Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Review of Welles' "Chimes At Midnight"

With a resurgence of interest in Orson Welles' "Chimes At Midnight," this 2009 essay on the film might be of interest. At the time, the film was available on YouTube, but those with early memories of the site may recall that no one could post a clip longer than 10 minutes. You had to watch the film in 11 parts. It was certainly not ideal, but it did give those of us who had always wanted to see the film a chance to have a look. Even in this tiny format, the film was formidable. It is satisfying to see, less than a decade after this rudimentary screening, the world is now welcoming "Chimes At Midnight" and it is being shown all over the world. It is recognized as one of the great films — if not, perhaps, the greatest — by Welles. It is certainly one of the most exhuberant and evocative films ever made from a work by Shakespeare. — Lars Trodson

Here, from April 14, 2009, is my review:

Remembrance Of Things Past: "Chimes At Midnight" by Orson Welles

By Lars Trodson

Orson Welles was the most nostalgic of the modernists. 

He was recognized for the way he told a story, not for the stories he invariably chose to tell. "Citizen Kane" is pulpy, after all, and steeped in the past. It was elevated by the elegance and vision of the photography and acting, and the wit of the screenplay. And then came "The Magnificent Ambersons," (1942) which mourned the loss of a more innocent America at just the time when Americans were fighting for their way of life. “The Stranger" gave audiences a view of small town life disrupted by a Nazi scourge. “Touch of Evil” reeks of the past. All of these are potboilers, and all are graced with great cinematic flair. Welles was creating a new vocabulary for movies, but almost strictly from a visual point of view. Other than through the visual medium, he did not have anything terribly new to say.

Shakespeare should have been the ideal Welles collaborator: the words could finally match the visual panache. But by the time Welles got around to "Macbeth," he had no money and the Corman-like budget he received from Republic Pictures torpedoed that effort. "Othello" is visually stunning, but is hampered by audio issues — not ideal for the words of Shakespeare.

When Welles decided to film “Chimes At Midnight” — he had already attempted theatrical versions — Welles was nearing 50 and had endured almost 20 years of trying to make films without a budget. But he had his imagination and his lighting kit, he had actors and an indomitable will, and this time the mixture proved just right. 

Welles’ 1966 remix of the King Henry plays that puts Sir John Falstaff at the center of the action is a genuine masterpiece.

Welles did a magnificent job of pulling the threads out of five Shakespeare plays (he was always a great editor, both of words and celluloid — a better editor than writer of original material) to create this portrait of the old, dissolute, lying and gentle-souled man named Falstaff, who may be the single most beloved character Shakespeare ever created. It’s no wonder Welles gravitated to Falstaff — the “false staff,” the fake king — the inveterate storyteller, the charlatan, a man who floated by on his charms and his connection to those more richer than he. The parallels between Welles and Falstaff have been gone over too often to repeat here. But the connection in this instance makes the experience of watching "Chimes At Midnight" richer, not poorer.

"Chimes At Midnight" opens with two distant characters walking slowly on the snow-covered countryside, and we hear pipes, and it is Falstaff and Justice Robert Shallow (Alan Webb, in a high-pitched voice), and they are already reminiscing. "Oh, the days that we have seen," says Shallow. And they talk about people they have known, including a woman once young, but who is now "Old, old," according to Falstaff (but is he talking about himself?). As they settle in near a fire at the Boar's Head Tavern, Swallow once again tries to lighten the mood about their past exploits, but Sir John Falstaff is having none of it: “We have heard the chimes at midnight,” Falstaff says. He is not rejoicing.

It is then the credits roll, with horses galloping across the frame — a strong motif throughout the film — and the thrilling music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino begins. Welles uses the old John Ford trick of putting the land very low in the frame to make the sky seem so vast. The vista goes on forever, but it is a cold, misty, fog-bound vista, and it does not look friendly. You can see the dirt and the mud and manure and the grittiness of 15th century life in a way that almost no other film has captured.

Ralph Richardson, reading from Holinshed's Chronicles, sets the scene — a kingdom torn by two pretenders to the throne. In the first scene after the credits, the old King, Henry IV (John Gielguld), banishes Worcester (Fernando Rey — famous for playing the drug kingpin in "The French Connection"), Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, and their father, Northumberland (Jose Nieto) because they demand the release of Mortimer, who they believe is the true heir to the throne that Henry IV has ascended to. 

The ensuing confrontation — those banished against the holders of the crown — is set, but Welles is also interested in Falstaff and his relationship with Henry IVs son, Prince Hal.

