Goodbye to England: Chimes at Midnight

Chimes at Midnight (1965 France/Spain/Switzerland) aka Campanadas a medianoche Directed by Orson Welles Shown left foreground: Orson Welles; far right: Keith Baxter

I haven’t seen a print of Chimes at Midnight that didn’t look as if it had been made in Lancaster-era England. A restoration by Janus Films and The Criterion Collection promises to burnish Orson Welles’ troubled masterpiece into something worth its stature as among the most satisfying and certainly most inventive of Shakespeare adaptations: a synthesis of the Henriad and The Merry Wives of Windsor that situates the Falstaff-Hal friendship amid the chicanery of the royal court. Assembled and edited on the fly, Chimes at Midnight will never look as Welles intended, but the way in which this mystique and the film’s storybook air fuse gives it a freshness that will never lose its bloom. Steven Morowitz and filmmaker Joel Bender of Distribpix Inc. found an “almost pristine” 35mm print, which is touring the country before Criterion releases DVD and Blu-ray editions.

Critics often use a piece of art’s shortcomings to argue for its realization. The extreme long shots with which Welles favors John Gielgud’s Henry IV dovetail with the character’s aloofness, Gielgud’s plummy diction (with a dad and king this stuffy it’s no wonder that Hal rebels), and the fact that the peripatetic nature of the production meant the actor wasn’t available at all times. Occasionally the dialogue and images aren’t synced, noticeable during a couple of Hal-Falstaff bull sessions, yet it works: it sets up Falstaff as the half-listening sucker who should’ve noticed the ambition and sangfroid that will turn his protege into Henry V, king of England.

But let me be clear: the production has shortcomings, not the film. Only Welles’ Othello among Shakespeare adaptations creates the sense of stumbling into a world as remote as an outer rim planet; Chimes at Midnight is not an attempt to “humanize” or modernize the playwright. You can almost smell the pines and oaks and feel the moisture of the mist. It’s a difficult film. To sort out the character’s relations takes a while. The performances help: Keith Baxter as Hal, wily enough to hide his coldbloodedness; Jeanne Moreau as Mistress Quickly, teasing Falstaff in every way, one of the few moments of frisson between Welles and a woman; and Welles himself, savoring the wit and pathos of the verse. Perhaps watching Welles in too many fat suits over the years dulled appreciation. Other than Citizen Kane he never did more exciting work onscreen; it’s a role equal to his prestidigitation, his verbal facility, his ease. And he was his own best critic of his work. In the early seventies he told Peter Bogdanovich:

Essentially the film is the story of that triangle. Opposed to Falstaff, the king stands for responsibility. But what is so fascinating in Shakespeare is that the king himself is an adventurer–he who has usurped the throne speaks for legitimacy. And Hal must betray the only good man in the story to protect a doubtful heritage and realize his coolly chosen destiny as an English hero. And, of course, Falstaff is in himself a reproach and rebuke to all those royal and heroic pretensions.

So is the final battle sequence, lauded over the years as one of the convincing in cinema: a tumult of mud and horseshoes, an ode to futility clad in beautiful cumbersome armor. Welles was the first to admit nostalgia undergirded much of his work. Chimes at Midnight showed the pitilessness of this dream world.

Chimes at Midnight is out on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray.

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