Orson Welles was a vain human being but he was not a vain movie star. A character actor at heart, Welles always gravitated to the grotesque. He loved to play fatally flawed individuals, the more makeup the better. Nowhere is this predilection more pronounced than in Welles’s closest analog to a vanity project, the Shakespeare amalgam Chimes at Midnight, which borrows from five different plays to build a portrait of the corpulent, drunken, “sanguine coward” John Falstaff.
Chimes at Midnight tracks the passing of the torch from King Henry IV to his son Prince Hal. For the majority of the movie the young prince is shunning his regal responsibility, cavorting around on a sort of royal Rumspringa, which is how he ends up in the amiable and amoral company of Falstaff. The duo and their hangers-on drink and boast and then drink some more. Meanwhile, the elder Henry, played with gravitas by the great John Gielgud, opines in cavernous castle walls. The disconnect between these alternating scenes, with Welles living it up among his group of spare men (“Spare me the great ones,” Falstaff says later in the film) in ramshackle halls while a separate, more “Shakespearean” play is taking place in a musty old castle, is intentional and perfectly calibrated. In the first half, Gielgud seems to be nothing more than the dour Margaret Dumont to Welles’s Marxian chicanery. Later, Henry IV’s pronouncements become more integral to the plot and Gielgud’s performance is crucial. In particular, he gives a fine reading of the “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” speech.
But that’s still a “reading”. Welles himself has no interest in staid or academic Shakespeare. His interpretation of the Bard is full of grumbles and interruptions, half-heard words and sentences that collide. It’s a cliche to praise someone for bringing life to Shakespeare but no one did it better than Orson Welles. Chimes at Midnight is a living organism, with a restless, roving camera, dutch angles, lowbrow comedy, and a bravura, bloody, muddy battle at its center that calls to mind nothing short of Seven Samurai. It is faithful, contemporary, ridiculous, and sublime. It is the best filmed adaptation of Shakespeare ever made. It is Orson Welles’s masterpiece.
When I think of Orson Welles, I don’t picture him running through the sewers of a bombed-out Vienna. Nor do I see him standing in front of a banner emblazoned with his face and bearing the name of his most famous creation. I don’t even think of his sonorous voice relating the turn-of-the-century exploits of the Amberson family, or the warning of a Martian takeover. No, I picture Welles dressed head to toe in the most ridiculous suit of armor, hiding behind foliage while a battle between mere mortal men rages on all around him.