Prince Hal, and his youthful partner, Ned Poins (Tony Beckley) keep Falstaff more or less as a mascot, a butt of their pranks and jokes. They propose cruel a jest: a robbery in the woods during which Hal and Ned will dress as the "victims." They want to see how the "brave" Falstaff will react and how he will tell the story of the robbery later. Falstaff agrees to the plan, and out to the woods they go.

"How longest Jack did thou seeest thy own knee," Hal asks Falstaff as he helps the old fat man put on his disguise.

The scene of the robbery in the woods is beautifully shot (the cinematography is by Edmond Richard), and the stands of trees look like sentinels against the white snow. Hal and Ned, pretending to be those raided upon, chase a fleeing and frightened Falstaff into the woods. Later, when Falstaff tells the story, not knowing that Hal and Ned are listening in, he lies and says he repelled an attack by two — no four, no eight! — men.

But this series of scenes, even though comic, foreshadow Hal's betrayal of Falstaff. Hal belittles Falstaff throughout, he's a "huge hill of flesh" or a "horseback breaker" and our hearts sink because we know — Welles knew — that Hal's renunciation of Falstaff was soon to come.

(In the play within the play at Mistress Quickly's roominghouse, where Falstaff lives, Hal and Falstaff play roles. In their playacting, Falstaff pathetically tries to seek reassurance that his place with Hal is secure, but Hal assures him that it is not, but he says this as though he is joking.)

Once the scene is set for the confrontation, Welles returns to the messy life of Sir John, who also enjoys a lover, the beautifully named Doll Tearsheet (Jeanne Moreau), a name which gives you an idea of how energetic a lover she must have been.

And in the meantime we also see King Henry's disappointment with Hal. He calls him an "effeminate boy" and laments the "dissolute crew" he keeps (which includes Falstaff) — while wishing that his own son was more like Percy, whose manliness and athleticism is defined by his nickname, Hotspur.

The crowning achievement in "Chimes At Midnight" is of course the Battle of Shrewsbury. Long famous even before the movie could be seen, the battle is an undisputed cinematic achievement. It's astonishing, tense and dramatic, and full of believable action. It is almost impossible to fill an entire frame with action. In most films, if you look at the edge of the frame in a battle scene, it is often easy to spot the listless actor, the badly choreographed stabbing or punch, or someone just standing there waiting to be told what to do.

Welles had everything under control, and the battle moves fluidly and realistically and the camera catches the action of actors and extras who never seem to lose their focus, who always seem to be in the act of battle. The viewer never loses his place. Men look like they get injured and die.

I get disgusted when the people who heap praise on Steven Spielberg for his opening and closing scenes in "Saving Private Ryan." Some reviewers make you think no one had ever directed a realistic battle scene before. Welles had no computer and no money when he made "Chimes At Midnight" and he created something just as lasting, just as powerful. 
He just had a supreme cinematic eye, a gift for editing film, and a passion for art.

The scenes of battle are a magnificent achievement. They should be studied, they should be emulated, and they should be justly praised. But they also need to be acknowledged.

Then, after the battle, and threats to the throne have been vanquished, the old King dies. Hal ascends to the throne as Henry V. Falstaff and his friends rejoice — friends in high places, after all.

But Falstaff has not been paying attention to what Hal has been saying. He has not heard the contempt, and the ridicule. Welles makes the audience both see and hear the forthcoming betrayal all through the film. The storytelling here is masterful — in each scene we want to yell to Sir John, "Wake up!" Welles has made Shakespeare intimate — like a chamber play, a few characters playing before a tiny group of sympathetic friends.

No doubt drunk, Falstaff breaks up the new king's procession in an effort to praise his friend Hal. It is here that Hal — well, no longer Hal, but a King, after all — says "I know thee not, old man." (Just what Hollywood had told Welles.) The humiliation is complete. Falstaff holds out a false hope: "I shall be sent for in private to him" — but the dream is over, the days are done. The only thing now before Falstaff is a barren, wintry landscape.

It is then we finally learn how truly sad the opening scene is. And it is only then that we realize how masterfully Welles has crafted the story.

We now know that it is only Justice Shallow, as he and Sir John slowly move through the snow in that first scene, who yearns for the days that the two of them have seen. It is only Justice Shallow who believes they were good days, the best days. "Jesus, the days that we have seen!" Shallow says. But John Falstaff never answers the memory directly. And when Justice Shallow prods his memory once again, Falstaff, looking into the embers of a fire too distant to warm the coolness in his soul, doesn't acknowledge what Justice Shallow is saying at all. Falstaff knows that the good old memories are over. "The chimes at midnight," are no longer a celebration of what has happened, but come now more as a gentle, if firm reminder, that the day is done.