The Magic World of Orson Welles (35 page)

The films Welles directed during these years were infrequent and sometimes technically crude, but as the auteur of
Chimes at Midnight
he can hardly be said to have lost his powers. In retrospect, his best work was done inside the studios, where he was able to take full advantage of an elaborate machinery for creating fantasy and a series of technicians who could bring his ideas to life. The bitterest irony of his career is that he had the potential of bringing so much imagination to an inert studio technology but was regarded as too romantically individualistic to be supported by the American system. Hence in the European films one sees all the old ingenuity but nothing to
compare with the sumptuous illusionism in
The Lady from Shanghai
or the viscerally effective camera movement of
Touch of Evil
. The dazzle is gone, if not the intelligence.

Of course in some ways the European films are more satisfying than the American ones. They are free not only of Hollywood formulas but also of the aestheticism and tendentiousness of the worst of the avant-garde. Frequently they gain in interest and charm because of the contradictory impulses in Welles's personality—his old-fashioned love of the “classics,” plus his youthful instinct for motion picture spectacle. And yet something is always missing, and not just at the superficial level of technical resources. The deepest problem with these films as a group—a problem barely suggested in serious criticism of Welles's work—is that their director has lost touch with the social and cultural environment he knows best. It is true that Welles was always an internationalist, and, as Andrew Sarris says, he “imposed a European temperament on the American cinema”; nevertheless, his best work was always grounded in contemporary American mores, politics, and popular myth. His purely European films, by contrast, are set in nonspecific dreamworlds, or they are adaptations of classics from an earlier age. Hence what Welles gains in seriousness, he loses in vitality and the shock of recognition. To a large degree his talents were those of the satirist and the moralist, the sort of artist who needs to maintain a constant relation with manners and national types or else his humor goes flat and his anger becomes merely rhetorical. Outside America, Welles quite simply lost the roots of his art, his work growing more introspective and generalized. He retained his brilliantly surreal imagery and his gift for narrative, but except in
Mr. Arkadin
all the manic satire and punch of the Hollywood films was lost. Splendidly constructed and mature in outlook as some of these later pictures may be, they have never been able to generate the sheer excitement of the more populist American work.

The complexity of such issues will, I hope, become evident in subsequent chapters, but for now let us consider Welles's first two European films,
Othello
and
Mr. Arkadin
, which illustrate some of his difficulties. Of the two, I have chosen to give more space to the latter; relatively little has been said about it, and for all of its obvious flaws it seems to me the more interesting.

I
Othello

Of all Welles's films
Othello
is the one for which the adjective “beautiful” is most justified. Given the series of pictures he made before and after it—
The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil
—it seems almost
classically proportioned. The story is lucid, the acting naturalistic, the visual compositions relatively simple and pleasing to the eye. Welles's characteristic lens distortions and long takes have given way to a crisp, somewhat muted photographic expressionism, and, despite the occasionally garbled and poorly dubbed soundtrack, most of Shakespeare's verses are audible. Because of the difficult production circumstances, there is less bravura camera movement and more editing. It is odd that so many writers—including Welles himself—should have described the film as if it were another exercise in operatic bravura.

