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Film / Othello (1951)

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Othello is a 1951 film directed by and starring Orson Welles.

It is, obviously, an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Othello. Othello is a Moorish (read: black) general in medieval Venice. Although the townsfolk respect him for his military prowess, they are shocked when he marries a white woman, Desdemona, daughter of wealthy Brabantio. Brabantio accuses Othello of seducing his daughter by witchcraft, but when Othello recounts their romance and Desdemona proclaims her love, Brabantio begrudgingly backs down.

Although he does not know it, Othello has a far more serious enemy in Iago, an ensign in the army Othello commands. Iago hates Othello for promoting another officer, Cassio, above him to the rank of lieutenant. While professing to be Othello's trusted friend, Iago plants seeds encouraging Othello to believe that his wife, Desdemona, has cheated on him with Cassio. Thus a plot is set in motion which will destroy them all.

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Othello was the start of the "scrounging for money" phase of Orson Welles' career (sadly followed by the "unable to find money" final stage). Photography lasted for nearly three years as Welles cadged money wherever he could find it and took film roles (including in The Third Man) in order to get more cash. A murder scene is set in a Turkish bath because the costumes that the actors were supposed to wear were repossessed. When acting in a 1950 film called The Black Rose Welles demanded a fancy mink-lined coat for his character; he stole it from the set and wears it in this movie.


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Tropes:

  • Artistic License – Biology: Surprisingly, this film includes the bit where Desdemona manages to gasp out some last words before she dies of strangulation. That dialogue is almost always Adapted Out.
  • Birdcaged: The Starts with Their Funeral prologue shows Iago being suspended from the walls of the citadel in a gibbet cage, alive, presumably until he dies.
  • Blackface: As had been the tradition with actors playing Othello probably since the play was written, Welles plays the character in blackface. There wouldn't be a major Othello production with a black actor as Othello until the 1995 version with Laurence Fishburne.
  • Chiaroscuro: Many interior scenes are starkly lit in black and white, like the fight Cassio gets in that's staged in a dungeon, or scenes where people are walking around Othello's house while light beams in from the windows.
  • Compressed Adaptation: Welles was able to trim the play's usual running time of three hours down to a more manageable 90 minutes.
  • Creative Closing Credits: Creative Opening Credits, which do not appear onscreen as writing, but instead are narrated by Welles, as he reads off the cast list, names himself as director, and finishes with "This is a Mercury Production." Welles liked doing this; he also narrated the end credits to The Magnificent Ambersons and The Trial.
  • Dies Wide Open: Poor Desdemona, lying on the floor beside the bed.
  • Disturbed Doves: The pigeons of St. Mark's Square in Venice are disturbed and sent flying into the air by a cat. Obviously symbolic of the havoc that Iago is about to wreak on a bunch of gullible people.
  • Driven by Envy: All this because Iago is pissed at not getting a promotion.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: A lot of this in a movie that is heavy on Chiaroscuro. Othello's face is framed in half shadow for most of the scene where he murders Desdemona.
  • The Faceless: Not for the whole movie or anything, but for the first scene where Othello and Desdemona are sailing back to his house while Roderigo and Iago track them, Othello is framed so as to not show his face. We don't get a good look at him until he makes his dramatic entrance into his home to confront Brabantio.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: An adaptation of the Trope Namer. Othello's jealousy, and his willingness to believe the worst about his wife on flimsy evidence, leads to disaster.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: In this adaptation Desdemona's innocence is emphasized by her long blonde hair, especially in scenes where it's spilling everywhere as she's in bed with Othello.
  • Hitler Cam: Orson Welles always used this trope and it's shown here in the scene where Othello is marching back into his home to meet an angry Brabantio.
  • In the Back: How Iago stabs his wife, but just a bit too late to stop her from telling the truth to Othello.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: No matter how effective he is as a military leader, the people of Venice do not take it well when Othello marries a white lady.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: Othello falls for Iago's scheme hook, line, and sinker.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: In the latter portion of the opening funeral scene as the corpses of Othello and Desdemona are borne away.
  • One-Book Author: The only feature film of famed Dublin actor Micheál MacLiammóir.
  • Repeat Cut: Used as Othello is staggering around after he has stabbed himself.
  • Same Language Dub: The shoestring budget led to much of the dialogue being looped in later, and sometimes it is quite noticeable.
  • Starts with Their Funeral: The opening scene has Othello and Desdemona being carried away in a funeral procession as Iago is hung outside the walls in a gibbet.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: Brabantio leads a torch-bearing mob to Othello's house after finding out that Othello has married his daughter, but the Duke of Venice's guards are already there and Othello faces his father-in-law down.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Othello slaps Desdemona in front of a crowd of witnesses, shocking everybody.
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