Fri, 08 Dec 2023

Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff)

Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles (based on the plays by William Shakespeare)
Stars: Orson Welles (John Falstaff), Keith Baxter (Prince Hal), Jeanne Moreau (Doll Tearsheet), Margaret Rutherford (Mistress Quickly), John Gielgud (King Henry IV), Norman Rodway (Sir Henry "Hotspur" Percy), Marina Vlady (Lady Kate Percy), Walter Chiari (Justice Silence), Michael Aldridge (Pistol), Tony Beckley (Poins), Alan Webb (Justice Shallow), Jos Nieto (Earl of Northumberland), Fernando Rey (Earl of Worcester), Beatrice Welles (The young page), Ralph Richardson (Narrator)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1966
Country: Spain / Switzerland
Chimes at Midnight Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Chimes at Midnight

Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff), the third and final of Orson Welles's three Shakespeare films, is one of the fiercely independent filmmaker's greatest late-stage accomplishments-a very nearly magnificent amalgam of plot points, characters, and dialogue from not just one or two of the Bard's history plays, but five of them-Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor-along with narration adapted from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, which is read by the great Ralph Richardson. It is a film that Welles had been working toward for more than three decades, having tried a version in 1931 called Winter of Our Discontent when he was still a teenager at the Todd School for Boys, an overly ambitious and ultimately disastrous would-be Broadway production in 1939 titled Five Kings, and finally a version titled Chimes at Midnight that he staged in 1960 in Dublin.

Welles had long been fascinated by John Falstaff, a character who is often thought of as a ruffian, a disrupter, a buffoonish force of nature, but who Welles saw as a "Shakespeare's good, pure man," whose many flaws pale in comparison to both the flaws of those around him and to his own better qualities. Welles's particular genius was to take Shakespeare's history plays and strip them down to their essential tale of a son torn between his regal father and his free-wheeling mentor and friend. In the grand scale of things, Shakespeare was documenting in dramatic form the shift from medieval chivalry to modern politics, but Welles was primarily intrigued by the human dimension, which in some ways reflected his own tormented conscience regarding the death of his alcoholic father, who he abandoned in an attempt to force him to sober up, only to drive him deeper into the bottle.

The film centers on the evolving relationship among Prince Hal (Keith Baxter, who also played the role in the Dublin stage production), his father King Henry IV (John Gielgud, arguably the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation), and his best friend and surrogate father John Falstaff (Orson Welles). Hal is a kind of prodigal son, spending his time boozing and womanizing at the bawdy Boar's Head Tavern with Falstaff and his company of lay-abouts and prostitutes while King Henry laments his son's lack of interest in being a responsible leader. For Welles, Falstaff was a boisterous, bumbling, but ultimately genuine force of life, a man who was interested primarily in carnality and rich living and was constantly out of money and having to spin ever-more fantastic fibs to cover up his various failures. Welles cuts an imposing figure as Falstaff, wielding his enormous body and paunchy face and thick beard with a sense of grotesque vitality that is infectious. You can't help but appreciate and even admire Falstaff's genuine sense of life (particularly the way he carouses and conflicts with Jeanne Moreau's maternal prostitute Doll Tearsheet), which contrasts with King Henry's moody solemnity and imperiousness. The irony, of course, is that Henry, for all his apparent propriety and importance, is an illegitimate monarch who stole the throne through violence via the murder of Richard II and must now work politically to legitimize his rule and Hal's eventual ascension to the throne. His lies are insidious because they are cloaked in honor, while Falstaff wears his as goofy fun. That Hal eventually rejects Falstff in favor of his father's power is what qualifies the film as a genuine tragedy and one of Welles's most heartfelt paeans to love and loss. Falstaff is, at heart, something of a child, which is why his rejection carries such agony.

Like all of Welles's post-Hollywood films, Chimes at Midnight is an unavoidably flawed work forged out of the combined limitations of time, money, and physical resources. Welles often didn't have his actors for more than a few weeks at a time, and he was forced to shoot all their lines and then fill out the scenes with stand-ins whose backs were turned to the camera. Most of the sound was recorded in post-production, which had its own technical limitations that resulted in dialogue being out of synch or being recorded in an environment that did not match the spatial relations we see on screen. Yet, even with those limitations, Chimes at Midnight is still an impressive work, very nearly bursting with memorable imagery and a sense of energy that rarely wanes. The streamlined nature of the storytelling and its focus on the interpersonal gives it an intimacy and a human dimension that it would have lacked had Welles gone with a more ambitious attempt to combine all or even much of the political and royal intrigue of Shakespeare's history plays. Instead, he keeps just enough of the necessary background to give shape to the inner workings of the Falstaff-Hal-Henry triangle, but without being burdensome.

