For your reconsideration: Orson Welles

Orson Welles, in Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight.” Courtesy Film Forum via Photofest.
As Falstaff, the over-stuffed Welles drew on his own reputation for drinking and gourmandizing, womanizing and irresponsibility. Photo courtesy Film Forum, Photofest.

BY TRAV S.D. | Get used to hearing a lot more about Orson Welles over the coming months. The hoary old narrative on America’s greatest director is being rewritten; the old canard that says Welles’ best days were behind him after “Citizen Kane” (1941) is being laid to rest. Sometime next year the director’s unfinished late work “The Other Side of the Wind,” which was shot during the 1970s, is scheduled for release in the wake of a much-publicized crowdfunding campaign. And a reconstructed version of his 1969 “The Merchant of Venice” premiered at the Venice International Film Festival earlier this year. And then there is the widespread reappraisal of his recently restored 1965 masterpiece “Chimes at Midnight,” which will be screening at Film Forum, Jan. 1–12.

Welles had many films in the works during his last decade, but “Chimes at Midnight” is the last one he completed, not counting the 1973 experimental documentary essay “F for Fake.” He thought of it as his most artistically successful film, and it was, in many ways, the culmination of his lifelong infatuation with Shakespeare.

According to legend, Welles’ first exposure to the Bard came at age two, when his mother read him unabridged versions of the plays. As a teenager, he edited a three-volume series of books called “Everybody’s Shakespeare.” In 1934, he played Tybalt in Katharine Cornell’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” on Broadway. In 1936, he played Hamlet on the radio. Then he directed two Shakespeare productions of his own which put him on the map: a 1936 interpretation of “Julius Caesar” reset in the context of Fascist Europe, and a 1937 Voodoo-inspired “Macbeth.” His earlier Shakespeare films included a 1948 “Macbeth” (quite different from the stage production), and his 1952 “Othello.” Welles’ first appearance on television was in 1953, as the title character in on“Omnibus” production of “King Lear” — a role he was to play again onstage three years later.

L to R: Keith Baxter and Orson Welles in Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight.” Courtesy Film Forum via Photofest.
L to R: Keith Baxter and Orson Welles. Photo courtesy Film Forum, Photofest.

“Chimes at Midnight” was over a quarter of a century in the making. In 1939 Welles had put together an ambitious production called “Five Kings”, which folded together nine Shakespeare plays to tell the entire “War of the Roses” cycle, with himself in the plum role of Sir John Falstaff and Burgess Meredith as Price Hal (the young Henry V). This production collapsed under its own weight, and Welles went west to begin making films for RKO.

He revisited it in 1960, as a much-condensed stage version, much more sharply focused on the Falstaff-Prince Hal relationship. The stage production was aborted, but it turned into a film, which Welles shot in 1964 and 1965. In addition to Welles as Falstaff, the film features John Gielgud as Henry IV, Ralph Richardson reading narration derived from Holinshead’s “Chronicles,” Margaret Rutherford as Mistress Quickly, Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet, and Keith Baxter as Prince Hal.

“Chimes at Midnight” was released in time for the 1966 Cannes Film Festival and won a couple of awards that year, but here in America it was, for the most part, critically dismissed, thinly distributed and ignored by the public. Its reputation has improved over the years, at least with scholars and critics, despite the scarcity of prints — and the seeming non-existence of any good ones.

Like all of his post-Hollywood films, “Chimes” was made on a shoestring, often making use of desperate techniques to hide the seams, usually “sleight-of-hand” editing, and the liberal use of overdubs in post-production to cover weak takes and performances. Muddy sound, in particular, has bedeviled this film in days past. In versions I watched years ago prior to the current restoration, the dialogue was almost impossible to understand.

The present version not only addresses the audio flaws, but the print is visually pristine as well, providing audiences perhaps with what might be called the first real opportunity to properly evaluate the film. And it is indeed glorious, even eye-opening. Welles was gravely disappointed when audiences of his day didn’t see what he saw — that it was his best work both as an actor and as a director. And the fullness of time has also shown that it’s possibly the best Shakespeare adaptation ever put on film. Among other things, I can’t think of any other Shakespeare film that feels so imbued with an Elizabethan atmosphere.

Welles once said that “Chimes” wasn’t just about the growing estrangement between Falstaff and Hal, but also about the death of “Merrie England,” i.e. the old Medieval England of Maypoles and Chaucer and Robin Hood. What would follow would be all statecraft and modernity, and eventually World Empire.

As Falstaff, the over-stuffed Welles drew on his own personal legend, of his reputation for drinking and gourmandizing and womanizing and boasting and irresponsibility, for a performance at once hilarious and full of sorrow and regret. And if the terrific performances weren’t enough, there is the justly celebrated “Battle of Shrewsbury” sequence — genuine spectacle of a size and scale one rightly wouldn’t expect in a film that is, until that point, rather intimate. But this too is a Wellesian magic trick. Less than 200 extras were made to stand for thousands, and the illusion is convincing.

Of Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight,” it may truly be said that never has something so small ever seemed so large.

Jan. 1–12. Mon.–Sat. at 12:30, 2:50, 5:10, 7:30 & 9:50 p.m. Sun. at 1:10, 3:30, 5:50 & 8:15 p.m. Runtime: 115 min. At Film Forum (209 W. Houston St., btw. Sixth Ave. & Varick St.). Call 212-727-8110 or visit filmforum.org. Tickets on-site are $13 general admission, $7.50 for Film Forum members.

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