[I]f it were really like Othello nobody could understand it, however new it might be. And if it were new, it couldn't possibly be like Othello.
--Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
The most detestable habit in all modern cinema is the homage. I don't want to see another goddamn homage in anybody's movie. There are enough of them which are unconscious.
--Orson Welles, at the Cinematheque francaise
Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958) bears marks of a dense, knotty relationship to William Shakespeare's Othello, (2) a relationship that has until now been overlooked (and, in my experience), sometimes denied with surprising vehemence). The connection is pervasive yet indirect, and I approximate this indirection structurally through the form of my essay--just as Shakespeare provides a buried foundation for Welles's film, evocative quotations from the play are confined by design to my footnotes, thereby offering a running dialogue with the body of the argument (endnotes are largely reserved for explanatory digressions). (i) This creates an admittedly demanding reading experience, which (I hope) emulates the kind of conversation Welles himself was having with Shakespeare. The excessive length of this essay and its discursive annotations manifest my desire to establish definitively this hitherto unrecognized relationship between film and play. I err on the side of over-stating the case (making an argument by accumulation, as it were) in part because the evidence for my initially intuitive linkage remains profoundly circumstantial. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Touch of Evil's engagement with Othello is how insistently the film displaces its allegiance to its predecessor--making this connection all the more difficult to pin down. Most likely much of our continued inability to recognize Othello in Touch of Evil rests in this sophisticated displacement. Critics have only recently--and only fleetingly, never at length--begun to notice even the mere "whisper of Desdemona and the Moor in the thwarting of this modern couple" (Lane 146). (3) In the final pages of the essay, I conjecture that the racial displacement enacted by Welles--put bluntly, creating an American Othello without a 'black' Othello--serves as a more unsettling cause for our continued disacknowledgement of his evocation of Shakespeare.
Looking awry, I begin by contemplating an Othello-derived trifle (i) in a more contemporary production. The play is invoked at a crucial juncture in the recent remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004). This moment occurs when the African-American soldier Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) discovers (or rather, believes he discovers) that he cannot trust the woman in whom he has been confiding. In her bathroom, he notices a surveillance camera hidden above him behind a ventilation grate. In fury, he searches through her purse, finding, among other evidence, not Iagoesque money but rather audiotapes of their confessional conversations. His faith in her shattered, he flees her apartment. Immediately before noticing this camera, we catch sight of an object in the mirror, a reversed image from the wall behind him, an image that we never see in its proper perspective. It is a poster from Paul Robeson's Othello--most likely his highly successful 1943 Broadway production (see fig. 1).
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
How much are we to make of such a glimpse at such a moment? Should we simply dismiss it as a chance gesture, just another poster in an apartment full of theatrical posters? By recognizing this fleeting image, are we falling into the painfully American trap of identifying black male actors with Othello? Or is it fair to read significance into this glance, as if the film were saying: "of course you (anamorphically) envision Othello standing behind this moment, just as you were so quick to see him behind O. J. Simpson and other black figures under state scrutiny." Even if the mirror image cannily inverts our insistence on Othello's theatrical past, we are still left wondering how we should take into account these observations--that Marco has been tortured on an island (which, with its decayed arabesque structures, could very well be a former Mediterranean outpost) by a malign character who manages to 'get inside his head'; that Marco later bursts in upon this same woman and, furiously unable to recall her name ("Susie, Rode, whatever the hell your name is"), nearly strangles her while demanding the truth of her; that Washington and Meryl Streep, who also stars in the film, were once invited by Joseph Papp to be cast as Othello and Desdemona; that, when discussing his role of Malcolm X, another figure under heavy observation, Washington pondered that "perhaps there could be" a "correlation there between Othello and Malcolm X" (Lee 117); that in interviews Washington has consistently answered the query about his fidelity to the original Manchurian Candidate with variations on this response: "To me any good piece of material like Shakespeare ought to be open to reinterpretation. I played Othello but I didn't sit around thinking how Laurence Olivier did it when he played it" (Chavez).
