This Thursday, Orson Welles’s most-underseen masterpiece Chimes at Midnight is coming to the Scarecrow Video Screening Lounge. Welles, of course had a legendarily messy filmmaking career, one that can be reasonably-evenly divided between his studio films and his independent productions. The studio films are the most famous, featuring also the former consensus all-time #1 Citizen Kane, the butchered masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons and the too-twisted-for-Hollywood noirs The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil. His independent films include the dishonest documentary F for Fake, the schizophrenic and multiform funhouse Kane Mr. Arkadin, an adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial (which Welles quite rightly notes is a comedy) and three Shakespeare films: Macbeth, Othello and the greatest of them all, Chimes at Midnight, in which Welles combines parts of the two Henry IV plays with bits from Henry V to tell one story about the fat, blustery rogue Sir John Falstaff.
His independent films are more famous for their technical shortcomings than anything else, made as they were with shoestring budgets (when there was any money at all), with post-recorded sound (occasionally in sync and occasionally with Welles himself dubbing several parts), thrown together sets (Welles famously set a scene in Othello in a Turkish bath because the costumes for the shoot hadn’t arrived yet) and shooting schedules spanning years (Welles would take whatever acting jobs he could get to raise money for his films). And unlike his studio films, due to complex rights issues his independent films are difficult to find in anything like their intended form. The good people at the Criterion Collection have put out deluxe editions of both F for Fake and Mr. Arkadin, but complete authoritative versions of the Shakespeare films remain elusive (though this may be changing: there’s a good Blu-Ray of Macbeth put there by Olive films, and rumors of a Criterion release of Othello in 2015).
I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that Welles was the greatest interpreter of Shakespeare in the 20th Century. While Laurence Olivier was filming Shakespeare like it was a museum, pinning it to the wall with perfect bloodless enunciation, Welles dragged the Bard down to his level, and made the plays come alive as the black, guttural and popular entertainments they really are, which brings their great heights and depths alive for an audience in a way Olivier could never manage. The part of Falstaff was perfect for Welles, one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations: a gluttonous, dishonest, ribald raconteur who befriends Prince Hal, soon to be King Henry V. Welles had already played a reflection of Falstaff in Touch of Evil: Hank Quinlan in that film is similarly larger than life, twisted by tragedy into evil, but tragic nonetheless. Falstaff is never evil; cowardly, thieving and whoring perhaps, but never a villain. He’s the tragic hero of Chimes at Midnight, a bombastic fool with a genuine love for and pride in Hal, his heart is broken when the young king turns him away after the coronation. Welles captures all of Falstaff’s complexity, the humanity that, to agree with Harold Bloom (a bit of a Falstaff himself, I think) makes him, along with Hamlet, one of the most original and important characters in all of literature.
The film is every bit a match for Welles’s performance, hampered as it is by poor sound recording. The centerpiece of the film is the Battle of Shrewsbury, where Henry IV and Hal put down a rebellion by Hal’s rival Henry Percy (nicknamed Hotspur). Falstaff is the comic figure in the battle, a heavily-armored balloon with little stick legs, running to and fro always a little behind the action. The battle itself stands with the greatest scenes of medieval action ever filmed. As viscerally immersive and violent as anything in Braveheart or Ran, finding small moments of beauty amongst the bloody consequences of chaotic violence. The rest of the film is of a piece with the rest of Welles’s career: dramatic shadows and beams of light, compositions in depth and canted angles conveying real meaning (expansion and diminishment, the twin poles pulling the narrative and the characters apart) rather than purposeless showiness that infects so many of his imitators.
Chimes at Midnight plays Thursday March 12th in the Scarecrow Video Screening Lounge at 7 pm.