Chimes at Midnight Blu-ray Review

Beautifully sustained examination of a classic Shakespearean character 4.5 Stars

Orson Welles’ remarkable meshing and mangling of five Shakespearean plays to achieve the story of Sir John Falstaff makes Chimes at Midnight one of his most unusual and ambitious cinematic enterprises.

Chimes at Midnight (1965)
Released: 17 Mar 1967
Rated: NOT RATED
Runtime: 115 min
Director: Orson Welles
Genre: Comedy, Drama, History
Cast: Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford, John Gielgud
Writer(s): William Shakespeare (plays), Raphael Holinshed (book), Orson Welles
Plot: The career of Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff as roistering companion to young Prince Hal, circa 1400-1413.
IMDB rating: 8.0
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Criterion
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Audio: English PCM 1.0 (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 56 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 08/30/2016
MSRP: $39.95

The Production: 4.5/5

Orson Welles’ remarkable meshing and mangling of five Shakespearean plays to achieve the story of Sir John Falstaff makes Chimes at Midnight one of his most unusual and ambitious cinematic enterprises. Brilliantly cast and shot, as was customary for Welles in his later years, on a shoestring, Chimes at Midnight captures the best of Welles both as an actor and as a director in the last full flowering of his talent as a filmmaker.

Enmeshed in a civil uprising which he fears will lead to a war between rival factions, King Henry IV (John Gielgud) is further burdened by his rapscallion son Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) neglecting his duties as the Prince of Wales in order to caterwaul at all hours of the day and night with the bawdy clown John Falstaff (Orson Welles) and other people of lower rank and breeding. Loving Falstaff as he does, Hal is still aware, however, that his days of carefree youth are rapidly coming to an end, and if war does break out with the fiery Henry “Hotspur” Percy (Norman Rodway) leading the rebels, he’ll have to represent the Crown in battle, an event that could mark the turning point between his joyful, youthful exuberance and the contingencies of assuming a royal title.

Orson Welles’ amalgamation of various bits from five Shakespearean plays: the two parts of Henry IV, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor form the basis of his screenplay though lines have been shifted, occasionally given to other characters, and generally assorted to achieve the film’s pretty secure through line. The script rather neatly concentrates on the bawdy revelries in its first half (with occasional ominous ruminations from the rebel side and Henry IV’s distress at his son’s inappropriate non-princely behaviors) and a more sobering tone in the second half beginning with Welles’ magnificent staging of the Battle of Shrewsbury in which Hal defeats Hotspur and quells the rebellion and his gradual realization (once Falstaff takes ill-gotten credit for downing Hotspur) that the drunken, clownish rounder isn’t thinking in terms of Hal’s best interests. The battle scenes are unlike anything else in Welles’ film canon, and even with some lapses in continuity, it’s still an eye-opening sequence filled with some vividly raw, unforgettable images edited together in startling fashion. Welles also makes use of the camera for an amazing string of close-ups of all of his principals often filling the frame with their visages casting a lingering impression of various people’s gallantry or hedonism or mockery or sincerity. And Hal and Falstaff’s final scene together is one for the ages: a beautifully acted and meticulously framed back-and-forth between two skilled actors whose faces tell the whole story: love forsaken for duty and heartiness turned to heartbreak.

John Falstaff was a role Orson Welles was born to play, so it’s very fortunate that Welles was able to scrape together enough money to see his dream role come to fruition on the screen (he had played this older version of Falstaff in a couple of playdates in Ireland in 1960). Portly enough to do the character proud and filled with the bluster, fun, and mischief while at the same time able to be the butt of a joke and laugh about it and express distress when Hal abandons their revelries, Welles’ Falstaff is among his greatest-ever performances. Keith Baxter offers a very touching and noble Prince Hal, fun-loving and frisky in the early going but coming to the realization of the demands of noble rank in beautifully played scenes with John Gielgud who breathes the Shakespearean verse as if it were his native speech patterns. Jeanne Moreau gets second billing as Doll Tearsheet, the prostitute who pops into a couple of scenes set in the public house with owner Mistress Quickly always complaining about funds owed, a role that the great Margaret Rutherford plays straightforwardly without irony or the occasional mugging she was famous for. These brief excerpts from the lackluster comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor were dragged in since Falstaff is also a character in the comedy, but the real crux of the film, the young Hal choosing between devoted camaraderie and royal duty, didn’t really need the intrusion of these two great actresses despite their star power. Norman Rodway makes a brilliant Hotspur, and Tony Beckley is most agreeable as Hal’s drinking companion Ned Poins. Alan Webb and Walter Chiari are appropriate clownish companions for the drunken charms of Falstaff while Fernando Rey as Worcester is also fine. Look for Patrick Bedford in a few small bits scattered through the movie (he’s billed as Paddy Bedford).

Video: 4.5/5

3D Rating: NA

The film’s original 1.66:1 aspect ratio is faithfully presented in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Apart from one little blip of damage, the imagery is quite wonderful throughout. While black levels aren’t the deepest on display and long shots are occasionally a little softer than one might hope, there is plenty of detail to be seen in hair and facial features in close-ups and good shadow detail in the scenes that feature lower levels of light. The movie has been divided into 25 chapters.

