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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.37:1 Standard
  • English PCM Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 2 Discs
FEATURES
  • Audio commentary featuring filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and Orson Welles scholar Myron Meisel
  • Return to Glennascaul, a 1953 short film made by MacLiammóir and actor Hilton Edwards during a hiatus from shooting Othello
  • New interview with Welles biographer Simon Callow
  • New interview with Welles scholar François Thomas on the differences between the two versions
  • New interview with Ayanna Thompson, author of Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America
  • Interview from 2014 with Welles scholar Joseph McBride
  • An essay by film critic Geoffrey O'Brien

Othello

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Orson Welles
1952 | 183 Minutes | Licensor: Westchester Films

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $49.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #870
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release Date: October 10, 2017
Review Date: October 10, 2017

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SYNOPSIS

Gloriously cinematic despite being made on a tiny budget, Orson Welles’s Othello is a testament to the filmmaker’s stubborn willingness to pursue his vision to the ends of the earth. Unmatched in his passionate identification with Shakespeare’s imagination, Welles brings his inventive visual approach to this enduring tragedy of jealousy, bigotry, and rage, and also gives a towering performance as the Moor of Venice, alongside Suzanne Cloutier as his innocent wife, Desdemona, and Micheál MacLiammóir as the scheming Iago. Shot over the course of three years in Morocco, Venice, Tuscany, and Rome and plagued by many logistical problems, this fiercely independent film joins Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight in making the case for Welles as the cinema’s most audacious interpreter of the Bard.


PICTURE

After months of delays the Criterion Collection finally releases their new Blu-ray edition for Orson Welles’ Othello, presenting both the 1952 Cannes/European cut and the 1955 U.S./UK one on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. Both are presented in 1080p/24hz high-definition in the original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Both also come from new 4K restorations, the 1952 version scanned from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and the 1955 version scanned from the 35mm original camera negative. This release does not contain the 1992 restoration.

Criterion had previously released the film on LaserDisc back in the early 90s, though that release ran into some troubles. It turns out that even though they had licensed the film from Oja Kodar the rights may have belonged to Welles’ daughter Beatrice, who had just released her own new restoration of the film in 1992 (I haven’t seen this version but apparently it fixes some of the audio synching issues in the 1955 version). Beatrice Welles—who was not at all aware of Criterion working on the release beforehand—apparently then requested Criterion pull it from shelves. They complied and that edition is one of their rarer LaserDisc titles. Interestingly the legal problems may have simply come down to what version Criterion included on the disc: The release was touted to feature the original 1952 cut but it was, in fact, the 1955 cut, which is the edit Beatrice Welles used for her restoration and release.

Thankfully any problems or concerns that arose when Criterion released the film originally seem to have fallen to the wayside and as was mentioned earlier Criterion has included two versions of the film for their new release and the restorations do look wonderful. That being said it’s clear that each film comes from different restorations since both do look fairly different from one another, at least in certain respects. What’s rather shocking is that the older version, the 1952 cut that comes from a fine-grain master positive, looks noticeably better on the whole in comparison to the 1955 cut, which comes from the negative. There are still some print flaws present, mostly limited to minor blemishes and marks along with some flickering and pulsing, and some tram lines. There also appears to be a few side effects from filming, like dirt on the lens. But outside of these things the restoration work has been thorough and in this regard the image is simply stunning.

The digital presentation itself is rock solid, delivering the film grain and the details, most notable in close-ups of faces of the actors. The specifics of the sets are also striking and the textures of the rocky walls look wonderful. Contrast is also very good and the shadows in this film look absolutely wonderful while black levels are deep and bold without crushing details. It’s a very striking, highly detailed image.

Likewise the restoration work is similar with the ’55 version, though since this version seems to use different angles and/or takes in some cases in comparison to the other version, the flaws aren’t the same most of the time. While there are still some minor marks, some flicker, pulsing and the like, there are some larger tram lines in the ’52 version that aren’t here. But you also still get the same instances of dirt on the lens.