While this final comment is alluring (especially in light of the computerized 'white-washing' Marco undergoes by a subsequent surveillance camera), I adduce this movie as only one example of an underexamined field in the study of Shakespearean influence on screen. The Manchurian Candidate is by no means an adaptation of Othello, but it is precisely the lack of a proper vocabulary for how to articulate its connection to the play that leads one to consider it an emblem, if you will, of a blind spot in current scholarship. In recent decades there has, admittedly, been a veritable boom in research on movies adapted from Shakespeare, concurrent with the continued proliferation of such adaptations. But with few exceptions these investigations have largely been devoted to a relatively stable list of recognized Shakespearean films. (4) (Likewise, scholarship on Welles's Shakespearean movies rarely strays from Macbeth (1942), Othello (1952), Chimes at Midnight (1967), and the Brook King Lear (1953) to contemplate Shakespearean elements outside of this established set.) Those studies that do pursue Shakespeare beyond the cinematic canon tend either to catalog the appearances of "Shakespeare in popular culture" (an admittedly useful step, but nonetheless a preliminary one (5)) or heavily (albeit often suggestively) theorize these appearances. We find few sustained meditations on what could arguably count as a more obliquely Shakespearean influence where his works are less obviously invoked. In the case of The Manchurian Candidate, we never hear the name of Shakespeare cited, and no lines derive directly from the play. (6) How then do we articulate a far more subterranean relationship in a work wherein Shakespeare shapes the thematic and structural contours but only occasionally emerges in an overt acknowledgement? (7)
Specific interpretive difficulties arise when we perceive traces of Othello in a contemporary context, precisely because that play makes problematic the idea of evidence itself. A symptom of Othello (and, troublingly, a symptom of reading Othello) involves the obsessive search for evidence. This is not a play or character to which one has a passive reaction; Iago's medicine works upon us in ways from which we cannot seem to inoculate ourselves. Our sight is poisoned by something that we never see, long before we even know what it is we thought we were seeking. In our worrying what might possibly count as proof, itself a preoccupation of Othello's, Iago has uncannily produced in us an occupational hazard: "the quest for material origins" (Kezar 53). (8) In our comparable search for motives and causes, we are provoked into intense responses that unexpectedly echo the same violence that we find so disturbing in our antecedents--previous 'racist' critics (the notorious Rymer and his heirs (9)), 'naive' audiences (the uranecdote of an Othello performance involving an observer's misguided interruption of the action), films that thematize murderous possession (Carnival [1921/1931], Men Are Not Gods , A Double Life , even a Cheers episode [1983; see Rippy]). It is thus with reasonable hesitation that one embarks on an inquiry into finding hidden evidence of Othello in a film, since Iago seems to have already set us up to suspect any evidence (even as we desire to see it).
The fantasy scenario: what could possibly count as incontrovertible evidence for Welles's dialogue with Othello in Touch of Evil? (i) Would we only be satisfied to catch him in the act, (ii) as it were--the primal scene equivalent of a diary entry reading "Plan: modify Badge of Evil via the subtle introduction of elements from Othello"? Barring the discovery of this confessional cache, how much are we to attribute to his long-standing fascination with 'Moorish' things, most proximally manifested by his 1948-52 production of Othello--partly set in Morocco and submitted to Cannes under a Moorish flag--but commencing with his supposed first childhood reading of Shakespeare: "One especially fanciful story, told by Welles himself and repeated by almost all of his biographers, has him traveling to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco with a satchel full of Elizabethan plays, which he studied while domiciled in the palace of an Arab sheik" (France 1)? How much can we read into the anecdote, related in passing by Charlton Heston--the nominal star of Touch of Evil who, in his account, helped persuade the studio to let Welles rewrite and direct the script--that when Heston first met with Welles to discuss the modifications of the screenplay, he was greeted at the door by "a looming figure in a flowing black Moorish robe from his Othello?" (10)
Leaving aside these biographical insinuations, let's concentrate on the screenplay, for a legitimate preliminary question involves asking how many of the Othello fingerprints that are discernable in Touch of Evil are in fact from Welles's hand. If we are wilting to attribute to Welles a compositional ingenuity comparable to that which we find so remarkable in Shakespeare (who himself was often working with his contemporary equivalent of pulp fiction), then even those elements that Welles preserved from his sources must inevitably be considered under his signature--yet even without this supersubtle caveat, the modifications are telling enough on their own. Paradoxically, the threads from Othello that we can assign to Welles have seamlessly woven themselves into the fabric of the film and have thus become naturalized to the viewer (with a skeptical response sounding something like "that's just part of the story; that's not necessarily related to Othello").
Stating the case strongly, Welles modified these four major elements of the plot from the original Whit Masterson novel and Paul Monash screenplay: (11)
* He foregrounded an inter-racial relationship by making the lead role an official with the Mexican government (Heston's Miguel Vargas) and his wife an American (Janet Leigh's Susan Vargas (12)). Originally, the American Mitch Holt was married to a woman of Mexican descent (Consuelo Holt in Masterson, Teresa Holt in Monash), but their ethnicities are comparatively uncontroversial within their respective plots. Welles thereby echoes Othello-Desdemona by reversing the genders of this inter-racial couple, and even doubles them by creating another Mexican husband with an American wife, Manolo Sanchez and Marcia Linnekar, who had originally both been Americans.