Audio: 3/5

The soundtrack has always been the most problematic aspect of Chimes at Midnight, the part of the film where its small budget is most evident. Though engineers have cleaned away any age-related problems with hiss and crackle, the film’s original sound design, post synch work, and mixing are still very inconsistent. There are moments when you’ll need to turn on subtitles because dialogue hasn’t been recorded at proper levels (the film was post-synched, so you’ll see quite a few instances where words don’t quite match lip movements) and the dialogue is difficult to hear. Likewise the music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino which sometimes seems more present and forward than at other times when it’s barely discernible.

Special Features: 5/5

Audio Commentary: film historian James Naremore, an expert on the films of Orson Welles, offers an interesting if not often enough fact-laden commentary track. Fans of the movie will definitely want to hear what Naremore has to say though he sometimes resorts to simply describing on-screen activity.

Keith Baxter Interview (29:49, HD): like all of the interviews on the disc recorded in 2016, the actor remembers getting cast in the stage version of Chimes at Midnight and Welles’ insistence on his doing it again in the movie. He also recalls fondly his working with both Welles and John Gielgud, actors whom he greatly admired.

Beatrice Welles Interview (14:40, HD): the daughter of the actor-writer-director, she played the page boy in the film and recalls memories of growing up with her famous father and her work on the picture (even though her voice was dubbed by a male actor when the movie was post synched).

Simon Callow Interview (31:41, HD): Welles biographer Simon Callow offers something of an analysis of the movie’s themes and techniques along with production notes on the filming.

Joseph McBride Interview (26:44, HD): critic and film historian Joseph McBride describes experiences of first viewing the picture and his later memorable encounter with Orson Welles after he had written a glowing critique of the movie for a film quarterly.

The Merv Griffin Show (11:07, HD): an excerpt from a 1965 episode of the interview program as Welles discusses his upcoming movie Chimes at Midnight as he edits it and also discusses highlights from his career including Citizen Kane and The War of the Worlds on radio.

Theatrical Trailer (1:50, HD)

Folded Pamphlet: contains a cast and crew list, information on the transfer, and film scholar Michael Anderegg’s astute analysis of the movie.

Timeline: can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.

Overall: 4.5/5

One of the least seen Shakespearean films in the history of modern cinema, Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight is also one of the best, a rousing and touching examination into the eccentrically tragicomic character of Sir John Falstaff. The Criterion Blu-ray release offers the best-ever rendition of the problematic work even if a few audio quirks still hamper one’s enjoyment just a little. Still, highly recommended!

Published by

Matt Hough

administrator

20 Comments

  1. Matt:I cannot wait to purchase this title at the next 50% Off Criterion sale at Barnes and Nobel.  Thank you for yet another insightful and well-composed review.Sean

  2. Orson said this was his favorite film he directed so very happy that Criterion released this great film on Blu-ray. Purchased this and The Immortal Story so I will have a nice double feature when I get them.

  3. Oh that this was a region free release!  Our recent region B Mr Bongo UK release has been widely panned.With UHD discs being region free, why can't we have the same for Blu Ray…..?

  4. Oh that this was a region free release!  Our recent region B Mr Bongo UK release has been widely panned.With UHD discs being region free, why can't we have the same for Blu Ray…..?

    I have that Mr. Bongo release as well. The main problem is that the contrast is too low, and everything is shades of gray and washed out. If you bump up the contrast on your monitor, it looks (and sounds) pretty good.This is one of my favorite Welles and Shakespeare films. After decades of waiting for a quality release, I have already pre-ordered it.

  5. Oh that this was a region free release!  Our recent region B Mr Bongo UK release has been widely panned.

    With UHD discs being region free, why can't we have the same for Blu Ray…..?

    The region coding of DVDs and Blu-rays has always been really frustrating. A region-free player for blu-rays is – unfortunately – the only way to go for us over on this side of the pond – most classic and catalogue films on blu ray are released and region-locked by boutique companies now. Even way, way back in the bad ol' days of VHS, I went over to New York to purchase a US Panasonic Super-VHS player, in order to play US NTSC tapes that were unavailable in the UK (and during the video nasty era, there was a major incentive for a horror film fan to get hold of uncensored tapes from the US!). Even though quite a lot of the same films are published by different companies for region 'A' and 'B', there will usually be one region that has a better option – either the transfer or extras. The Criterion Collection's Kurosawa and Bergman blu-ray titles are far better than the BFI versions. The forthcoming region 'A' Shout! Factory's Midnight Run has a much better transfer than the region 'B' version. As Mr Bongo holds the region 'B' rights to Falstaff/Chimes Of Midnight, it is doubtful that Criterion will release a region 'B' version. StudioCanal, Masters Of Cinema and the BFI also have region 'B' titles that are superior to their region 'A' versions. Amazon.co.uk sell a multi region Sony BDP-S5500 for £189. The Oppo BDP 103D is much more expensive at £600, but it really is a fantastic player and has a Darbee processor built in to boot. I've had two Oppo players and have no complaints. In January, Oppo said that they were developing a 4K player

    http://www.thedigitalbits.com/columns/my-two-cents/011216_1630

    The fact that 4K discs are region free is a huge improvement. However, it remains to be seen how many classic and catalogue titles are released in 4K.

