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Old 05-27-2009, 06:17 PM
Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

What an amazing idea to take portions of several of Shakespeare's plays and tell the story of one of his most beloved characters; one that most people not familiar with Shakespeare will probably have never even heard of. Sir John Falstaff appears in many of the Bard's plays, but was always a supporting player. Here, Orson Welles tells the story of Falstaff as though he was a main character.

King Henry IV (John Gielgud) is worried about his son, Prince Hall (Keith Baxter), being over-influenced by the crudeness of Sir John Falstaff (Orson Welles). When some of King Henry IV subjects object to his having taken the crown over the rightful owner, they rebel against him, eventually leading to a large battle. Meanwhile, Prince Hal, who is next in line to the throne, spends much of his time drinking and partaking of other pleasures in the company of Falstaff and his other friends. The time will come when Prince Hal must choose between his devotion to England and the decadence he enjoys with his friends.

From what I remember of the plays involving Falstaff, the selections of this movie were taken from Henry IV, parts I and II, leading up to Falstaff's death in Henry V. Welles has brilliantly taken the sections involving Falstaff and weaved together the story of this great character. He, of course, also includes the stories of the titular characters, but that is to be expected as Falstaff's story is closely intertwined with Prince Hal (eventually Henry V). If he had just done the story of Falstaff, there probably wouldn't have been enough material to warrant a movie, nor would it have made much sense.

It is great to watch as some of the best scenes from these plays are brought together. Some particularly great scenes from Henry IV, part I, include the part where Falstaff and some of his friends are planning to rob some pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, but when they accomplish this, they themselves are robbed by Prince Hal and his friend in disguise, jokingly of course. This is followed by another great scene where they catch Falstaff in a lie about fending off several men to allow himself to escape, but it is eventually revealed that it was merely Prince Hal and his friend as they dump the gold on the table before him.

Also included is the great battle scene from Henry IV, part II, in which King Henry IV, his troops, and Prince Hal fight the rebellious Henry Percy (Norman Rodway). At first, I found this battle scene to be very confusing, as all we can see are several people clashing in brief close-ups, men falling over dead, and others crying out as they are impaled. It was very hard to see who was on what side, but after reflecting on it, it seems like this is exactly how it would be; a massively confusing battle where people are dying all around, hardly being able to tell who is who. It's not like they were wearing uniforms to denote who they were.

To add a little humor to this situation, we get several shots of Falstaff running around in his large armor, trying to avoid the fight, and eventually playing dead. Prince Hal finds him after defeating Percy, obviously knowing Falstaff is still alive, he orders him disemboweled, which immediately gets Falstaff up in protest.

Who better to perform the part of this larger than life character than Welles himself? Not only does he perfectly fit the shape of the role, but he is also able to play him with a full range of emotion, which he brings out brilliantly throughout. This is particularly shown in the last few scenes, where Prince Hal, now Henry V, renounces his friendship with Falstaff before the court. Falstaff's heart is broken and his emotional scars can be seen all over his face. This leads to Falstaff's death; as one of his friends says, "The king has killed his heart."

Those familiar with Shakespeare adaptations or Welles's work in general will know that he is no stranger to the Bard's plays. Welles had also adapted Macbeth into a decent film in the late 40s. In the early 50s, he adapted another tragedy, Othello, which didn't turn out quite as well as Macbeth, but is still interesting to watch. It is said that he actually took his role in Carol Reed's "The Third Man" so that he could finish production on his adaptation of Othello.

The main problem I had with Othello was how he reduced some of Macbeth's monologues to voiceovers, or shots of the back of his head so that he could make it a voiceover. With "Chimes at Midnight," we are able to see that the cast is saying almost all of the dialogue, though it is reported that some of it was dubbed over, with some of it being out of sync.

It is amazing that Welles was able to make films that turned out this good, especially on his major budgetary constraints. For "Chimes at Midnight," he was working on a budget of only $800,000, yet he was able to make a masterpiece. This is a film that definitely deserves a restoration by Criterion as it is one of the best, if not THE best, performance Orson Welles has ever delivered, only then will justice be done to this film. 4/4 stars.
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