to 1989. Welles had died in 1985, leaving his daughter Beatrice Welles-Smith the rights to just one film -- "Othello." Talking with Michael Dawson, a Chicago film maker who was preparing a documentary on Welles, she said she had heard that a European company was planning to rerelease the film. What, she wondered, could she do to stop them from doing so?
Mr. Dawson replied that because any distributor would have to make new prints, she could prevent a rerelease by keeping the negative and soundtrack under lock and key.
Easier said than done, replied Mrs. Welles-Smith. Her father had always told her that the "Othello" negative had burned in a hotel fire in Paris in the 1950's. But "lost" negatives had been found before, and Mr. Dawson decided to look for "Othello." He found pay dirt early. Because of the film's release date and the fact that it was made outside the studio system, Mr. Dawson reasoned that Welles had used nitrate stock. He then contacted the film laboratories that specialized in nitrate during the period when "Othello" was made, including the Los Angeles-based Deluxe Laboratories.
A Deluxe employee did some checking and soon reported back that the elements of "Othello" were in the Deluxe vaults in Ogdensburg, N.J. Mr. Dawson screened a duplicate negative, satisfying himself that it was in excellent condition. For three weeks he kept the extremely fragile and flammable original negative in its can, under his dining room table, until he could find a bank with a vault large enough to hold it. There it stayed, unopened, from September 1989 until December 1990, when he and Mrs. Welles-Smith found backers willing to bankroll a $500,000 restoration of "Othello." Two months later, Julian Schlossberg, the president of Castle Hill Productions, agreed to distribute the film.
The reason for the hefty price of restoration was the cost of improving the soundtrack. Because of Welles's determination to shoot as much of the film as possible outdoors, the actors' voices had to be dubbed afterward. But microphones were kept running during the filming --"Orson didn't want to miss the opportunity of wind," says George Fanto, the principal cinematographer -- creating further aural havoc. The dubbing was done "wild" -- meaning that the actors weren't able to see the picture as they spoke their lines -- so sometimes they put in an extra word or two, resulting in major synchronization problems.
"It was like a Japanese science-fiction movie," Mr. Dawson says. The sound editor Lee Dichter sat down at an editing table with the dialogue track and painstakingly cut it to fit the actors' lip movements.
The rest of the soundtrack was in poor shape, too, and to fix it, the restoration producers, Mr. Dawson and Arnie Saks, made a more daring decision. They would recreate both the sound effects (Welles's beloved wind) and the distinctive, lush musical score, transcribing the latter and rerecording it with contemporary musicians in digital StereoSurround.
The addition to the soundtrack of new elements might seem to violate Welles's original work. "It certainly expands the definition of restoration," says Margaret Byrne, director of the National Moving Image Database of the American Film Institute.
Michael Dawson offers no apologies. "A note is a note," he says. "People can say Welles wanted it out of sync, scratchy, impossible to hear. I say that's bunk."