Orson Welles really made his reputation
staging Shakespeare, particularly the “Voodoo Macbeth” produced for the Federal
Theatre Project. Unfortunately, it was another Shakespearean production that perfectly
symbolized the auteur’s mid-1960s fall from critical favor. In retrospect, it
is rather embarrassing The New York Times that was more preoccupied
with Welles’ girth than his artistic vision. It is worth remembering the next
time the editorial page decides to give us a lecture on civility. Still, a lot
of people missed the boat on Welles’ Falstaff and rights conflicts made it
difficult for more appreciative later generations to catch up with it. Happily,
the Welles’ under-heralded Chimes at
Midnight (trailer here)
gets a special, restored DCP limited engagement, starting exclusively this
Friday in New York at Film Forum.
Don’t hold your breath for St. Crispin’s Day.
This is Falstaff’s story, not Prince Hal’s. Never shy about reworking Shakespeare,
Welles basically plundered Falstaff’s greatest hits for the Henriad cycle, throwing in a few line
here and there from The Merry Wives of
Winsor. However, the guts of the film come from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, focusing on Prince Hal’s competing
loyalties to two father figures, the hedonistic yet strangely gallant Sir John
Falstaff and his severe father, Henry IV. Falstaff is way more fun, but the
King represents his future.
Aware the Lancasters’ claim to the throne is
iffy at best, the King would be much relieved to see Prince Hal start to take
his duties more seriously. Instead, he prefers to carouse in bawdy houses with
Falstaff and the more polished but just as disreputable Ned Poins.
Unfortunately, his profligacy only encourages rebellion among the nobility, who
have rallied behind the dashing and popular Sir Henry Percy, a.k.a. Harry Hotspur,
as their champion. Prince Hal cuts a poor figure beside him.
As for Falstaff’s figure, it is impressive, in
its way. As the Times so brutally
pointed out, you can’t spell Falstaff without an “f,” “a,” and “t.” Yet, there
is more to Welles’ Sir John than the low comedy we associate with the
reprobate. It is like he is a metaphor for Welles’ own career. Shticky on the
outside, like the persona hosting Nostradamus documentaries and Paul Masson
wine commercials, but he was heroic on the inside, like the director who
labored for years to complete Don Quixote.
Just like Falstaff, Welles was once the toast of Hollywood and a critical
darling, but the establishment would turn against him in his later years, much
like Prince Hal will inevitably renounce his friendship with Falstaff.
Whether Welles consciously identified with
Falstaff on that level scarcely matters. It is still all there on the screen,
in all its glorious pathos. Without question, Welles is the definitive Falstaff,
puffed up with bluster, but achingly sensitive on the inside. His love for the
Prince feels absolutely, painfully real.
Keith Baxter is also a minor revelation as
Prince Hal. Probably better known for his stage work, Baxter is electric as he
young prince. He might just be the coldest, most ruthless Prince Hal/Henry V
seen on film, arguably bordering on the sociopathic. Yet, the great Sir John
Gielgud might just upstage everyone, Welles included, as the ascetically noble
and remorseful Henry IV. Even though most people automatically harken back to Arthur whenever his name is dropped, Chimes might be the best film to
remember him by. Welles only had two weeks with Gielgud, but they made every
second count. As a bonus, Jeanne Moreau also finds the earthy dignity in Dolly
Tearsheet, Falstaff’s favorite “hostess.”
Chimes is a major Wellesian work that takes his
signature visual flair to an even higher level. Every frame is a work of art,
but the gritty grace and caustic wit of the ensemble performances remain
incisive throughout. Wonderfully stylish and elegiac, Chimes at Midnight should be considered a worthy film in Welles
canon. Very highly recommended, it opens New Year’s Day at Film Forum.
Labels: Orson Welles, Shakespeare on film, Sir John Gielgud