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Although most contemporary and modern sources refer to this film as Othello, the title on the viewed print was The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice, which is the title of the William Shakespeare play. According to information in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, producer-director Orson Welles performed a voice-over narration of the credits in the European version of the picture, while in the American version, they appeared onscreen in written form. The onscreen credits listed above were taken from the 1992 restored print of the picture. The film begins with the funeral processions of "Othello" and "Desdemona" and the imprisonment of "Iago" in a tiny cage that is then lifted above the garrison walls. The title and the statement "A Motion Picture Adaptation of the play by William Shakespeare" then appear onscreen, followed by Welles's offscreen narration introducing the characters of Othello and Desdemona and noting the setting of the action. The rest of the onscreen credits appear after the end of the picture. Although there are no onscreen writing credits, modern sources list Welles and film editor Jean Sacha as the authors of the screen adaptation of Shakespeare's play.
As noted by contemporary reviews, the film had a long and complicated production history. Modern sources state that Welles began production on the picture in the summer of 1948, and Hollywood Reporter news items reported that it was completed in 1951. According to a modern interview with Welles, the film was originally to have been backed by Montatori Scalera, an Italian producer, but Scalera abandoned the project after declaring bankruptcy. Welles accepted several acting jobs in other films in order to finance the production of Othello, which was interrupted frequently due to lack of funds and the commitment of the actors to other projects.
According to an May 8, 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item, the role of Desdemona was re-cast three times, and even a fourth actress, "a Moroccan beauty," was used for "rear views." Modern sources state that the first Desdemona hired by Welles was Italian actress Lea Padovani, but that after Welles ran out of money and had to shut down production, Padovani accepted other work and was unavailable when Welles was ready to resume Othello. According to one modern source, Welles then asked former Mercury Theatre player Agnes Moorehead to play Desdemona, but she was also committed to other projects. A March 6, 1992 New York Times article stated that Welles was then interested in having Betsy Blair play the part, and that Ccile Aubrey actually filmed some scenes as Desdemona before being replaced by Suzanne Cloutier. Although modern sources give conflicting information about whether Blair or Aubrey filmed some scenes or were merely approached by Welles about playing the role, Blair states in her autobiography that she did film some sequences and can even be seen briefly in a shot on the castle ramparts. She was not recognized in the viewed print, however. Blair also asserts that the first Desdemona cast by Welles was his then-girl friend, Valentina Cortese, but that she was released from the production after Welles ended their personal relationship. Blair notes that she left the film when Welles had to shut down production temporarily due to financial constraints. In a modern interview, Cloutier notes that after spotting her in a French film being shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1949, Welles cast her as Desdemona and put her under a personal seven-year contract.
According to the 1992 New York Times article, "the first Iago was an Italian actor whose name no one seems to remember." He was succeeded by Everett Sloane, who, according to modern sources, grew tired of the erratic production schedule and quit. In early 1949, Sloane was replaced by Michel MacLiammir, who first met Welles when the teenaged Welles applied to the famed Gate Theater in Dublin, of which MacLiammir was a co-founder. MacLiammir, who made his feature-film debut in Othello, wrote a book about the filming of the picture entitled Put Money in Thy Purse: The Diary of the Film of "Othello" (London, 1952). The book consists of MacLiammir's diary entries while the film was in production.
On May 31, 1951, Hollywood Reporter noted that Welles was in London doing theater and radio work "in order to make some dough to pay for the processing" of Othello. Because the dialogue was "shot wild," according to a March 1992 Village Voice article, it was not usable and had to be dubbed in later, and Welles himself provided the voice of "Roderigo." An April 1992 LA Weekly article asserted that Cloutier's voice was dubbed by actress Gudrun Ure, who appeared as Welles's Desdemona in his 1951 London theatrical production of Othello. In August 1951, Welles told Hollywood Reporter that he had completed paying for and now owned outright his film version of the play, even though it had gone "way over the original budget" during shooting.
As noted by contemporary sources, the picture was filmed largely in Mogador, Morocco, where a sixteenth-century, Portuguese-built fortress was used for the garrison at Cyprus, with some sequences shot in Venice, Italy. Modern sources list Rome, Tuscany, Viterbo, Perugia, Torcello and Orgete, Italy, and Mazagan and Safi, Morocco as other location sites.
