THE BOOTLEG FILES: OTHELLO

BOOTLEG FILES 402: “Othello” (1955 Russian film version of the Shakespeare play).

LAST SEEN: The film can be found (without English subtitles) on a Russian video website.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: This one fell through the cracks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: God, I hope so!

In 1938, the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Yutkevich expressed his desire to create a film version of William Shakespeare’s “Othello.” However, the Stalinist-era Soviet film industry existed solely as a propaganda vehicle, and the motion pictures of that era were designed to sell the Communist message on the big screen. Thus, Shakespeare’s Moor had no place in Uncle Joe’s cinema, unless he was planning to plant red flags and wax poetically on Marxist economics.

In 1952, Yutkevich’s long-cherished dream seemed to be demolished when word came that Orson Welles had created his own film version of “Othello.” Yutkevich could not fathom how his vision could possibly compete against the creative imagination of America’s most audacious cinematic talent. But when Yutkevich saw Welles’ film, he was aghast – Welles’ presentation was vastly different from the Russian filmmaker’s concept of what a filmed “Othello” should look like.

Following Stalin’s death in 1952, the Soviet film industry was able to operate in a somewhat less repressive atmosphere. This allowed Yutkevich to pursue his vision of “Othello.” Yutkevich initially reached out to the great African-American performer Paul Robeson, who played Othello in a landmark 1943 Broadway production. The director sent Robeson a cable that read, “Knowing you as a magnificent portrayer of this role, we would be very happy if you would agree to play Othello in our film (in either English or Russian, whichever language you would prefer).” However, the anti-Communist policies of mid-1950s America prevented Robeson from obtaining a passport, and he was forced to decline the invitation to travel to Moscow for the role.

Without Robeson, Yutkevich worked with the best talent that the Soviet film industry could offer. Ukrainian-born actor Sergei Bondarchuk was cast as Othello, and Yutkevich covered him in the dark make-up favored by white actors playing this role. The Armenian-born composer Aram Khachaturian was recruited by the filmmaker to create an original music score. And to emphasize the prestige value of the production (and, perhaps, to one-up the black-and-white cinematography of Welles’ low-budget effort), Yutkevich’s “Othello” was shot in the lush Sovcolor process. Sovcolor was actually the Russian brand name given to the German Agfacolor process – as part of the spoils of World War II, the German film stock was seized by the Soviet conquerors, who presented it as their own work. (Sort of like Moscow’s atomic bomb program.) A few sources cite the involvement of Boris Pasternak in the creation of the film’s screenplay. However, Pasternak’s name is absent from the credits – and considering his political status in 1950s Russia, it is safe to assume that any involvement in this project was strictly unofficial.

Unlike most Soviet efforts to outdo Western culture, Yutkevich’s “Othello” turned out to be an extraordinary masterpiece. Indeed, watching the film opens a wealth of happy surprises – who knew that the stodgy 1950s Soviet cinema could create a work of such sweeping artistic power?

Not unlike Welles, Yutkevich begins “Othello” with a pre-credit sequence that sets up the basis of the well-worn story. But whereas Welles opened his film with the funeral processions of Othello and Desdemona and the brutal punishment of Iago (thus telegraphing the drama’s outcome), Yutkevich uses his pre-credit sequence to detail the events that created the drama. In this case, the screen is filled with a large globe that Othello has used to detail his adventures to Brabantio and his daughter, Desdemona. As Othello and Brabantio leave the room, Desdemona remains in a wistful, dreamy state. She begins to imagine the various stories that Othello told of his life, and the screen is filled with an astonishing montage that recreates the sea battles, sword fights, enslavement, escape and victory that marked Othello’s life.

After the credits, “Othello” follows Shakespeare faithfully, but with a number of extraordinary visual flourishes. Othello’s defense of his elopement with Desdemona is presented in a series of Eisenstein-worthy close-ups, while Iago hatches his malignant plot while viewing the happy couple in a small, distorted mirror. As Othello becomes enmeshed in the Iago-planted jealousy, his once-noble figure is seen against a tangle of fishing nets waiting to catch the sea’s bounty. And perhaps the most remarkable shot is the simplest: after his belated recognition of his crime, Othello drapes himself across Desdemona’s body and enshrouds both of them in his long white robe. Almost immediately, the robe collapses – Othello has stabbed him atop his murdered bride, his ugly self-immolation hidden beneath the purity of his white garment.

Throughout “Othello,” Yutkevich presents complex tracking shots and a lush production that is beautifully presented through Yevgeni Andrikanis’ lush cinematography. (The roaring Crimean coastline and its stunning sunsets fills in nicely for the play’s Mediterranean locale.) The Khachaturian score is one of the most stirring and poignant ever created, brilliantly offering an aural counterbalance to the film’s sweeping action sequences and intense emotional drama.

But what really sets “Othello” apart is the mature interpretation of the main characters. Bondarchuk’s Othello and Andrei Popov’s Iago are slightly underplayed, and the lack of theatrical bombast provides a different spin on their characters’ actions. Popov, unlike Micheal MacLiammoir’s Iago opposite Welles or Frank Finlay’s Iago in the controversial Laurence Olivier version, does not pursue his role with visibly dripping malice. Instead, he seems to embody the banality of evil, and his deceptively calm demeanor proves even more chilling as he spins his horrific plots.

Likewise, Bondarchuk avoids the oversized acting favored by Welles and Olivier – neither of whom seemed like the Shakespearean notion of a once-powerful military hero. In this film, Bondarchuk’s initial regal bearing is a mix of serenity and nobility – his tragic downfall is carefully internalized rather than sloppily externalized, and this makes the harsh nature of the drama all the more terrifying.

If the film has one slight flaw, it is Irina Skobtseva’s Desdemona – not in her performance, which is touching in its sincerity, but in her appearance (the 28-year-old seemed too sophisticated to play the innocent doomed lover). Real-life would imitate reel-life: Bondarchuk and Skobtseva married after the film was completed.

“Othello” proved to be a major coup for Soviet cinema: Yutkevich won the Best Director Award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival and the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or. (Welles’ “Othello” tied for Cannes’ Grand Prize four years earlier.) It was widely seen throughout Europe, but it did not turn up in the U.S. until 1960, when Universal-International acquired the theatrical rights. Sadly, the distributor put the film into release with a shoddy English-dubbed soundtrack. A.H. Weiler, reviewing “Othello” for the New York Times, praised the visual elements of the work as offering “a most beautiful, literally colorful and motion-filled version of the tragedy that dwarfs any ‘Othello’ constricted by the confines of stage and proscenium arch,” but panned the “nagging and persistent distraction in the dubbed-in English dialogue that often emerges unsynchronized to the lip movements of its principals.”

To date, there has been no U.S. home entertainment release of “Othello”; a black-and-white version of the English-dubbed release supposedly circulated among 16mm collectors, but that edition does not appear to have been made available on bootleg video. However, an unauthorized version of the Russian-language, full-color version is available on a Russian website. This presentation does not have English subtitles, but it is very easy to follow the production if one is already familiar with “Othello.”

Of course, this is not the ideal way to experience a great film. I hope that some major U.S. label will rescue “Othello” from obscurity and present it properly.  (Hello…Criterion? Kino Lorber? Milestone?) When it comes to Shakespearean film adaptations, this is one of the all-time greats.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on November 18, 2011 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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One Comment on "THE BOOTLEG FILES: OTHELLO"

  1. Matt Sorrento on Fri, 18th Nov 2011 11:29 pm 

    Nice piece, Phil — after reading I really hope that a boutique saves this film and adds solid subtitles.


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