As I’ve written before, the career of Orson Welles was a difficult one at best. His filmmaking is a series of production starting and then funding falling through. He would weasel and scheme his way into making the films that he wanted to make, meanwhile promising to make the films his producers wanted to make. This back and forth has led to much discussion of Orson and his storytelling. I say all of this to remind the reader that Orson Welles movies were typically made cheaply, and with very few material resources. Chimes at Midnight, now available for the first time in a quality home media edition via The Criterion Collection, has been a troublesome film since its inception and original release. An error at the processing lab resulted in the entire first reel of the film being out of sync with the picture for years, and not until this restoration was this issue fixed. This was also an issue stacked on top of the subpar sound recording and mixing, which Orson did himself and did the best he could. Unfortunately the film was simply problematic because of its production history.
But now, because of this new restoration, the troublesome sound having been worked on, and the picture being restored to a very filmic nature, we can enjoy the film which was inside of Orson’s head all along. Finally, it seems, his vision has been put to the screen as he wished. Thankfully the editing of this film has never been in question, as the movie was never taken away from Orson. That, of course, is something this film does not have in common with his other films, such as Touch of Evil (1958).
Chimes at Midnight is based on five Shakespearean plays, Henry IV Pt 1, Henry IV Pt 2, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Orson took these histories, combined them as he saw fit, and produced it, at first, as a stage play. The first version of the play Five Kings, was a flop, as was the second version, which shared the same title as the film. The story is primarily focused on the relationship between thief and scoundrel Sir John Falstaff, and his relationship with King Henry IV’s son, Prince Harry (whom Falstaff calls “Hal”). Prince Harry is a playful villain, much like his unofficial father figure, Falstaff. The two organize robberies against others, against each other, mock one another on a constant basis, and yet their father-son relationship shines forth very clearly. Orson always maintained this was a story about a boy caught between two fathers. On the one hand Prince Harry has his birth father, the King, whom he respects but does not love, and other the other hand he has his adoptive father, Falstaff, whom he loves but does not respect. Ultimately the narrative of the film serves the sole purpose of moving Harry toward a moment when he must choose between these two fathers. In the meantime, however, Prince Harry and Falstaff find themselves in the thick of it.
The film features the fairly typical Orson Welles flourishes: long takes, wide angle lenses, high contrast cinematography, peculiar musical choices, and terrific performances across the board. Welles, in particular, gives a stunning performance as Falstaff. But he also manages to surround himself with incredible actors. Keith Baxter as Prince Harry is playful and cunning, and a wonderful player opposite of Welles. The standout performance, however, is John Gielgud as King Henry IV; his grasp of the language and screen presence are unmatched anywhere else in the film. But Welles’ wonderful casting abilities extend to the bit players as well, as he fills the cast out with people of interesting faces and physical presence.
Welles is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. His film Touch of Evil is one of my favorite films of all time. I doubt that Chimes at Midnight will ever surpass Touch of Evil as my favorite Orson film, but I could easily see it becoming a favorite film of mine overall. It’s a splendid movie. Orson’s camera pierces and cuts like a knife, the performances are all wonderful, and the script is a very tightly wound, reworked, and put together imagining of Shakespeare’s plays. My hope is that this film will reignite talk of Orson being one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. My hope is that this film will set the same fires in the film world that The Apu Trilogy did a few years ago, will reignite interesting in the films of Orson Welles, and that perhaps we will finally be able to see his as of yet unfinished and unreleased film The Other Side of the Wind.
Orson’s luck was splendid until after he made Citizen Kane (1941). He was a wunderkind and unstoppable. Then his career went downhill and spun into chaos and a series of filmmaking disappointments. Perhaps Orson’s luck will change again, even though he long departed from the earth, and things will turn in favor of his legacy. Perhaps. But, either way, Chimes at Midnight is an incredible film and must be seen.