The Film (5/5)
Orson Welles was a lifelong aficionado of the works of William Shakespeare. Fresh in the world of entertainment he would take his knowledge of the works of the great British playwright and turn to adapting them for radio, theater, and eventually film. His first attempt at Shakespeare would come in Welles’ nineteenth year when he would cast Macbeth with an all black cast and create Voodoo Macbeth. This version would use a Caribbean backdrop and Voodoo in place of the witchcraft of the original story. Welles would quickly follow this with his CAESAR in 1937 created for the Broadway stage.
In 1941 Welles would make his greatest impact on the world of cinema with his debut feature Citizen Kane. It would be 6 years following that before he would attempt to bring the Bard to the screen, but in 1947 he would adapt Macbeth to the screen, followed soon after by Othello. He would then leave adapting Shakespeare to the screen until his 1966 film, and one of this month's Criterion releases Chimes at Midnight.
Chimes at Midnight began life as a stage work by Welles in 1939 called Five Kings which culled sequences from 9 of Shakespeare's works to tell it's story. He would revive the play in 1960 under the Chimes at Midnight title before rewriting it for the cinema. This version takes for it's source material 5 of Shakespeare's plays Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Richard II, Henry V, and the Merry Wives of Windsor. The narration performed by Ralph Richardson (Amicus' Tales from the Crypt) is from the works of Raphael Holinshed.
Chimes at Midnight takes the character of Falstaff from his various appearances in the aforementioned works and crafts a tale of life, friendship, and betrayal around him. Falstaff is a thief and a loafer, and a problem for the dying king Henry IV, because he is also one of the best friends of his son Prince Hal. Hal spends his days at the Boar's Head Tavern with Falstaff and a gang of misfits who get drunk, rowdy, and steal in order to keep up their lifestyle. King Henry, however wants the prince to shape up, and prepare for his life as a future King, which is exactly as the opposite of the one he has now.
The film has a sort of a fractured narrative because of how the plot is assembled from various strands of Shakespeare. In a way it acts as precursor to Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead which would debut the same year that Chimes at Midnight would make it's cinema debut. Of course Stoppard's work was a fiction that showed existing characters from a new perspective, while Welles' has taken a series of pre-existing works, and created a new narrative around it.
The interesting thing about Chimes at Midnight to myself as a viewer is that while there is certainly a narrative through line. The film could be seen as a story off Prince Hal overcoming the immaturity of youth, to become the King he will need to be. However, the film feels like narrative isn't its main concern with character and performance coming before else. It feels almost like a hang out film using Shakespeare as a backdrop in the regard. However, we watch the characters grow both as people and emotionally as the film plays out.
The performances from the main cast are exquisite with Welles of course dominating the screen as Falstaff with his immense presence. We are also treated to excellent performances by Sir John Gielgud as Henry IV, Keith Baxter as Prince Hal, and Jeanne Moreau as the prostitute Doll Tearsheet. The film has gorgeous black and white cinematography courtesy of cinematographer Edmond Richard who captures all the grime and muck of the era in it's dirty glory. The film opens with a gorgeous scene of Welles as Falstaff and Justice Shallow (Alan Webb) walking through the snow before settling down by a fire in the Boar's Head Tavern, and beginning a discussion that starts a flashback. This moments set the tone of the film quite nicely from the opening moments.
Of course no review of the film would be complete without mentioning the still stunning Battle of Shrewsbury sequence. This sequence with Welles' shooting a battle that was meant to feature 1000's of men with less than 200 is still one of the best examples of medieval warfare committed to film. It also makes for a poignant anti-war statement. Also, of note 2nd unit photography on Chimes at Midnight was done by none other than Virgin Among the Living Dead/Vampyros Lesbos director Jess Franco.
Criterion presents Chimes at Midnight in a stunning 1:66:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer. The last time I saw this film was on a bootleg VHS tape, as the film has been in rights hell for decades, so seeing a version of the film look this good was quite the experience. The film has excellent contrast, not quite a perfectly crisp image, but very film like, deep and detailed, and a nice organic grain structure throughout the presentation.
The audio is presented with an LPCM 1.0 mono track in English. The track is solid for what it is, dialogue is audible for the most part, and the score comes through nicely.
Criterion, of course, has put together quite a solid package together for their release of Chimes at Midnight. There is a commentary track with film historian James Naremore. Multiple on camera interviews including one with Beatrice Welles (Orson Welles' daughter), Keith Baxter who played Prince Hal in the film, Simon Callow, a biographer of Welles , and film historian Joseph McBride. There is an archival interview with Welles' from the Merv Griffin show, the theatrical trailer, and liner notes with an essay by Michael Anderegg.
Criterion has rescued Chimes at Midnight from the red tape that was holding back it's release, and put it to Blu-ray in a gorgeous new restoration. There is a nice slate of extras included, and of course this package comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.