The 5 Minute Orson Welles

Ok, well, the same source that got me a peek at Chimes At Midnight also got me a chance to see Welles’ Othello and Macbeth.  Hence my earlier post on your best 5 minutes – I don’t have nearly the time to sit down and patiently watch all of these things.  It would take me days, and even then, I’d feel like I was rushing and not doing them justice.  So instead, at least for now, I skipped around a bit 🙂
For Othello, I can see much clearer what Alan meant about “the language of film.”  This one seems to be all about the statement of the filmmaker, moreso than any of the actors.  Opening with the funeral procession of Othello and Desdemona filmed in stark black and white contrast (I don’t just mean that the film is in black and white, I mean you’ll be hard pressed to find any shades of gray anywhere), the scene cuts to a criminal being dragged through the streets in chains.   The term “baited with the rabble’s curse” immediately came to mind as we watch Iago thrown into a cage.  Then, the movie starts.
I skipped a bit in the beginning – the quality of the film is poor.  Dark, poor sounds, and lots of skips and splices.  I guess I like Welles’ as Othello, physically.  I mean, he’s a guy in blackface wearing some sort of a turban.   What else can you say?  He’s not really putting on any kind of an accent or anything.  He looks like a Shakespearean actor doing his lines.
Desdemona’s death scene was weird for me, like something out of a Frankenstein movie.  Shots of her asleep (pretending to be, rather) in her chamber are interposed with shots of Othello approaching from far down the hall, giving this very empty feeling like they’re the only two people in the entire castle.  I certainly wouldn’t want to sleep there.  Interestingly, when Othello enters Desdemona shuts her eyes, pretending to be asleep.  I realize I skipped right to this part, but is she already afraid of him?  That was unexpected.  The scene overall I was disappointed with.  Like I said, it was like two people speaking their parts.  Desdemona did well at first when she stood up for herself, demanding that Cassio be brought forth to answer for the charges.  But when it came time to actually kill her, she didn’t put up any real fight at all.  Nor did Othello look like he was particularly physical, it was more like “And now’s the time in my soliloquoy when I put my hand over your mouth and you stop moving.”  I kept thinking of how much I’d rather be watching Stage Beauty.
His Macbeth, on the other hand, I think I quite liked.  It was a little jarring at first, as the armies look vaguely like something out of a Genghis Khan epic.  Macbeth is wearing a crown that makes him look like he’s the Statue of Liberty.  But the best part is that everyone is actually trying to speak in a Scottish accent!  You’d think that would suck, but to tell you the truth I got into it.  This was like night and day versus his Othello.  This was an entirely different Welles. Not only was he *acting* now, rather than just delivering lines, but he was acting like an entirely different creature.   I believed I was watching Macbeth, not Welles doing Macbeth.
Naturally I fastforwarded to my favorite part, the whole “lay on, Macduff” bit.  I was very pleased, because the scene played out not for the lines, but for the acting.  Macbeth looks at Macduff like a friend, warning him when he says simply “I bear a charmed life which must not yield to one of woman born.”  It’s like he’s saying “Dude, back away, you can’t win.”  He doesn’t scream it, he says it like a simple truth.  Macduff, however, never breaks form.  His blood is up, he wants Macbeth dead.  He only breaks free of their fight long enough to mention the whole “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped!” thing.
Want to hear the best part?  On the line “I’ll not fight with thee”, Macbeth actually *runs*.  I’m sure I’ve seen other Macbeths run before, but somehow I believed this one more.  He waltzed into that fight knowing that he’d win, and now, knowing that he’ll lose, he runs.  Of course he does.  So when Macduff chases him down and calls him a coward, the expression on Welles’ face is a thing of beauty.  It’s that “Oh hell no” moment where Macbeth finds himself again.  He’s no coward.  Death is not exactly something to look forward to, but oh hell no, he is no coward, he will not be dragged through the streets.  So it is with an almost smirk, a look that says “I know exactly what I’m doing” that he delivers a very simple, very quiet “Lay on, Macduff.”  It is with a great deal of resignation, is what it is.  Honestly it makes me wonder just how hard he was really fighting back.  When I’ve seen Macbeths charge full force back into the battle I tend to believe “Ok, he still thinks he can win.”  Here it was pretty clear to me that he knew he couldn’t.
Here’s my two sentence summary:  I will go back and watch the entire Macbeth now.  I will not bother with the Othello.

2 thoughts on “The 5 Minute Orson Welles

  1. The opening scenes of Othello are far and away the highlight of the film–and I don’t mean that as a slight. That sequence is just _beautiful._ You also picked up right away on the wacky mish-mash of costumes in Macbeth. I think Malcolm is the only person who ever wears a kilt, and there’s this incredibly goofy scene where the castle guard all have these ridiculous big shields and–I swear I am not making this up–_tridents_. It couldn’t have looked stranger if they’d all been in fishnets and heels.

    If you have a chance to watch some _Chimes,_ the big battle sequence is quite good (though, again, plainly on a budget), and the first court scene with Gielgud has great atmospherics.

  2. Maybe Othello is an acquired taste? Maybe you’ve got a bad copy? (I have a cleaned up version which doesn’t seem to have the same out-of-sinc difficulties).
    I have difficulties with the Macbeth … none with the Othello – horses for courses.

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