Chimes at Midnight
Directed by Orson Welles
The career of Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff as roistering companion to young Prince Hal, circa 1400-1413.
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★★★★½ review by Peter Labuza on Letterboxd
Welles is perhaps the greatest amateur in cinema, having never learned to "properly" direct because of the artistic success of Citizen Kane. His camera placements are always off in some way: actors are pushed too close in, the angle much too slanted, the sight lines mismatched. Characters jump off screen and then back into place without reason, and spatial relations are constantly shifting with motivation. Actors deliver Shakespearean dialogue much too pointedly, as if they were still on the stage any no sense for the camera. There's too much love paid to the bombastic sets and some of the cuts take away from poignant moments in which the camera should simply rest. Shots are either filled with too much information that allows the negative space to act its own drama, or all too pointed toward a single focal direction.
But this critique of Welles on a form of cinema that is narratively or thematically efficient. I couldn't help but recalling filmmakers like Alex Ross Perry who choose the great shot because it is the great shot. Not the prettiest or most, um, perfect shot, but the one that transcends its own pictorial beauty and simply seems to enact a life of its own. To appreciate Welles as a filmmaker is to appreciate someone whose cinema feels untied to the system, whatever system we may want to consider. The biggest action scene is pretty much incomprehensible on a spatial comprehension level, but each cut registers with a visceral impact, with the shots of the oafish Welles in that hilarious fat armor throwing us off in our emotional response. Welles didn't always master his own form—I found his Othello too focused on its architectural locations, missing the rhythms of the drama—but when he did, it was because he finds something living in every image and sound. This is an unwieldy movie by design: five Shakespeare crunched into one, focused on the minor character of the fool who thought he was the most powerful of all, much like Charles Foster Kane.
Watching the film again, I was utterly taken with a moment during the opening credits, where Welles focuses on a soldier who loses his hat while marching and must dash back for it in the wind. Leaving that awkward mistake in feels like the quintessential Welles moment: not one of perfection, but a search for something ethereal that seems beyond our usual discussions of cinema.
★★★★ review by laird on Letterboxd
As many fat jokes as Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps but with an extended battle sequence largely shot by second unit director Jess Franco (not sure who directed the one in NP2TK. Also not sure why Orson Welles was attracted to a story about a wise but hedonistic fool of considerable girth who in his lifetime told fantastic stories that gained him the respect of mischievous young men but by the time of his death was unrecognized and misunderstood. Not sure about so much in this life).
★★★★ review by Mike D'Angelo on Letterboxd
Really glad I finally got to see this properly restored, as the print I caught back in '99 was beat up almost to the point of being unwatchable. (Same is true of The Trial, which will hopefully also turn up in better condition soon.) Now I can appreciate just how astounding Welles made the film look on a negligible budget, mostly by shooting from a distance in magnificent locations. As a bonus, this monumental aesthetic also makes the post-sync sound somewhat less distracting, though the disjunction between words and mouths still bugs me (as it does in virtually every Italian film from this period). That objection aside, Chimes ranks alongside Welles' Othello among the great Shakespeare adaptations, even if it peaks early with the brilliantly edited, shockingly modern Battle of Shrewsbury—partly because Shakespeare wisely made that the climax of Henry IV, Part 1 (the splitting tactic dates back centuries), partly because Part 2 simply isn't as strong a play. Loved Welles' creative throughline, too, e.g. making Falstaff the subject of Harry's pardon from Henry V. A much, much better film than I could perceive 17 years ago, and while my taste has unquestionably matured in the meantime, the quality of the presentation matters, too.
★★★★★ review by Wesley R. Ball on Letterboxd
Orson Welles alway harbored a magnificent obsession with the Bard and his plays, but one character in particular always held his interest in the highest regard: John Falstaff. This character gave a recurring appearance in several of Shakespeare's plays, typically appearing as the comic relief or dashing womanizer. Chimes at Midnight shows Welles taking his writing and theatrical capacities to their fullest, creating what could be the greatest Shakespeare play that Shakespeare never wrote- a beautiful conglomeration of five different plays, primarily focusing on Henry IV, Parts One and Two, that proves just how great of an artist Welles was never recognized as by the studios. Being forced to work overseas, this masterpiece was filmed in its entirety in Spain, with many non-English speaking extras with their lines dubbed over. The dubbing is noticeable, but far from detracting. Welles crafts a monumental production, whisking its audience in an atmosphere reminiscent of a 15th century play, making the audience feel right in the middle of the action.
If Touch of Evil is Orson Welles' amateur attempt at a film noir, then Chimes at Midnight is his own personal vision of a blockbuster Shakespeare adaptation. The film is decades ahead of its time. Incredible cinematography, Welles gives an astounding performance as the title character, turning a previous side plot into a fully rounded character with a fantastic development and a human touch all his own. He doesn't minimize any of the supporting cast either- this is a heartbreaking friendship triangle that is swimming in betrayal and loyalty to country. At the same time, Chimes can be seen as a scrutinization of England's politics of the time, perhaps a battlefield Welles had almost no business entering, but nonetheless a powerful allegory at the same time. Welles himself described Chimes at Midnight as a mourning for "the death of England," perhaps a dark premonition of what was to come. Shakespeare was never a stranger to politics in his plays, so it's only natural that Welles' vision emulate the same political subversions.