What is so odd about this one, though, is that a number of scenes are noticeably softer here than what is in the ’52 version. Many long shots just have this slightly softer look and various close-ups aren’t as impressive. This isn’t the case throughout its entirety, and a number of shots do still have the same sharpness and clarity of the ’52 version (I’m not sure if this is the case but it is possible, where the same, the restorers did use footage from the ’52 version) I assume that this is an issue with the elements and maybe the negatives haven’t held up all that well over the years. Still I was fairly shocked that a later generation print would actually look better in comparison to the original negative.

That being said the digital presentation, like with the ’52 version, is great. There are no digital artifacts to speak of, grain still looks good, and contrast is still strong, at least most of the time. In the end it too looks like a very filmic presentation, but I have to confess at preferring how the ’52 cut turned out.

8/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

Both films present their audio in lossless PCM 1.0 mono and they’re both about on the same level quality wise. Fidelity isn’t all that great and the track can be flat, but at the very least dialogue is still audible and the music sounds decent enough. Most (if not all) of the dialogue was dubbed in during editing and there are some synching issues and the spoken dialogue doesn’t match mouths quite often, though I think the ’55 edit is worse. It can be a little annoying but I got over it. In all the audio is fine enough.

6/10

SUPPLEMENTS

Criterion’s 2-disc special edition comes loaded with features spread over the two dual-layer discs. The biggest feature is, of course, the inclusion of both the ’52 edit and the ’55 edit, both on the first disc. The most obvious difference is the omission of the read-aloud credits that appear during the opening of the earlier cut, but other than a couple of scenes playing out a bit differently I admit I couldn’t pick out a lot of glaring alterations, other than Cloutier being dubbed over by a different actor. In an included 18-minute interview on the second disc, François Thomas talks about the film’s many edits (though doesn’t mention Beatrice Welles’ 90’s restoration) and then goes over the differences between these two versions specifically. The differences are plentiful, right down to alternate takes and angles in many cases, with inflection in the dubbed voices even differing. The interview also offers direct sequence comparisons between the two versions showing just how subtle.

Moving on to the features themselves Criterion thankfully ports over the audio commentary recorded for the rare LaserDisc edition, featuring filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and Welles scholar Myron Meisel, the two recorded separately, and appears exclusively with the 1955 cut (which again was sold as the 1952 edit on that LaserDisc). Meisel takes up most of the track and I was a bit thankful for this: Bogdanovich is fine but early on he seems to simply just talk more about his friendship with Welles and how this film is the one that sort of led to his meeting with the man. Meisel talks extensively about the film’s troubled production and the various cuts, explaining how this one, which he simply identifies as the U.S. cut, differs in significant ways from the previous edits. He goes over some of the technical details of the film, from its editing to the issues with the sound. He also enjoys examining Welles’ framing and compositions and how they work to explain the actions or emotions of the characters, while also comparing the film to the original play. Overall It’s a good, classic academic Criterion track, thanks mostly to Meisel’s participation.

The remaining supplements are found on the second dual-layer disc, and it opens with a hell of an inclusion: Welles’ last “completed” film Filming Othello, put together in 1979. The film can be classified as a “making-of” I guess, though a far more reflective one than what I would have expected. Most of the 83-minute film features Welles at a desk or at a Moviola recalling the production in a fairly linear manner, from initiating the project, to getting the money, filming, stopping, getting more money, filming, stopping, rinse, lather, wash, repeat, and so on. But throughout he also talks about the play, offering his interpretations on the story and the characters, which leads to a wonderful in-depth analysis of the play in the process. Eventually we cut to Welles having lunch with his co-stars Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards, recalling the experience and discussing their duties as performers in the most delightful and fun manner (which is a bit of a miracle because, as stated elsewhere in the features, MacLiammóir had had a serious falling out with Welles). But, probably not all that surprisingly, Welles also wonders aloud the quality of his adaptation, and there are hints of regret that he probably didn’t get to do exactly what he had intended to. It’s more a visual essay in the end and despite it being made up primarily of Welles sitting there talking, with footage from the film (though edited differently) it’s incredibly energetic and entertaining thanks to Welles’ captivating persona. When this release was first announced this film was not included in the features, only added far later after a couple of delays, and if the delays were related to including this film then the wait was well worth it: it’s an incredible feature all on its own.

