Although I had heard magnificent performances of Giuseppe Verdi's Otello, I had never seen a stage presentation of Shakespeare's classic drama. Consequently, I was delighted to have an opportunity to see Sir Laurence Olivier in the role of the Moor of Venice. Some critics have said that Othello (Shepperton Studios, England, Stuart Burge) cannot be classified as a motion picture, since it was filmed during an actual performance presented by the National Theatre of Great Britain. Obviously there is merit in this statement. Since the action must be limited to the elaborate settings constructed in the Shepperton Studios, the scope of the camera is circumscribed and lacks mobility. But I am sure that even the most captious critic will agree that this is far and away the most successful of the productions photographed directly from stage presentations. One must regret that, although millions of dollars are readily available for the making of films that are utterly lacking in artistic value, funds were not available for a full-scale motion-picture production of Othello.
Sir Laurence's interpretation of Othello has been widely acclaimed by many critics here and abroad. His characterization of the jealous and tormented husband is not only uniquely his own but is truly magnificent. Frank Finlay's Iago seemed to me to be the acme of subtlety. Here we saw an archvillain who cunningly concealed his hatred and jealousy under the guise of friendship and fidelity, while he coldly and ruthlessly perfected his plot to destroy Othello. Maggie Smith, who appeared with fine success as Desdemona, has been nominated for an Academy award as the best actress in a supporting role. The work of other players in the large cast was not consistently good. Some were excellent; others were less than adequate.
One of the great joys of the occasion was the fact that the Bard's lines were read with complete naturalness and with exemplary clarity. I saw Othello in the company of close to 2,000 high school pupils. How did these young adults react to the play? They were quiet and attentive most of the time. Traffic in the aisles was negligible, and the consumption of food and drink was surprisingly moderate. Apparently Sir Laurence's blacker-than-black makeup was as startling to them as it was to me. But when the shock wore off, as it did, one could lose oneself in the action on the stage. The entire performance had great vitality and forcefully underscored the relevance of the subject matter to any age and any culture.
Speaking of culture, what is happening to ours? The films I have seen recently cannot be classified as contributions to our culture. I was comforted—since I do not want to be out of step with the times—to read that Abe Burrows, a veteran of the theater, is deeply distressed by the new "total theater of shock and raw language." I doubt that anyone who knows anything about Mr. Burrows will call him a sissy or an ultraconservative. He has had a brilliant career as a writer, as a producer, and as a director.
When I see a new film, I am always interested in audience reaction. Two of the pictures I saw recently elicited very little reaction from the audience. Lord Love a Duck (United Artists, George Axelrod) is what is called black comedy. This is the story of a boy who is mentally ill and of his influence on the lives of those about him. Obviously it was George Axelrod's intention to lampoon practically every phase of American life, including the educational system, love, religion, greed, drinking, and even marriage. The result is a disturbing mixture of caustic satire, sardonic humor, irreverence, tragedy, and sheer horror. This is funny?
Repulsion, a foreign film directed by Roman Polanski, takes us into the dark world of a psycopathic girl and the fantasies that torment and ultimately destroy her. Polanski, the young Polish director whose Knife in the Water was widely acclaimed, has fashioned his tale of horror with great skill and with spine-tingling effectiveness. But this film is filled with so much horror, pathos, and tragedy that once again the viewer is not only repelled but is almost overwhelmed. Here again the audience sat in stony silence.
The silver screen is practically crawling with spies these days. Our Man Flint (20th Century-Fox, Daniel Mann) is just one of a number of parodies on the cloak-and-dagger theme. This time our superhero is concerned with a science-fiction plot designed by villainous forces to destroy or to capture the world. The theme song for this nonsense should by "Anything James Bond Can Do I Can Do Better and Bigger, Yes, and Hokier Too."
Where the Spies Are (M-G-M) is simply a dull rehash of a theme that has been done to death.
No one could be in doubt about audience reaction to Never Too Late (Warners, Bud Yorkin). The viewers loved every moment of the film. Sumner Arthur Long's amusing play scored a hit on Broadway, and it is safe to predict that the picture will be a box-office success. I doubt that anyone would call Never Too Late a play of outstanding literary merit.