Touch of Shakespeare: Welles Unmoors Othello (1)

By Newstok, Scott L. | Shakespeare Bulletin, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Touch of Shakespeare: Welles Unmoors Othello (1)

Newstok, Scott L., Shakespeare Bulletin

[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).


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. …

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