Thursday, July 4, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.11: Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 96/A

Orson Welles had his fair share of Shakespeare adaptations, but there’s no doubt as to which one was his most personal. The history of Welles’ greatest Shakespearean work traces all the way back to his stay at the Todd School for Boys, where he combined a number of Shakespeare plays in an original production. In 1939, he brought it to Broadway as Five Kings, a mixture of Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV Parts 1-2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1-3, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The play was a failure, but Welles fascination with the project, and specifically with the relationship of Falstaff and Prince Hal/Henry V, never ended. Welles tweaked the project again, retitled it Chimes at Midnight, and debuted it on stage in 1960, where it failed again. Undaunted, Welles brought the production to film in 1965 after convincing his producer that he was really working on Treasure Island. The film was not successful at the box office, but Welles considered it one of his greatest achievements, and with reason. Chimes at Midnight is not only one of Welles’ most personal and accomplished works- it is the greatest Shakespeare film ever made.

NOTE: Due to rights issues, this film is extremely difficult to find on any home video. Some nice fellow put up a copy on Youtube. Go watch it.

Henry IV (John Gielgud) is the new king, having killed Richard II and refused to rescue Richard’s heir. The king is displeased with his son, Prince Hal (Keith Baxter reprising his role from the stage play), who spends most of his time drinking, sleeping with prostitutes, and staying in the company of Sir John Falstaff (Welles), a fat, drunken, criminal knight. King Henry believes that his son will never be a worthy or responsible successor to the throne, but he soon becomes preoccupied with a battle against Henry “Hotspur” Percy (Norman Rodway) and the rebels loyal to Richard II. Hal must then decide whether to stay in Falstaff’s joyful company or follow in his father’s footsteps and reject his friend.

Like most of Welles’ non-Hollywood productions, Chimes at Midnight was made on the cheap, but one wouldn’t know it looking at it. Some minor sound problems aside, this film is as impressive as anything Welles ever made, making great use of wide angles (this is his first film in widescreen) as a way to play with spatial dynamics more than ever. There’s a wonderful sense of movement and rhythm in this film, whether it follows Hotspur and his family plotting against Henry IV or Falstaff and Hal as they make merry in a house of ill repute. Welles’ visual storytelling in this film is incredible- one low reverse dolly shot establishes the king’s dominance and regality simply but elegantly; another pair of shots show one character’s dominance over another as the former is shown towering over the camera and the other on the camera’s level. Welles’ use of chiaroscuro here, meanwhile, is as great as it ever was, particularly as King Henry is bathed in light, as if he was a rule straight from the heavens.

One of the more striking sequences in the film makes great use of Welles’ Brechtian tendencies. Falstaff and Hal have just spoken about the possibility that the king will banish Falstaff, and the two put on a play for the prostitutes and their customers. At first, Falstaff plays Henry, Hal himself, and it’s riotously funny as Welles, wearing a pot for a crown, mimics Gielgud’s distinctive voice and makes him out to be the ultimate pompous Shakespearean character. The fact that Falstaff is shot from a low angle to imply dominance only amplifies the joke. As the two switch roles, Hal mimics Gielgud’s voice as well, but there’s more bite to his Henry’s rebuke of Falstaff, and the older man’s role-playing as Hal falls away as he turns into plain Falstaff, defending his own character, trying like mad to hide his pain. It’s a moment of Brechtian strangeness and remove that manages to both comment on the events of the story and serve as an emotional moment, as it’s clear that the jolly Falstaff has a big, easily wounded heart.

Still, the greatest technical achievement in the film is undoubtedly the Battle of Shrewsbury, a sequence that no doubt served as a major influence on films such as Saving Private Ryan and Henry V. Welles’ build-up to the battle is brilliant- heavy wind and fog gives the event a feeling of doom. Welles then goes all-out in one of his greatest pieces of editing ever, a six-minutes sequence of fast-cutting, tracking shots, and hand-held cameras as the warring armies relentlessly beat and stab at each other in the mud. If the battle is chaotic, it is with reason. We’re in the middle of hell, and  however necessary this battle may be for Henry IV to keep the throne, there’s no romance to it whatsoever. Three extra points of brilliance- the battle’s climactic swordfight between Hal and Hotspur, one of the most exciting duels in cinema history; the death of Hotspur, sad and pitiable as he can’t even finish his soliloquy as he dies; and the constant sense of where Falstaff is in relation to battle (i.e., hiding in the bushes).