* The inter-racial relationships are further accentuated by the transposition of the action from a California city (Welles recalled it as "San Diego," although the sources do not indicate a name) to the fictional setting of "Los Robles," a nightmarish town that straddles both sides of the Mexican-American border. (13) Racist comments about Mexicans are stated by a number of American officials, but are especially typical of Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles), the manipulative Iago figure of the film; (14) indeed, "Mexican" and "foreigner" (15) are uttered by him as contemptuously as "Moor" (16) is by Iago. (Just before Vargas first meets Quinlan, a billboard looming behind Heston announces, as if in mockery, "Welcome Stranger!" (i) [see fig. 2]) Cyprus, as an outpost of the Venetian empire, is itself situated as a border on the edge of "civilization," as Quinlan refers to the United States.
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
* Welles heavily underlines the theme of marriage, far from a preoccupation in his sources. In Masterson, the Holts have been married for years and have a daughter, and the equivalent Sanchez/Linnekar couple gets married, uneventfully, during the course of the novel. In contrast, they have already been "secretly" married in Welles's film, since her Brabantio-like father Rudy Linnekar (17) would not have approved. More significantly, the Vargases are on their honeymoon when we first meet them (according to Welles's screenplay "They fell in love quickly and without any warning to their parents, were married"), and, just as Othello and Desdemona have their nuptial rites interrupted, are disjoined for most of the film. (18) (Lawyers's advertisements for "marriages and divorces," (ii) scattered throughout Los Robles, insinuate that their union might be under strain.)
* The interruption of the Vargas honeymoon commences with the intrusion of a violent external event. In Othello this involves not only the slanderous yelling of Iago and Roderigo in the first act but also the tempest on the way from Venice to Cyprus. The bomb that explodes Rudy Linnekar's car was not witnessed by Holt in either source; in contrast, Welles places the Vargases precariously close to this car--so close, indeed, that their kiss (19) almost seems to ignite the explosion. (iii) Welles's extensive description of the opening scenario of Touch of Evil could just as easily apply to the play: "A honeymoon couple, desperately in love, is abruptly separated by a violent incident ...--an incident which, although it has no personal bearing on either of them, the man considers as a matter of his urgent professional concern" (Memo). (20)
Even without the myriad echoes that we shall shortly examine (nearly all of which, again, can be attributed to Welles's intervention), these four fundamental transformations, all flagged to us within the very first minutes of the film, should remind us of Othello: a racially 'other' official (Vargas soon figures himself militarily: "there are plenty of soldiers who don't like war") whose honeymoon is violently interrupted while in a hostile border environment. Without an appreciation of this film's conversation with this play, many such details remain inexplicable. (21) Consider, for instance, the somewhat snide yet genuine query from the original New York Times review of the film: "And why, Mr. Heston, pick the toughest little town in North America for a honeymoon with a nice morsel like Miss Leigh?" (Thompson 228). (22)
What makes Welles's engagement with Othello so preposterously elusive is the fact that none of these parallels with the play is slavishly maintained throughout the film. (23) Instead, we have a series of fluctuating alignments, in which Shakespearean characteristics shift across multiple Wellesian characters, in which thematic developments are split and recombined in new permutations, in which cinematic mood has as much to do with the Shakespearean quality of the film as do the more direct allusions. It even seems at times that Welles makes gestures toward Othello only to discard them. (24) For instance, early in the film, Susie Vargas is asked twice (once in Spanish, which she does not comprehend, then in English) "if your husband is jealous?" (i) We are thus given the key word, indeed the core theme, of Othello, (25) which never recurs in the film. When Vargas later becomes enraged during the search for his presumably violated wife, we do not sense that this arises from any jealousy, but rather a real concern for her safety. (In this allusive slight of hand, can we sense Welles teasing us? teasing out our prejudices, Shakespearean and otherwise, in order to redirect them?) Thus we are left with the curious result wherein Welles acts even more 'Shakespearean' (that is to say, liberal, agglomerative, careless, and self-interested) in the appropriation of his source than most directors have been in more typically 'faithful' versions of Othello. (26) To paraphrase a statement uttered by the Doctor in Touch of Evil when viewing Linnekar's obliterated body, this is Othello strained through a sieve. There have been many attempts to taxonomize non-traditional Shakespearean adaptations, (27) but none of them quite fit what Welles achieves here. I can think of nothing better than to call this a translation (28) of Shakespeare's play, and an American one at that: Welles has carried Othello over to an entirely brave new world and somehow managed to make it disturbingly native. (29)
