Welles still runs deep
CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT Directed by Orson Welles. Starring Orson Welles, Keith Baxter, John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford, Marina Vlady. Club, IFI, Dublin, 119 min
You can’t talk about Orson Welles without using superlatives. This Welles film was the greatest this or that. This other Welles film was the most impressive whatever-you-like. Let us continue the tradition by naming Chimes at Midnight as the best ever Shakespeare movie. To avoid confusion, we’re including only those that speak the actual text. So, no Ran, Throne of Blood or (oh, why not?) 10 Things I Hate About You.
The trick, of course, is to show the viewer you have a purpose in translating the play into this medium. Welles had earlier made something cinematic of Macbeth and Othello, but his version of Falstaff’s story from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 had greater cohesion, greater breadth and revealed less evidence of its typically troubled birth in the final product.
Welles was still just about in his 40s when he made the film, but years of stress and overindulgence had already turned him into a suitable candidate for the great swollen rogue of English literature. Welles considered Falstaff Shake- speare’s greatest creation and there is something in that. Nobody else in the oeuvre is allowed to spout quite so much wisdom couched as quite so much baloney. Nobody else has such a poignant end. Notwithstanding Iago’s mischief, Falstaff steals the play from the title character like nobody else in English literature.
Edmond Richard, later to do acclaimed work with Buñuel, shot the film in gorgeous distressed black and white over two difficult years in Spain. The various supporting players – John Gielgud is wonderfully stoic as Henry IV; Margaret Rutherford is the definitive Mistress Quickly – were flown in to do their bit and then flown out while the film was practically still in the camera. Welles laughed that virtually every shot from behind was of a stand in.
Still, it’s hard to imagine how it could have worked out better. Oh, and it’s also Welles’s second best film.
Orson Welles as Falstaff