  6. As Mr Bongo holds the region 'B' rights to Falstaff/Chimes Of Midnight, it is doubtful that Criterion will release a region 'B' version. StudioCanal, Masters Of Cinema and the BFI also have region 'B' titles that are superior to their region 'A' versions.

    Having had my fingers burnt with the BFI 'Citizen Kane' recent-ish Blu Ray release, you are right that it is the quality of the transfer that is important.  Now if Criterion were region free and all we had to do was import them…!:)

    I don't want to change my Blu Ray player yet as I'm waiting for 4K to settle down a bit.  Even here, I suspect that UHD players are region specific which will control the playing of backwards-compatible Blu Rays…..

    And yes, I would be nice to have an Oppo!

  7. I noticed in the Supplements the name of Simon Callow.Would this be the very same Simon Callow who originated the role of Mozart in the stage version of "Amadeus" and also played a supporting role in the same said film?

  8. I noticed in the Supplements the name of Simon Callow.

    Would this be the very same Simon Callow who originated the role of Mozart in the stage version of "Amadeus" and also played a supporting role in the same said film?

    Yes. He also wrote a multi-volume set of bios of Welles a few years ago.

  9. A "Multi-volume"?  Such extensive biographies are always intriguing to me.  Thanks for that; as I will add it to a future list of purchases.

    Simon Callow also is an acting coach.

    From the little I've seen of him on film, I found it unfortunate that he has not garnered more work.

    I thought he was great in "Four Weddings and a Funeral".

    Anyway, IMO, "Chimes at Midnight" is a no-brainer of a purchase and am looking forward to to.

  10. A "multi-volume set"?  Fantastic.  Such extensive biographies are always intriguing to me.

    Thanks for that information, as I will add it to a future list of purchases.

    He's completed 3 volumes, the 4th is still being written….

  11. He's completed 3 volumes, the 4th (and final one) is still being written….

    Ah-ha, so that's where Simon Callow has disappeared.

    3 Volumes in and of itself is an enormous undertaking; but a fourth on the way?

    This must be the definitive of all the Welles biographies.

    The last 4-Volume biography I delved into was Sir Michael Holroyd's "Bernard Shaw"

    Even Peter Bogdanovich must be taking note.

    Once the fourth is out, I'll purchase them all for an uninterrupted marathon experience.

  12. I went to see him speak in on Welles in Dublin last year. The fourth book isn't even the last one! Callow is a brilliant actor and speaker. He's never off the stage in England, writing his Welles' biographies mostly in the dressing rooms of theaters. My favourite role of his is Mr. Beebe in 'A Room With a View'.

  13. I checked out a few scenes of the new Blu-ray last night. This is absolutely the best I have seen Chimes look. This really has a great picture. Sound level seems a bit low, but it is clear. There are still some scenes with overly sibilant 's' sounds around the time of the battle and its aftermath that are not unique to this version. Over all, this is the quality Blu-ray I never expected to see of this film.

  14. First thing I watched was the Battle of Shrewsbury, which has had an influence on almost every battle scene filmed since, particularly "Braveheart" and "Gladiator." Then I watched the Keith Baxter interview where he talks about Wells and how wonderfully effective he was as Falstaff. Very moving. I saw "Chimes" in Chicago in the late '60s at the Clark theater. Wells' extraordinary images have never looked so grand as they do on this Blu. Turn it up and enjoy. Saint George and England!

  15. I went to see him speak on Welles in Dublin last year. The fourth book isn't even the last one! Callow is a brilliant actor and speaker. He's never off the stage in England, writing his Welles' biographies mostly in the dressing rooms of theaters. My favourite role of his is Mr. Beebe in 'A Room With a View'.

    A fifth book is in the wings?  What an unbelievable undertaking. This surpasses Holroyd's four volumes on Shaw.

    Guess I better start my readings, now; that is, after I first purchase "Chimes at Midnight".

  16. Burt, I think John Boorman's Excalibur also borrowed heavily from the Shrewsbury battle. Even this past season's penultimate episode of Game of Thrones reminded me of it. Before Chimes at Midnight, I don't think anyone had ever realistically depicted the horror of medieval warfare.

  17. No – I still think only 4 volumes are planned..

    http://www.wellesnet.com/simon-callow-talks-about-orson-welles-volume-3-one-man-band/

    As the third one, 'One man band' covers 'Chimes' – I suggest people don't hold off waiting for all 4 to be available.  Volumes 1 (including Citizen Kane) and 3 are the most readable….

    A great link.  I suggest that others read the Callow interview graciously supplied by KeithDA.

    If 3-4 volumes of Welles by Callow didn't yet whet one's appetite, then this interview will close the deal for any and all.

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