Welles was one of the few theater and film directors who was not afraid to
tinker with Shakespeare’s texts. It must have been the confidence that came
from being a prodigy. He would therefore be the logical person to adapt and
helm a “Reader’s Digest” version of Shakespeare, but he still
went way over-budget on his 1969 television production of The Merchant of Venice, forcing CBS to walk away and cut their
losses. Long considered lost and unfinished, Welles’ version has been restored
and pieced together from disparate sources by the Munich Filmmuseum. The
remarkably coherent and satisfyingly Wellesian Merchant of Venice screened last night at MoMA as part of the 2015 To Save and Project International Festival of Preservation’s Unknown Welles
part of a full presentation on Welles in a Shakespearean bag, Filmmuseum
director Stefan Droessler also screened a number of interview segments,
television guest appearances, and fragments that never really went anywhere,
but still involved Shakespeare. It is probably safe to say Welles is the only
actor to perform Shakespeare on the Dean
Martin Show, Ed Sullivan Show, and I
Love Lucy. Nevertheless, Welles’ Shylock was the centerpiece.
Welles unambiguously molds Merchant into
Shylock’s story. There is only one brief cutaway to Belmont, with the rest was
set in glorious Venice, conveniently starring Welles himself as the despised
money-lender. Aside from a rather jaunty opening, in which Welles triumphantly
returns to Venice (where he also shot Othello)
lounging in a gondola, the film is probably the closest in tone to Welles’ The Trial. The entire city seems to be
conspiring against Shylock, while wearing sinister carnival masks that weirdly
bring to mind Eyes Wide Shut.
Welles lost part of the audio track and the negatives, so the Filmmuseum restoration
team frequently relied on a 1938 Mercury Theater production initially released
as an enormous multi-record set in the days before LPs to fill in audio gaps.
Believe it or not, it is not as jarring as it sounds. Unfortunately, they had
to resort to inter-titles in occasional spots, but never during a critical dramatic
moment. Most importantly, Merchant reflects
Welles’ unmistakable sense of visual composition. Even when working in color he
creates some starkly striking images.
Filmmuseum’s restoration recently premiered at this year’s Venice International
Film Festival, but it is strange it was not immediately snapped up by someone.
Welles’ performance is as strong in Merchant
as in any of his later works and his signature style remained undiminished.
In this case, the cobbled together restoration should further burnish his
reputation. It is too good to simply return to the vault, so Welles fans should
keep an eye for it. It was also a great way to kick-off the Unknown Welles
sidebar, which continues through Sunday (11/22) at MoMA.
Labels: Orson Welles, Shakespeare on film, To Save and Project '15