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).
★★★★★ review by Carlos Valladares on Letterboxd
Orson Welles's rousing and tragic 1965 adaptation of five Shakesperean plays must be the most original and most moving of all the Shakesperean films. Welles' cinematic interests are not in the grand panorama of themes covered in one Shakespeare play, but in the dazzling minutiae of one minor character in the Shakesperean canon, the portly Falstaff (played by Welles with soul-baring frankness). He is the closest confidante and mentor to the young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), who is next in line to inherit the throne from his father King Henry IV (John Gielgud). But war comes knocking, the king is near death, and Hal must rise to carry through the imperial warmongering of post-Merrie England — at the cost of a lifelong friendship that taught him everything a human needs to know about love, freedom, and personal honor.
Welles's obsessions lie in the margins, but his is not Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Welles's tragedy is not rendered in cold-blooded tones of ironic ruefulness, but with the warmest joviality — thus, when it comes, his tragedy cuts deeper. "Thou clay-brained guts," Hal says of his beloved Falstaff, "thou knotty-pated fool, thou whoreson, obscene, grease tallow-catch!" They're the kind of insults you fling at your best friend; it's necessary to watch the film with subtitles, not as a cop-out to Welles' images, nor because the words are hard to make out, but to fully embrace the marvelous joining of word and image that Welles accomplishes.
The addicting delight of the first half — scampering around with his young surrogate son Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) and his Rat Pack of working-class Brits, like Margaret Rutherford's put-on hotel marm and Jeanne Moreau's loving lady of the night — is brutally disrupted by a vicious battle sequence (yes, it's as good as they say it is, and a good deal better), whereupon the film settles into Welles's true macabre interest: the depths of death awaiting a man (not a prince, nor an aristocrat with glory and riches, no: An ordinary man) who has outlived his use and his carefree youth. You can sense the pain in Welles's every shot. Immaculate, heartbreaking, one is caught in the triumphant yet bitter sweep of Welles's vision.
In 2018, how lucky we are to finally see the definitive version of Chimes at Midnight, with subtitles and a crisp picture and a soundtrack that's as clattering and raucous as its author intended. For as long as there is serious Welles scholarship, and as long as films are not as collected or treasured as books, its troubled production history will never go unmentioned. But perhaps now, a new generation will be able to appreciate Welles's masterpiece (one of his many) in a version whose beaten-up quality doesn't detract or distract from the beauty conveyed by its beaten-up pictures. Maybe now we can appreciate it without trying to figure out which parts Welles shot in Spain, and which in England, and what actor's voice we're hearing, and so forth: Interesting details, sure, but ones which distract from the cohesive universe Welles has gifted us. Maybe now, as we are shaken by one of George Eliot's casually profound insights or a turn of a Shakesperean phrase, we can marvel at the three-second Wellesian shot of a blindingly white horse, a riderless beast that seems as if it was forgotten by the Apocalypse, shirking and whinnying at the sight of men speared in the chest and coughing up fountains of blood — a terrifying image in a terrifying battle sequence of a terrific film.
With the bad luck typical of Welles, and of great artists ahead of their time, this definitive version comes about fifty years after the film was released — and thirty years too late for its creator to appreciate and weep tears of joy over.
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