Merrie Mayhem: Orson Welles’ Chimes At Midnight (1966) – Blu-ray review
The tragedy of a man who loved too much – or of a director who insisted on doing it his way? Either way, Welles is Falstaff.
Chimes At Midnight
(Orson Welles, 1966)
Orson Welles had been let down so many times in life it’s not hard to see why he might feel affinity with Falstaff. After all, the great filmmaker was – much like Shakespeare’s merrie bandit – a tender romantic who often appeared as the frivolous showman in the royal court of Hollywood, but who harboured a sincere love of close collaboration with his friends.
Chimes At Midnight captures Welles-as-Falstaff on-screen and –off. This is the director in exile, harking back to a time of joyful abandon, managing not only to recreate ‘ye olde England’ via a fragmentary shoot across Spain, but successfully musing on the themes of his life and career. Most notably, of course, is the way that the star/director gives his fictional alter-ego the stage by reconfiguring Shakespeare’s two plays about Henry IV into a single film about Falstaff. Bear in mind that this was the period where Welles has falling back into critical (if not commercial) fashion and the revisionist allegory is obvious.
It’s remarkable how little of the Shakespeare needs changing; of course, everybody had known for centuries that Falstaff was the killer role across the plays. But the subtlest shifts in emphasis mean that Hal’s journey to kinghood and necessary shunning of his old friend are reconfigured as the betrayal of a genial, often foolhardy but always loyal companion by an indolent rich kid who was waiting for his inheritance to kick in.
The result is moving – Welles effectively drops the vaudevillian elements of his performance when the new king turns his back on Falstaff, to register a look of piercing sadness – but also a bittersweet ode to the sheer vivacity of those early scenes in the Boar’s Tavern, where the camera and characters cavort together in wheeling, virtuoso moments. It’s hard not to think of the adjective ‘mercurial,’ not least because you half-imagine that this is what Welles’ youth in the Mercury Theatre was like.
This was Welles’ third Shakespearean film, by which time he’d perfected a new visual style for theatre predicated on having no money, ever-changing locations and whatever actors came to hand. By all accounts, Chimes At Midnight was more stable than Othello (albeit far less so than most filmmakers were used to; shooting shut down for months while additional funding was secured) and that’s apparent in the greater coherence of tone and aesthetic. Which means that, when Welles offers his habitually savage inserts and frenzied montage, here it is as much a stylistic choice as a logistical necessity. Only in the scrappy, near-unintelligible sound is the film in any way compromised.
The result is that there’s a satisfying (dis)harmony with the text, as Welles brings a versatile cinematic approach to different characters or moods. While the greatest thespian of the bunch, Sir John Gielgud, gets a more restful, measured visual style full of sedate long takes, Hal’s raid on a bunch of travellers benefit from exhilarating tracking shots through a wood. Then there’s the film’s set-piece battle, a dazzling example of the dynamism in Welles’ editing – no doubt disguising limited extras but capturing the senseless flurry of slaughter, all the more so because of the wry juxtapositions with an armoured Falstaff hiding nearby in the bushes – as cogent a metaphor for Welles’ relationship with typical norms of heroism as you could wish for.