Visually, Chimes at Midnight is another of Welles's sumptuous feasts for the eyes, full of impressive framing, virtuoso camera movement (both highly controlled and purposefully chaotic), expressive camera angles, and beautiful high-contrast lighting. The cinematographer, Edmond Richard, had previously shot Welles's The Trial (1962), and he would go on to shoot Luis Buuel's final three films (1972's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise, 1974's The Phantom of Liberty, and 1977's That Obscure Object of Desire). While the film's sound is marred with technical issues and flaws, its imagery is consistently outstanding, lending a sense of the epic that has otherwise been discarded by the pared down narrative. The sets, which were intended to double for a film version of Treasure Island that Welles was supposed to be developing simultaneously, give the impression of a production much larger and more expensive that it was (Welles was able to convince Spanish producer Emiliano Piedra to fund the film because he promised to do it "on the cheap").

The film is also notable for its hellacious "Battle of Shrewsbury" sequence, when Henry's forces go against the forces amassed by Henry "Hotspur" Percy (Norman Rodway), who claims to be the rightful heir to the throne. The battle, which is agonizingly long and incredibly violent, is unlike anything else that Welles had done up until that point. A carefully crafted montage of mud and blood and spears and swords and excruciating screams and bulging eyes and falling bodies, it brings to mind the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) or the final battle in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) in its physical intensity and its almost abstract conveyance of battlefield bloodshed; we are literally watching the death of honor and chivalry played out in epic terms. As a stand-alone sequence, it is a force of cinematic might, but it also acts as a crucial turning point in the film, where Falstaff's ribald joviality and penchant for grandiose falsity is turned against him. It is at this point that Hal takes his first major step away from his surrogate father figure and toward his real father, which will eventually culminate in what is perhaps Shakespeare's most piercing line of dialogue, through which he fully rejects Falstaff and all that he stands for: "I know thee not, old man."

Chimes at Midnight Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Aspect Ratio1.66:1

  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish

  • Audio by featuring film scholar James Naremore
  • Video interview with actor Keith Baxter
  • Video interview with director Orson Welles's daughter Beatrice Welles
  • Video interview with actor and Welles biographer Simon Callow
  • Video interview with film historian Joseph McBride
  • Interview with Welles while at work editing the film, from a 1965 episode of The Merv Griffin Show
  • Trailer
  • Essay by film scholar Michael Anderegg
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateAugust 30, 2016

    Criterion's audio and video presentation of Chimes at Midnight is based on the 2009 film restoration, and the transfer was made from the original 35mm camera negative and a 35mm optical soundtrack element. As with many of Orson Welles's later films, Chimes has not been well represented on home video, especially in Region 1, so having such a beautiful presentation finally available is a real dream. The image is gorgeously rendered, maintaining the original film texture while emphasizing the intensity of the high-contrast cinematography; blacks are dark, whites are bright, and detail is strong. There is very little in the way or age or wear visible. The long-derided soundtrack, presented here in Linear PCM monaural, certainly betrays its inherent limitations and sometimes shoddy synchronization, but it is clean and clear. Like all of Criterion's Orson Welles releases, Chimes at Midnight is heavily loaded with supplements, beginning with an excellent audio commentary by film scholar James Naremore, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles (Naremore previously contributed to a commentary on Criterion's Mr. Arkadin DVD). There are also several new video interviews: one with actor Keith Baxter (30 min.), who discusses his experiences playing Prince Hal under Welles's direction on both stage and screen; one with Welles's daughter Beatrice Welles (15 min.), who had a small role in the film at age 9; actor and historian Simon Callow (30 min.), who has written a three-volume biography of Welles and who played Falstaff opposite Baxter as King Henry IV in a 1998 production of the stage version of Chimes at Midnight; and one with film historian Joseph McBride (27 min.), author of What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, about the film's adaptation of Shakespeare and its troubled reception. From the archives we have an excerpt from a 1965 episode of The Merv Griffin Show (11 min.) that shows Welles editing the film and a trailer.

    Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)


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