Monday, February 29, 2016

Chimes at Midnight

Orson Welles directed a number of great films in his lifetime and lost a great number of them as well to the vagaries of financing, post-production turmoil, and other behind-the-scenes issues. Chimes at Midnight (1965), reportedly Welles' personal favorite of his own work, was considered lost for a number of years, caught in a quagmire of ownership, but it has been restored and released by Janus Films and is now touring the country. I caught a screening of it at Ohio State University's Wexner Center for Arts on Sunday.

Chimes at Midnight combines the plots and characters of five plays by William Shakespeare to tell the story of Sir John Falstaff (Welles), a fat, old knight always scheming, getting into trouble, drinking, owing money, and leading astray the Prince of Wales, Hal (Keith Baxter), much to the dismay of Hal's father, King Henry IV (John Gielgud). When war breaks out in England, Prince Hal must decide which of these father figures he's going to emulate, and his decision has dire consequences for Falstaff.

Falstaff is regarded as one of Shakespeare's most memorable characters. He's boisterous, loud, merry, a good-natured scoundrel in a manner of speaking. He's a braggart and a coward, one utterly shameless and driven by his desires, a man who inspires both affection and frustration in those close to him. In the text, Falstaff is a comical character, but by making him the focus of the film, Welles brings to the forefront Falstaff's tragic nature. He's goes from this massive, looming figure who dominates the frame to a reduced, pitiful creature who looks small and feeble at the base of these grand castle halls and rows of footmen.

Welles imbues the film with his trademark virtuosity and style. From the boisterous inn of Mistress Quickly (Margaret Rutherford), where Falstaff and his cohorts always look ready to break into song and dance, to the vast castle throne room, where the frost is visible on King Henry's breath and the walls dwarf these rigid, royal men, Welles' camera captures the nature of these places perfectly. He also uses his usual wide angle, low angle perspective that emphasizes depth of frame, baroque scenery, and distorted faces. A showoff, flamboyant style to be sure, but it's nothing if not visually distinctive and dynamic.

The most impressive sequence is the battle between Henry's forces and those of the rebellious Hotspur (Norman Rodway). Welles buries his camera in a sea of men, mud, and mist and cuts curiously between dozens of little clashes, along with the comical Falstaff running and hiding like a goof. This gives the battle a strong sense of chaos, as well as the impression that there are thousands of troops fighting. One can see the influence this had on a number of battle scenes in later movies.

Welles plays up the tragic nature of Falstaff but doesn't forget his humor. Before the battle, we see the knights lifted by a pulley so they can mount their horses, a feat out of reach for the rotund Falstaff, who falls a great distance in a bit of physical comedy. After the battle, when Hal finds what he thinks is the corpse of his friend, the sight of steam rising out of Falstaff's helmet visor generated a laugh from the audience I was with.

If you're a fan of Welles or Shakespeare, you'd be well served to seek out Chimes at Midnight. A few technical flaws remain (some characters are clearly not speaking when we hear them), but the filmmaking prowess on display and the exploration of the Bard's themes are superlative, and the performances are excellent.

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