Chimes at Midnight was decades ahead of its time, much like its director. A story that had been in development since Welles' early work in the 1930's, the play had undergone several performance and cuts before being able to be made in its final form. In its original form, the play was over five and a half hours with a revolving stage that had a built in timer to synchronize scene changes. After being forced to cut over half of his play (a demand that would never become unfamiliar with Welles and almost any of his productions), the Mercury Theater opened in disaster. The one part that was almost universally acclaimed in the original production was the battle scene. It's only natural that this would eventually become the most memorable and monumental scene of its film version as well. Like Justin Kurzel's Macbeth presenting a gritty and bloody battlefield thrown against a dark sky, Chimes at Midnight's climactic battle scene is a historic cinematic moment that has influenced many blockbuster productions the world over. Welles sets up a blueprint for the ideal framing for a war- a wide but frenetic haze of brutality and vitality, each and every frame packed to the seams with adrenaline and intensity. You can practically feel the sweat rolling off of the soldiers, every battle cry and sword clash a vibrant solicitation of unrelenting force. This is perhaps the greatest precedent that Chimes of Midnight achieves, a cornerstone of action cinema in a film otherwise devoid of any signs of the action genre.
With wry, Shakespearean humor and its groundbreaking battle sequence, Chimes at Midnight is undoubtedly, to me, Welles' greatest achievement. Citizen Kane served as the ultimate blueprint, the setup and example by which Orson Welles would follow for almost his entire career. Certainly, he never lived up to Kane in the eyes of the audiences at large, but to me he will always be the greatest cinematic mind of the twentieth century. His stories bear a deep narrative charm that is unlike anything I've ever found in another writer or director. From Kane to The Magnificent Ambersons to The Trial, Touch of Evil, and ultimately Chimes at Midnight, I haven't found a Welles film yet that I was bored or disappointed with. His films and acting has influenced me not only personally, but in my own writing and (yes) acting as well. This is, true to what it has been hailed as, Welles' crowning achievement, and the finest Shakespeare adaptation ever made. A potent mix of the Bard's drama and comedy to create a potent masterpiece of the ages, and undoubtedly one of the most overlooked films of all time (which hopefully will be changing soon with this fantastic Criterion release).
★★★½ review by Leo (Willem) van der Zanden 🔥⬇🏠 on Letterboxd
Film #16 in The Wonderful, Once in a Lifetime LeBlancanieves-Challenge
Added to: Orson Welles Ranked
Orson Welles Chimes at Midnight is a peculiar film if there ever was one. Made up out of different elements from different plays Shakespeare, it tells of the knight Sir John Falstaff and his bond with the son of King Henry IV. A highly personal work for Welles, it was not well received at its release but has slowly gotten a cult status and for good reason.
Although Welles technique of scrambling together all that he can find about one smaller character, does bring its problems, one can clearly see his intentions. Welles often saw comparisons between the character of Falstaff and himself, yet the clearest link can only be found in the final scenes. For the biggest part it is just like we watch the great works of Shakespeare from the sidelines. This is, undeniably, an interesting way to approach this material and it does give a completely different look at the whole story. Right from the start we get scenes in which the relationship between Falstaff and the king's son, Prince Hal, share all but good times with each other. They feast, mock the king quietly, and joke at each other and the world around them.
Welles tried to take as much of the comedic element out of Falstaff and tried to give him more gravitas. In one way this works, but the way he portrays the character, he still fills him with a lot of laughter and sets him up as a smart yet flawed man. It isn't until the last scene that we get a sense of the earnest emotions that hide within him and than still we don't see this just because of his performance but because of Margaret Rutherford's beautiful monologue. This basically means that the bond between him and Prince Hal isn't portrayed that well. Surely, we see they are best friends and Hal sees Falstaff as his true father figure, but just hugging one another here and there and declaring this friendship in longwinded speeches isn't what creates a strong bond. In this case I'd say it would've been better if Welles focused more on the acting than the Shakespearean texts, because they do seem to take center stage when they just shouldn't.
Yet, when all comes together (those incredible final moments) the whole story feels so impending in its true meaning, that fatherly bond seriously reaches through the cluttered lines of Shakespeare and create some true heart in an otherwise very mixed film. The mangled nature of this work doesn't only come from the acting and the script however. Also the combination of the cinematography helps create confusion. It is beautifully shot, don't get me wrong. It shows stature when the more earnest scenes happen and the camera changes into a drunk man when hanging around Falstaff. It is on point in every scene. This precise camerawork may be one of the best things about the film as it beautifully sets a contrast that ultimately breaks the friendship in the end. Yet the fact that this aspect of the film is so clear and works so well, only adds to the confusing nature of the rest of the elements.
It isn't a bad film. Not at all, but it does make you wonder why Welles didn't keep the focus where he wanted and needed it. Taking classic works of literature and changing them to tell your own story is a much appreciated way of handling storytelling, but it must be done quite precise if you want the right results. Nonetheless, a very engaging watch to say the least.
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