On May 10, 1952, the film, which was entered as a Moroccan production, screened at the Cannes Film Festival. According to an May 8, 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item, the film was originally to be presented at Cannes in 1951, but Welles withdrew it due to "some sour sound defects." Although Othello tied with the Italian production Due soldi di speranza for the Grand Prize at Cannes, it did not open in the United States until June 1955. On June 13, 1952, Hollywood Reporter announced that RKO had obtained a "verbal agreement" to distribute the picture in the U.S., but it was instead distributed in America by United Artists.
The picture received mixed reviews in the U.S., with many critics lauding Welles's innovative approach to the material but stating that it would probably be limited to "art house" bookings. Numerous reviews mentioned the poor sound quality. Bosley Crowther of New York Times complained that MacLiammir's Iago was "almost impossible to understand." The Variety reviewer commended the sequence in which Roderigo was murdered in a Turkish bath, which has become one of the picture's most highly praised sequences. According to modern sources, the actors' costumes for the sequence, which was to have been staged in a different way, had not arrived yet, and Welles therefore decided to set it in the bathhouse so that the actors [other than MacLiammir, whose costume had arrived in time] would have to wear only towels.
As noted by the film's pressbook, Joan Fontaine and Joseph Cotten, who were in Italy to film September Affair in 1949 (see ^AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50 ), made very brief cameo appearances in Othello as a favor to Welles. Cotten appeared heavily disguised as a Venetian senator and Fontaine dressed as a boy to play his page. According to an January 18, 1998 Los Angeles Times article, Fontaine sued Blockbuster Entertainment "for invasion of privacy," claiming that the company "over-hyped" her walk-on part as a feature role. The disposition of the suit has not been determined.
In 1978, Welles was commissioned by two West German television producers to make a documentary about the filming of Othello. Entitled Filming "Othello", the 120-minute movie was intended to be the first in a series of documentaries by Welles about the various pictures he had made. Instead, Filming "Othello", which had a theatrical release in the United States in 1987, was the last film directed by Welles. In its theatrical release, the film ran 90 minutes. The picture, which is also referred to as The Filming of "Othello" and Orson Welles' Filming "Othello" by some sources, featured Welles's 1977 lecture at a Boston College about his experiences with Othello and a dinner-table discussion about the production between Welles, MacLiammir and Hilton Edwards, who played "Brabantio" and was MacLiammir's partner at the Gate Theater.
In 1989, Welles's daughter, Beatrice Welles-Smith, approached Intermission Productions, Ltd. about restoring Othello. Although it was believed that the original negatives and other materials had been destroyed or lost, an original nitrate negative, fine-grain duplicate negative, composite optical soundtrack and the music and effects soundtrack were discovered in a New Jersey warehouse belonging to Twentieth Century-Fox. The film's soundtrack was digitally re-recorded and re-mastered, the dialogue re-synched to the actors' performances, the picture quality cleaned up and the music score completely re-recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and members of the Chicago Lyric Opera, under the direction of Michael Pendowski and Robert Bowker. The restoration, distributed by Castle Hill Productions, had its theatrical premiere in 1992, and received sterling reviews. In October 1992, King Hassan II of Morocco led a four-day celebration of the restoration and named a town square in Mogador after Welles.
Numerous film versions of Othello have been produced, including a 1955 Russian feature directed by Sergei Yutkovich and starring Sergei Bondarchuk; a 1964 Russian ballet of the story, directed by Vakhtang Chabukiani and entitled Ballet of Othello; the 1965 English production directed by Stuart Burge and John Dexter and starring Laurence Olivier (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70 for the 1964 and 1965 versions); a 1986 American-Italian co-production of Giuseppe Verdi's opera, entitled Otello, which was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starred Placido Domingo; a 1995 Castle Rock Entertainment picture directed by Oliver Parker and starring Laurence Fishburne; a 2001 British television version, directed by Geoffrey Sax and starring Eamonn Walker, which envisioned Othello as the first black police superintendant in London; and O, a 2001 Lions Gate Films release, directed by Tim Blake Nelson and starring Mekhi Phifer, which presented Othello as a high school basketball champion.