Screen Gems Chimes at Midnight
CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, Shakespeare mashup, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles
I once passed Orson Welles in the narrow hallway of an editing complex in Paris. That is to say, I ducked into a room and let him pass. He filled the hallway.
He fills the screen in Chimes at Midnight (1966), his last completed feature film (there are a number of unfinished Welles projects, including The Other
Side of the Wind, shot off and on between 1970 and 1976; a push is currently underway to complete and release it). And his great girth, impressive as it is, is the least of the elements with which Welles dominates this gem of a movie. His portrayal of Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare’s outsized, wily, endearing, boastful, and morally shape-shifting rogue, is one of the great screen performances.
Welles directed and wrote the screenplay, cobbling together the Falstaff material from five of the Bard’s plays: Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2, Henry V, Richard II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. (There are also brief bits of narration from Holinshed’s Chronicles, a prime Shakespeare source, voiced by Ralph Richardson.) The film was financed and shot in Spain, where Welles retreated after burning bridges and backers in Hollywood. Raising the money to complete it was a constant struggle, and those financial straits are most felt in the soundtrack, which suffers from inconsistent quality of volume and post-syncing.
Welles’ money troubles extended to the IRS, which tracked him down late one night at his editing suite in Spain, the film’s editor, Fritz Muller, told Pasatiempo. While his young editor delayed the agents in conversation at the door, Welles squeezed his bulk through a small window, shinnied down a drainpipe, and fled into the hills.
If he scrimped on live sound, there are few shortcomings evident in the rest of the production. The black-and-white cinematography by Edmond Richard i s crisp and dramatic, light and shadow slicing the darkness with the electrical charge of lightning piercing the night sky. In Citize en
Kane, t he novice Welles annd his veteran cinematographer Gregg Toland had pushed thhe envelope on a slew of cinematic techniques, including low-light photography, deep focus, and low- angle setups that brought high ceilings into play. A quarter century later, Welles called ono his accumulated mastery of thhe craft to turn a shoestring budget into visual magnificence.
The story of Chimes at Midnigh ht is one of friendship and betrayal. Prince Hal (an excellent Keith Baxter) is the heir to the English throne, but spends his time carousing with a pack of whores and wastrels, hosted by the tavern keeper Mistress Quickly (Margaret Rutherford), andd led by theh largerthan-life figure of Falstaff. Hal is the despair of his father the king ( John Gielgud, haughty, regal, and movingly troubled), who wishes his son were more like the spirited Harry “Hotspur” Percy (Norman Rodway). The betrayals between Hal and Falstaff are constant and mutual, but they are leavened with a spirit of mischief and sport, until the terrible final break.
The performances (including a young Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet and a gaunt Alan Webb as Justice Shallow) are indelible, but t he most talked- about sequence in the movie is the Battle of Shrewsbury, often cited as one of the great antiwar scenes on film. With fewer than 200 extras to work with, Welles turned them into a cast of thousands, as cavalry and foot soldiers charge through the shifting mists, and clash, and die in grotesque heaps in tthe mud and snow. Hundreds of hhours of footage shot over a 10-- day stretch were whittled down and cut up into a searing six--minute battle scene.
Here is Muller again: “The battle of Shrewsbury material was so much that I had to ask Orson to go away for a month and let me sort it out. Remember that he filmed without a continuity person, and often also without a slate board, hence [there was] no [frame of] reference. Additionaly there was no proper script. So the material had to be sorted outt and ‘ sourced.’ Orson obliged me and went to Seville to enjoy bullfighting while I edited the material of the battle. When he came back, we sat ddown andd looked at iit over and over again, and in actual fact he asked only some very few changes.”
Welles cited Chimes at Midnight as his favorite of all his films. “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up.” Falstaff was the role he seemed born to play. With his antic genius for storytelling, his enormous ego, his self-destructive financial irresponsibility, and his gluttonous appetites, Welles fits the Falstaffian mold.
The movie was greeted with a tepid response upon its original release, although it won some awards at Cannes. It has since rebounded in critical esteem, and is now considered one of Welles’ masterpieces. It has been out of circulation for decades, hostage to legal wrangling. Now it’s back, refurbished, polished, and in all its glory. Welles would be pleased. So, no doubt, would Falstaff.