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.
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).
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.
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.
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!