Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Chimes at Midnight

Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff), 1965
Dir: Orson Welles
September 22, 2009

When people talk about Orson Welles, they always talk about Citizen Kane (1941). I understand why, and yet, I can't find myself being pulled into it again after seeing it a couple of times now. It's just not really for me. What I can't understand, after seeing this, is how Chimes at Midnight has no US release of any kind, and is not even talked about that much. It's so fucking good. I'm going to say that it's the best thing that Welles ever did.

It's a condensing of 5 different Shakespeare plays (Henry IV pts. 1 + 2, Henry V, Richard II, The Merry Wives of Windsor) that, as the alternate title suggest, focuses on the character of Sir John Falstaff, played by Orson Welles. It's really bizarre watching this right after Macbeth (1948). Where Welles was always a large man, here he is so obese, it's almost sad. The only thing you can possibly find cheerful about his role is that it makes him perfect to play the part. In a way, it is slightly parallel to the story of Welles' career as well, of a fat, jovial "knight" who has the admiration and friendship of the young prince Hal (Kieth Baxter), only to have his heart broken when the now king Henry V spurns their comradeship in favor of royal duties. The acting was a surprise, for as hammy as Welles' productions can be sometimes (especially when he was never really that interested in the story), here it is kept to the bare minimum, well at least as far a Shakespeare production. John Gielgud as a guilty Henry IV is awesome, as any stage vet should be. Baxter is also equally great, moving between the mischievous prankster and the melancholy son who knows that soon the good times must end. As the fiery Henry "Hotspur" Percy, Norman Rodway plays the role with great abandon, just like the character who throws away everything for that one shot at the crown. Like any good Shakespeare production you've seen, there really is no bad acting in this, and seeing as though Welles was so passionate about the project, you really couldn't expect anything less.

As good as everyone else is, Welles really steals every scene he is in. Like any great film, it pulls you this way and that, and Welles is there all the way. From boasting that he should be made either an earl or a duke after presenting the body of Hotspur to Henry IV (who was not killed by Falstaff, but by Prince Hal) or to protesting that at least 8 (or was it 12?) men had accosted him after a robbery (when it had been just been two, Prince Hal and Ned in a prank), Welles is incredibly funny, even with the archaic language. Underneath it all though is that never-ending sadness that comes out from time to time ("There are only three good men unhanged in England, and one of them is fat and grows old..."). His reminisces with Master Shallow about "good times" always bring home the hard fact that despite all the laughs and boasts, Falstaff knows that he is getting old and must die soon. The most poignant moment in the film of course is at Henry V's coronation, when an ecstatic Falstaff bursts through the crowd to cry, "God save you, little one! God save the King!" A sober Henry then claims, "I know thee not, old man." The look on Welles' face is almost unbearable after he hears the rebukes of his young prince, and his equally pathetic boasts afterward that the king was just playing a front for the court are equally hollow and infinitely sad. This scene can be taken into context by watching Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989), which has the same scene in flashback mode but, in my opinion, it's not nearly as effective. That movie is nevertheless, upon reflection, hugely influenced by this film.

Of primary interest to film buffs in in regards to the technical aspects, apart from Welles' usual stunning visual poetry, is the climactic Battle of Shrewsbury, in which Prince Harry must ride next to his father and take on his responsibility as the Prince of Wales. The battle is shot in a familiar way that people will recognize today, but only because it has been copied by so many (in particular, Braveheart (1995)). You are taken right into the action, which is earthy and brutal, and by the end, when tired knights are falling over each other in the mud, you understand why. It's a breathless experience. Like modern film battle scenes that employ the same technique, it suffers from some shaky shots that makes what is being shown you hard to make out, but Welles pulls back from time-to-time to focus on some interesting things. This, along with watching the cowardly Falstaff skulk in the trees avoiding battle and making more false boasts ("Give me leave to breathe a while...I have paid Percy; I have made him sore!") combined with all the rolling fog and atmosphere (the low-budget soundtrack is very cheesy, though effective in it's own way) makes for one of the greatest battle sequences ever, hands down.

It never seems Welles' intention to be stodgily “faithful” to the text by eliminating his own voice from the creation. Chimes at Midnight, like Othello (1952), is all about Shakespeare, and all about Welles, simultaneously, whereas Macbeth (1948) was stuck in a world that couldn't really realize either and looked artificial (while still pulling off a great deal). His efforts to render Shakespeare's work in filmic terms is considerably more imaginative than say, an Olivier production, whose attempts at cinema (I don't know if you've seen any), which are generally favored in mainstream canons, seem limited to “I think Shakespeare would have a close-up here,” or the like, but the man was never really a director with a visual eye. A great actor for sure, though, who made some decent films, but you can't really say more than that. Chimes at Midnight is everything those films are not: brutish, earthy, messy, and also fraught with emotion. This has skyrocketed into my favorite films list. Watch this badboy when you can!

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