Screen Gems Chimes at Mid­night

CHIMES AT MID­NIGHT, Shake­speare mashup, not rated, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 4 chiles

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Jonathan Richards

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.

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