Of course
Othello
is hardly anti-Wellesian. It has all the
Stimmung
of his earlier films and takes several liberties with its source. When costumes failed to arrive on the first day of shooting, Welles decided to stage the attempted murder of Cassio in a hastily improvised steam bath, where Roderigo could be dressed in a towel and the air filled with atmospheric mist. The brawl between Cassio, Roderigo, and Montano took place in a foul Arabian cistern; actor Micheál MacLiammóir was impressed by “the macabre sorcery of the place, which I suddenly realize would probably, in the hands of any modern director but Orson, be utilized for mystery-farce starring Abbott and Costello.” The film also has Welles's typical plot structure, beginning with the funeral of Othello and Desdemona, then showing how their deaths came about, then bringing the story full circle by returning to the funeral. A heavy sense of determinism hangs over everything, and Iago's reference to the “net that shall enmesh them all” provides a key to the visual design. Welles told MacLiammóir that the costumes should be “Carpaccio,” which meant “very short belted jackets, undershirt pulled in puffs through apertures in sleeves laced with ribbons and leather thongs, long hose, and laced boots. Females also laced, bunched, puffed, sashed and ribboned.” At every opportunity, Welles has used images of confinement. Near the beginning, for example, he shows Iago being dragged through the streets of Cyprus in a dog collar and chains; a subjective camera sees a guard forcing him (us) into a tiny iron cage, which is then hoisted above a jeering crowd. Welles repeatedly situates the same cage at corners of the action during the story proper, reminding the audience of Iago's fate but also of the way the other characters are imprisoned by their passions. The players are often separated by gates or pillars and are photographed amid barlike shadows or masses of ship's rigging. Even the bedchamber of Othello and Desdemona is designed like a cell, with a heavy metal hatch at the top through which Lodovico and several others gaze down at the doomed Moor. (As an example of the technique, note the close-up of Iago shown in
figure 7.1
.)

Figure 7.1: Iago in a cage.

The film's style is never self-effacing—indeed, as I hope to show, the camera tends to serve as a substitute for acting. On the whole, however, Welles appears to have decided upon a reasonably calm effect, trying to hold his natural tendency to exaggeration in check so that
Othello
would be different from the ill-fated
Macbeth
. In the advertisements he told audiences, “None of our settings were built in the studio. They are all real.” Technically speaking it was a false claim, since some of the castle interiors were designed by Alexandre Trauner (art director for
Les Enfants du Paradis
, among others), and a few brief shots were made in an Italian studio. Nevertheless, Welles was being essentially truthful; he had gone to the other extreme from the stylized, rudimentary settings of the studio-bound
Macbeth
, choosing real locales in the Mediterranean. The early scenes with Desdemona and her father were photographed in Venice itself, principally at the Doge's palace, where Welles emphasized the sensuous, twilit canals and the cultivated, almost fussy Renaissance decoration. Othello's military domain was “played” by a sixteenth-century Portuguese fortress near the North African seacoast town of Mogador, its mammoth and impressively functional walls surrounded by
rocky beaches and baked in a hot, clean sunlight. The one artificial element here—and it is a good one—is the ship used to carry Othello home from the wars; its shadow is seen bobbing up and down against the walls of the fort like a surreal toy.

The opposition between the two worlds of the play is emphasized throughout: in Venice the male players dress in gilded robes and pillowy hats, whereas in the African setting they wear simple tights and light armor; in Venice flocks of pigeons scatter from the façades of crowded buildings, while in Africa the sky is filled with clouds and wheeling gulls. As usual, Welles was supremely aware of how the environment expresses character, and he used his locations to show that Desdemona and Othello are as different socially as they are physically. She is a fair Botticellian girl (nicely played by the Canadian actress Suzanne Cloutier) whose father has kept her sheltered in an ultracivilized society; he, on the other hand, is a dark, nobly direct man of action, a slightly aging veteran of “big wars that make ambition proud.” Each is partly a stranger to the other, this strangeness accounting for their mutual attraction as well as their vulnerability to Iago's manipulation. Welles's settings disclose these facts, even while they give the film a sense of natural air and architectural solidity; indeed a few of the exteriors at Mogador have such a windblown naturalness that they conflict with the artful rhetoric of the language.