(As a bonus it also looks to have been restored and looks quite wonderful here).

Criterion then includes the 28-minute (including a 4-minute introduction by Bogdanovich recorded in 1992) short film Return to Glennascaul made by MacLiammóir and Edwards in 1951 during one of Othello’s down times. This rather fun little film features Orson Welles, as himself, driving down a desolate road only to pick up a stranded driver who shares his own creepier story about picking up strangers on that same road. It has all the elements of a classic urban legend and despite it’s rather fun and loose feel with some humourous throwaway lines (when the stranded driver mentions he’s having an issue with his car’s distributor Welles mentions he has his own problems with distributors) the film also sets up a haunting atmosphere when required. Though it appears we’re getting an upscale of an older master it’s still a wonderful and fun inclusion.

Souvenirs d’”Othello” is next and it is a 1995 Canadian documentary on Othello featuring an interview with Desdemona herself, actor Suzanne Cloutier. Shot on video it’s a lengthy discussion at 49-minutes, but Coultier keeps it engaging and fascinating for a fairly breezy runtime. Cloutier talks about her meetings with Welles and her eventual casting before talking about the lengthy and troubled production itself. She also talks about how Welles developed the characters, adding certain elements not necessarily in the play.

One element that gets a lot of attention in the features is the working relationship between Welles and MacLiammóir and actor and Welles scholar Simon Callow talks about this to a great extent in his own interview, explaining how the two met and the frictions that occurred throughout their work on Othello. The most frustrating aspect of the production to MacLiammóir were the starts-and-stops of the production that also led to issues with being paid (all shown through images of correspondence), leading to MacLiammóir to write a book on the experience called “Put Money in Thy Purse” (which Welles also mentions in Filming Othello). Callow also talks about other aspects of the film’s production and release, like a controversy around an article written by Welles about Germany, but the heart of the interview is more about the conflicts that arose between MacLiammóir and Welles and it makes for a very engaging 22-minutes.

English professor Ayanna Thompson, author of Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America, talks for 21-minutes about the representation of race in Shakespeare’s work, chiefly in Othello and then Titus Andronicus. But what proves most captivating are her comments on how the Moor characters in those two plays would have been performed through the years, played by white actors in what amounts to “black-face” up until the likes of Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson taking on Othello. She admits to being a bit perplexed by Welles taking on the role himself by this time, but she does defend him to a point since his performance (possibly influenced by Robeson’s) doesn’t play on stereotypes of any sort, unlike Olivier’s “minstrel” like performance years later, and how his adaptation handles the character. I found this feature one of the more engaging and fascinating academic features on here and if one was determined to only look at a few features this is one of the ones (along with Filming Othello) I would direct people towards.

An older feature, I assume produced for another DVD edition overseas, is a 33-minute interview with Joseph McBride, author of What Ever Happened to Orson Welles. This feature is more of a general overview of the production and the film, expanding on what is covered in the commentary and Callow’s own interview. This one does repeat a few details but gets into the more of the nitty-gritty of the production delays, Welles going through crew members because of said delays, and the various other difficulties that arose during and afterwards. This is then followed by the previously mentioned Thomas interview going over the various edits of the film.

Accompanied by an excellent essay by Geoffrey O’Brien (found in the included insert) this is as comprehensive an edition for the film as one could expect, short of including any more edits. With a great slew of academic features and the gem that is Filming Othello this edition should put a huge grin on all Welles fans.

10/10

CLOSING

A real stunner of an edition, sporting an incredible array of special features and solid restorations for both edits of the film. I don’t think I could possibly recommend this edition enough!


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