Welles cast a host of talented stage and screen actors in the lead roles, from Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet, a prostitute and Falstaff’s love interest to Rodway as Hotspur, a man manipulated by his cousin (Fernando Rey) to battle against the king. Margaret Rutherford is particularly good as Mistress Quickly, the hostess and madam at the tavern where Falstaff and Hal spend most of their time. That said, Welles cut down the Henry IV plays to their bare essence to focus almost solely on the Falstaff/Hal/Henry relationship. Keith Baxter is excellent as Hal, youthful and rebellious, torn between his royal background and the free-spirited lifestyle he loves. Gielgud, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as Henry. Gielgud had one of the all-time great speaking voices, his beautiful diction and sense of verse making him the ideal actor to play a classical, regal Shakespearean figure. He’s John Gielgud, for goodness sake. Who could be a better authority figure in a Shakespeare film than him?

Welles felt that Falstaff was Shakespeare’s greatest creation, and the role he was born to play. He may have been right. Welles perfectly embodies the qualities that make Falstaff so memorable- joviality, delusions of grandeur, and a larger than life personality that makes him an ideal storyteller. When Falstaff tells an absurd story of being ambushed by a group of robbers (which increases in number with each sentence), his tale may be ridiculous, but it’s hard not to be amused by his story. No doubt Welles saw something of himself in Falstaff, which is why the character registers here as more than just he butt of a joke or a corrupting influence, but as a complicated human being. He’s a man whose love of Hal is at least partially a sad attempt to recapture his youth- the film’s titular line is a reference to the age of Falstaff and his friend- but it’s also borne out of genuine affection between the two.

Welles had another real-life parallel for Falstaff- his father, Dick Welles, was a notorious alcoholic and womanizer whom young Orson loved but nevertheless knew was a poisoning influence on his life. Orson was convinced by father-figure Maurice “Dadda” Bernstein to tell Dick he wouldn’t see him until he cleaned up his act. Dick was crushed, and he would die before he saw Orson again. This relationship informs the Falstaff/Hal/Henry dynamic in Chimes at Midnight. As Henry’s health fails, he laments his son’s dealings with the thieving, drinking, whoring Falstaff. Henry is, to some extent, unfair to the two of them, but it’s only because he must be. Hal cannot fulfill his destiny as a king and leader of the people unless he rejects his mentor. Considering that Henry’s own reign has seen rebellion, the stakes are doubled.

In a sense, Welles reverses his own rejection of his father, as Hal now must instead reject a mentor rather than his real father. At the same time, the feeling of loss in the film unmistakably reflects Welles’ guilt over his rejection of his father.  Hal returns to Henry, who dies bathed in a gorgeous heavenly chiaroscuro, and takes on the responsibility Henry always wanted for him. But what of Falstaff? As he pushes through a crowd after Hal’s coronation, Welles notably uses a shot-reverse that shows Hal in a low shot, looking dominant, and Falstaff in a high shot, looking small. He’s looked down upon by Hal, who puts him down as a fool, and no longer wants anything to do with the man he loved. “I do so despise my dream…presume not that I am the thing I was.”

The look of Falstaff’s face here is absolutely crestfallen as the boy he truly loved rejects him, leaving him too walk off into the distance. This is the last we see of Falstaff, appropriate considering that the rejection was the last time Welles saw his own father. Falstaff dies of a broken heart soon thereafter, though some comfort is given at his funeral as Mistress Quickly assures his friends that he is with God (his last words- “God. God. GOD!”). Still, it’s a lonely burial without Hal, now Henry V, whom the narrator insists went on to be a great king, “who left no friendship unrewarded, and no misdeed unpunished”. And all it took was the rejection of the ultimate friendship. Through the lens of Shakespeare’s play, Welles sees that it was necessary that he reject his father in order to become a great artist. Whether or not he thought it was worth it, however, is a different story.

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