Chimes at Midnight
Like Falstaff, Orson Welles burst onto the cinematic scene seemingly fully formed. 1941’s Citizen Kane, frequently thought of as the greatest film ever made, has everything we think of as Wellesian–brilliant audio, dramatic filmmaking, emotional heft underpinned by an element of tongue-in-cheek camp. Welles, who was 26 when the film was made, had been a dramatic force since at least his teens and gives an utterly convincing performance in which is character spans decades. When he plays Charles Foster Kane, the man who had childhood stolen, we wonder if Welles had a childhood at all.
But that Falstaffian talent for gravitas and entertainment, even if it did arrive in Kane nearly complete, was one that he would refine for 30 years, peaking perhaps with 1965’s Chimes at Midnight, in which the director could resist playing his Shakespearean equal no longer. The film, called Falstaff on its initial release and in some countries, takes elements of five of the Bard’s plays and edits them together to tell the story of the ascension of King Henry V from the perspective of his good friend, Sir John Falstaff (this remixing to more prominently feature what is effectively a supporting character, had been done before, most famously in Verdi’s 1893 opera Falstaff).
In Chimes at Midnight, Welles constructs one of his most visually stunning masterpieces. Too many Shakespeare movies fail because they don’t know how to handle the language, Welles tells the story in an expressionistic tableau of images that the script (edited by Welles but entirely Shakespeare’s) is almost vestigial, as blasphemous as that might seem. But even with the film on mute, who could not understand the loneliness of John Gielgud’s Henry IV, a lion in winter, languishing in disappointment at the end of his reign in a castle that Welles has shot like a jail? Who cannot contrast that with the life that pours out of Falstaff, the crowd he seems to draw to him? Welles puts himself in a cavernous tavern with majestic high ceilings just to prove that Falstaff alone can fill it. What ambiguity can there be on the face of Keith Baxter, playing prince Hal in his transition from roguish ne’er-do-well to stoic king of the realm? For that is what this story is, Hal’s chrysalis into Henry, sacrificing his humanity at the call of the divine. Welles does this visually, taking Baxter and the audience from the bright forests of Falstaff to the dark but important halls of Henry IV. Baxter, an otherwise forgettable screen actor, is a revelation here precisely because he’s in the hands of a man who understands how to shoot Shakespeare. On a stage, a soliloquy is for the audience, but watch Baxter deliver key lines about his future early in the film, discussing his eventual reform into royalty. “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill, redeeming time when men think least I will,” he says, facing the camera but with Falstaff poignantly behind him, listening. It is the nature of their relationship he is discussing and Welles knows that both men need to be on screen for it.
The film bristles with great images, it’s chaotic Battle of Shrewsbury has hardly been equaled before or since in terms of anti-war sentiment and Welles’ remarkable use of deep focus, so essential to Kane’s success, is in full bloom here. Watch how Hal emerges from the back of the frame to come to dominate it in the moment he learns of his father’s death, the moment he must put away childish thing to assume royalty. And watch how Welles gives himself, always a larger than life figure, the stature of a church mouse, groveling in agony at the feet of king who doesn’t acknowledge him. These are the moments, as great as any Welles ever directed, that stay with anyone who has seen Chimes of Midnight.
Unfortunately, the number of people who have is far too small. Panned on its initial release and tied up for decades because of rights disputes (many of which are of Welles’ making, in Falstaffian fashion he lied, stole and cheated to get the movie made, in one case telling a producer he would shoot a Treasure Island film for him if he could shoot Chimes at the same time, so he hired extras and had sets made that could conceivable used for both films only he had no intention of making Treasure Island and never did any work for it) the movie has rarely been shown theatrically (I’ve only ever seen it on YouTube, where it’s picture and audio quality are subpar) and, in fact, a home video version for American machines has never been released in any format. That, thanks to the saints at Janus Films, is changing. The film has been restored, apparently sounds better than it ever has (no film sounds like a Welles film) and is being distributed by bookings across the country. One of those bookings is this Thursday at the Fleur Cinema in Des Moines at 7:00pm, presented in conjunction with Des Moines Metro Opera, which is offering the screening in advance of their production of Verdi’s opera this summer. This is an exceptionally rare treat for film and Shakespeare fans, an unseen masterpiece by the master of visual storytelling. Chimes at Midnight is not to be missed. If you manage to see a better movie in a theater in 2016, we are in for a remarkable year at the movies.