Saturday, August 27, 2016


Like most of Orson Welles’ later films, Chimes atMidnight has probably been discussed more than it’s been seen. A lengthy, troubled production, followed by a dicey release, the 1966 Shakespearean adaptation has been mostly out of print, seen only at rare screenings and occasionally available on dodgy foreign DVDs. When you could get your hands on it, the copies were plagued with sound problems, the poetry of the original verse lost in hiss and garble. Picture quality was poor, editing choppy--you were lucky to see it, but you never felt like you were really seeing it.

Until last year when Janus Films sent a brand-new restoration out on tour, promising that the best efforts had been made to put Humpty Dumpty back together again; the result was nothing short of remarkable. I managed to catch Chimes at Midnight as a double-feature with Othello, another of the great director’s Shakespeare pictures, itself having gone through its own ordeals. I was astonished by how different the experience was. Finally, here was a Chimes at Midnight I could see and hear clearly and actually absorb.

And it’s that same Chimes that now ends up on Blu-ray/DVD. The image is sharp and rendered with care. The audio is still a bit unnatural sounding, but that’s the fault of Welles’ unorthodox methods. At least every word can now be discerned. And more than ever, Welles aficionados can play that game where they try to guess how many voices in a given scene were dubbed by the maestro himself. There’s a certain tone you can pick up on if you know to listen for it.

But why all the fuss? What is so special about Chimes at Midnight?

Well, besides being Welles’ final fully realized film--as good as it is, F For Fake [review] is more of an experimental lark than a true narrative feature--Chimes at Midnight is a fascinating work of heart and wit, combining bits of multiple Shakespeare plays to make a single, linear story about John Falstaff, one of the Bard’s most enduring characters, a tragic buffoon who steers the early life of Prince Harry, soon to be King Henry V, and has his heart broken when the crown lands on his young pupil’s head. (Fans of My Own Private Idaho will recognize this story as the one Gus Van Sant lifted for his picture.)

Welles himself takes the role of Falstaff, a boozer and a raconteur, a rapscallion and a cad, but also a friend when chips are down. And the butt of many jokes. Young Harry (Keith Foster) spends idle time traveling with Falstaff as a way of avoiding responsibility, sowing his wild oats far from the watchful eye of his father, King Henry IV (Sir John Gielgud, Richard III). When a temperamental rival, Sir Harry “Hotspur” Percy (Norman Rodway), makes a move against the throne, the errant prince must give up childish things and take his rightful position. It’s a job he’s suited for, even if there are a few stumbles still to be had.

In fashioning his script, Welles pulls out all the dualities, the disparity between Falstaff and the King and the similarities between the two Harrys, to create one tale of fathers and sons. The prince is trapped in an adolescent conundrum. He wants to be his own man, but he also wants his father to be proud of him, and so he lashes out in such a way that pretty much makes neither of those things possible. He’s a thoughtless boy who, by the end of the picture, must become a thoughtful man. His opposite, Hotspur, is an example of what happens when you feel too much--even if he is also the jockish all-American every dad supposedly wants. Both sons can’t succeed, but it’s even worse for the fathers: in order for their shared child to proceed, they must, in many senses of the word, die.

At the center of this family drama, nestled between Harry’s pranks and Falstaff’s boasts, Welles enacts a tremendous battle. The two armies meet on a muddy field, coming on horseback and on foot, swinging sword and axes, laying waste to one another with little sense of order or skill. Welles shows the dirty chaos of combat, juxtaposing the brutal consequences with the dark comic relief of Falstaff, stuffed into his heavy armor, getting in over his head. Falstaff brings chaos wherever he goes. War is no different. It’s just no longer can he pantomime his prowess or create the illusion of royal bearing; here, the effects are real and inescapable.

Welles makes Falstaff a well-rounded character. He is funny and laughable, yet also true. He feels deeply, and the excess of his activity matches those feelings. Though often as overbearing as his fictional avatar, Welles can also be a generous performer. His reactions while others speak can embolden their performances in a way only a good director likely knows how. He’s servicing the story and not himself. Watch, for instance, his interaction with Jeanne Moreau (The Lovers [review]), who plays the whore Doll Tearsheet, and how his love and concern for her makes her seem all the more real. Their romance aches. Thus, when Falstaff’s heart gets broken, ours breaks a little too. Even if we know he kind of deserves it after how he tried to embarrass Harry and take credit for his accomplishments in front of the Prince’s true father.

Welles’ agile style keeps Chimes at Midnight from being a stodgy retelling. He crafts a Shakespeare that moves. In many of the best scenes, he balances the opposing sides, placing the camera high or low based on who is in power. When Hotspur addresses his troops, they must look up, as if he towers over them. Likewise, during the coronation scene, Welles and his cameraman, Edmond Richmond (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [review]), exaggerate the distance and height between the new King Henry V and his onetime mentor to show how low Falstaff has fallen, and how far apart the pair have swiftly become. There is also a great use of back and forth, particularly in the battle sequences, when we have two sides rushing from opposite ends, and Falstaff hilariously charging back and forth between. Welles understands the size of the screen, be it a wide survey of a battlefield or an extreme close-up in the most intimate of moments (death), he fills it with essential detail.

And for additional details on the production, the Criterion disc of Chimes at Midnight comes with new interviews, including chats with Keith Baxter (Prince Harry) and Orson’s daughter Beatrice, who appeared in the film as a child and worked on the reconstruction. Critical and scholarly features include two interviews with Welles biographers and a new audio commentary. The man himself shows up in a 1965 episode of The Merv Griffin Show.

The return of Chimes at Midnight is another victory of the DVD age, another case of a film thought lost restored to its full power. Don’t take this for granted. Many have been waiting decades for just a glimpse of Orson Welles’ great masterwork, and now here it is at your fingertips. Grab a good drink, hit play, and enjoy.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

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