There is an unfortunate tendency (to which I am liable myself) in Shakespearean film criticism to revert to recounting rather than analysis. Perhaps this results from the sheer plenitude of information that we could possibly absorb (camera angles, lighting, color, sound effects, music, costumes, blocking, setting, lines cut and scenes reordered [see Bellour]), made all the more dauntingly available through home playback systems. It's as if the very same readers who are quite well versed in dealing with the verbal sophistication of the text become overwhelmed by the abundance of the screen. There is a similar annotative tendency to be found in analyses of Touch of Evil, albeit from a less verbal and more visual/aural perspective. (30) The inclination to focus almost exclusively on the technical (in effect, non-textual) virtuosity that Welles flaunts is understandable (at his best he is, indisputably, cinematically overwhelming), but ultimately disappointing, and, I would argue, contributes to the inability to hear him playing off of Shakespeare. Since Welles's fugal variations on Othello are fundamentally non-linear in their correspondence--indeed, they are radically modulating Shakespeare--let's play along with him, starting not with his first opening note, but rather a peculiar character's interlude, which not only beguiled early American reviewers but was frankly (and thus exceptionally) admitted by Welles to have been composed with deliberately Shakespearean overtones. (31)
The Night Man (Dennis Weaver) has no name. He's a jittery, at times inarticulate motel clerk (at "The Mirador" (32)) who is supposed to be helping Susie get some rest but seems reluctant to fulfill his basic housekeeping duties (making the bed, cleaning up, keeping the register). He strikes us as darkly comical; I take it we are to view him with a combination of bemusement and unease. Just as the Porter in Macbeth provides a curiously effective counterpoint to the recent bloodshed, the Night Man's role would seem to promise a welcome respite (for Susan as well as the audience) from the overheated intensity of the previous night's explosion and investigation. The promise is fleeting, as this "queerly likeable and diverting sort of zany" (Welles Memo) soon becomes a hapless figure, unable to intervene (indeed, entirely unaware of the necessity of intervention) when Susan gets tormented (and, it would at first appear, raped) by a gang of leather-jacketed teens. We later see him, distressed, "embracing a windblown tree like a Shakespearean fool" (Naremore 202) (see fig. 3). Welles admitted as much when he observed that the Night Man was
the complete Shakespearean clown, and like the Shakespearean clowns, somewhat marginal to the story.... [T]he horrific atmosphere by which he is surrounded could not of necessity bring forth anything but a fantastic creature of this kind, an Elizabethan figure, as you say. (Bazin, Bitsch, and Domarchi 65)
[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]
Welles posits here an almost generic necessity for the emergence of the Night Man, akin to that which Kenneth Burke attributed to the appearance of the Porter. (33) As Welles indicates, the closer structural analogue to the role of Porter or Fool in Othello would be the Clown, who, like the Night Man, effectively shuts down music: (i) Weaver defiantly flips off the switch on the motel's blaring speakers in the midst of the physical assault on Susan--turning the relief from the wearying saxophone riffs (a relief again desired by both Susie and the audience) into a chilling silence. And just as the Clown's role in Othello is almost invariably cut in production on account of his seeming incongruity with the tragic tone of the play, Welles admitted (somewhat defensively) that critics tended to be baffled as to the purpose of Weaver's character. (34)
Yet we would be remiss if we failed to identify the Night Man with another more prominent character from Othello. When the Night Man first speaks with Susie, she asks him to turn the music down, since "It's past seven and I haven't been to bed yet." He seems acutely perturbed by this word--"bed"--which becomes the fixation for much of his stammering response:
Bed? Well you can get into it now, I brought the sheets. They think I'm gonna help make it they got another thing comin'! I'm, I'm not gonna be a party to [throws sheets down] nuthin'. I'm the night [bumps into the wall]--uh, it's, it's day already. I'm the night man.--[perturbed, she interrupts:] Have the day man help me make the bed.--There ain't no day man ...--[after more of his rambling, she interrupts again:] But won't you help me make the bed?--[he, with churning features:] Bed?
The Night Man responds as a neurotic anti-Emilia. Rather than obliging her request to put the sheets on the bed, (i) he appears incapable of even contemplating this action. Regardless, the effect in both play and film is similar--the emphatic preparation of the bed (ii) creates a foreboding that some violent act will soon take place there. (This is only the second …