In
Macbeth
the acting had been as artificial and exaggerated as the stage sets. In
Othello
the approach is just the opposite. Welles restrained several of the performances and sought a psychologically “realistic” explanation for Iago's villainy. Here again the interpretation runs slightly counter to Shakespeare but in still another direction from the method Welles adopted in
Macbeth
. In the play Iago gives reasons for wanting to undo the Moor, but they are almost like afterthoughts, rationales for what Coleridge famously called a motiveless malignity, or perhaps for too many motives. “I am not what I am,” he says, suggesting that he dissembles even in the moments when he seems to lay bare his soul. He has a protean quality, an evil resistant to categorization. Welles, however, has made “I am not what I am” imply schizophrenia and has given the character the kind of subconscious motives that were cheerfully ignored in
Macbeth
. He decided, in fact, that Iago suffers from impotence. The malady is never specified in the actual performance, which retains many of Shakespeare's ambiguities, but it becomes a “subtext” for Micheál MacLiammóir's behavior. Welles and MacLiammóir agreed to dispense with all traces of “Mephistophelian villain,” and most of Iago's soliloquies—those fascinatingly repellent visions of a truly evil mind—have been
cut from the play. There must be no “passion” in Iago, MacLiammóir wrote in his diary, “no conscious villainy.” On the outside, Iago would be a kind of businessman dealing in destruction with neatness, but to avoid monotony in the performance, MacLiammóir would always remember “the underlying sickness of mind, the immemorial hatred of life, the secret isolation of impotence under the soldier's muscles.” Because of his affliction, Iago would develop a hatred of life, a hostility directed as much against Desdemona as against Othello.

The resulting portrait is an interesting one, accomplished with a high degree of technical skill and underplayed to the point that Iago becomes more of a revolting presence than a passionately vivid force. The “soldier's muscles” are nowhere in evidence, MacLiammóir conveying instead a smallish, sometimes rather epicene quality; his hooded eyes and the thin beard along the line of his chin give his face a masklike appearance, as if he were utterly detached from his inner pain. But despite the fact that MacLiammóir himself contributed to this conception of the role, he was left with vague dissatisfactions about movie “realism”:

Only thing that depresses me [he wrote] is the camera's inability—or unwillingness—to cope with the great organ-stop speeches, the “Othello's occupation's gone” one, for example, which [Welles] delivers so far with caution as if afraid of shattering the sound-track. . . . this feeling accompanied by a longing to see Orson himself, or Gielgud, or Hilton [Edwards], or any fine speaker of verse stand up on an honest wooden stage and let us have the stuff from the wild lungs and in the manner intended. This I know Orson tried in his film
Macbeth
and people didn't like it, a verdict possibly shared by the camera, so there maybe is the answer.

Welles seems to have decided, somewhat uncharacteristically, that the movies were too intimate, too “modern” for Shakespeare's lavish stage conventions; he reasoned that the camera's tendency to exaggerate an actor's behavior must be taken into account—good enough logic for most movies, but inimical to Welles's temperament and his best work. Therefore MacLiammóir was right when he sensed something lacking in Welles's performance, which is not so muffled as MacLiammóir's own but does have a controlled, even guarded quality in the “organ-stop” moments. Welles is at his best when Othello is trying to repress his feelings, or in the relatively quiet, determined mood just before the murder of Desdemona; the “put out the light, and then put out the light” speech, for example, is superbly delivered and genuinely moving. On the other hand, Welles as actor
never captures Othello's splendidly romantic self-confidence and hubris, his boastful ability to charm Desdemona and the audience with tales of his exploits. The great speech to the duke explaining how he won the girl (“She wished she had not heard it; yet she wished / That heaven had made her such a man”) is delivered in a near monotone and photographed in soft focus, and Othello's calm put-down of an angry mob—“Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them”—is virtually tossed away. In the later mad scenes, where we ought to see the easy destruction of all this strength, Welles is equally restrained. Othello's epileptic seizure, the foaming at the mouth described by Iago in Shakespeare's text, is nowhere to be found. The attack on Desdemona before a group of senators from Venice is delivered with a fine visual shock, but the camera literally becomes Othello: Desdemona walks into a close-up, looking into the lens as if it were a character, and Welles's hand suddenly enters from the left to slap her face. Because he is so intent on visual effect, Welles has left Othello's violence, his incoherent reference to “goats and monkeys,” to a disembodied offscreen presence.

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