CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Orson Welles, Keith
Baxter, Jon Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau
Director: Orson Welles
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Features: See Review
Length: 116 Minutes
Release Date: August 30, 2016
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
The above line was spoken by King Henry IV (Gielgud), certainly not by the rotund, mischievous and aging knight Falstaff (Welles). It's a suitable contradiction at the heart of Chimes at Midnight, arguably the last truly finished masterpiece by Welles.
I hate to get ahead of myself, but...Kudos to Criterion for bringing this film to Blu-ray in such glorious fashion. The film was pretty much unseen in the States since its debut in 1966; only foreign tapes or DVDs allowed any fans to seek the film out at all, and then in very poor prints.
Why? The reasons may have to do with 'respected' critics at the time, or Welles' own slow, continual descent out of grace with Hollywood and the film world, who seemed anxious for him to just go ahead and die so they could finally begin to honor him, but were reluctant to offer this genius any assistance in realizing his final visions for us.
It's an ambitious work filmed somewhat on the cheap, as Welles focused on Falstaff, the comical supporting character of many of William Shakespeare's historical dramas. By patching together pieces of Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Richard II and The Merry Wives of Windsor, Welles drafted a film that is said to be all Shakespeare, and gives him a chance personally to bring the beloved troublemaker to life.
This is a film with some humor, some drama, and some action, as Falstaff befriends the young prince Hal (Baxter), heir to the throne of his father Henry IV, whom we learn through some convenient narration arrived at his crown rather unscrupulously. While King Henry faces one rebellion after another from those who know where the crown belongs, he wonders if his foolish and fun-loving son Hal, taken too much by Falstaff, will ever be the son and future king he wants and needs.
There is a great battle scene, carefully constructed by Welles to appear as though he were in command of hundreds (instead of dozens) with chaos, violence, and humor, as the portly Falstaff can't even get lifted onto his horse, and ends up playing dead in the field and taking credit for a top kill he didn't make.
The film is beautifully shot, with Welles' impeccable black and white style and ability to arrange space with floors and ceilings and low and high shots to make his movie look more expensive than it was. And though he'll always be remembers for Kane, it could be argued that Falstaff was the role he was born and honed to play. Welles, at that time, was becoming the aging round figure that Falstaff was written to be, and his own trials and tribulations of trying to maintain greatness into his aging years certainly befit Shakespeare's knighted clown.
Chimes at Midnight is indeed one final masterpiece from a legendary master of cinema, and was a least a late triumph for Welles that was unlike what befell poor Falstaff.
As mentioned, Criterion took an aged, little seen film and restored it beyond all expectations. Theirs and Janus' painstaking work has brought every frame of this neglected master work back from the dead and to full glorious life. The black and white photography rings through with amazing contrast and depth, serving every detail of Welles' vision with alarming clarity. There may not be a greater service the good folks at Criterion will ever do cineastes that what they've done with this Blu-ray.
As mentioned, this film was actually filmed somewhat cheaply, and one of the ways was to post-dub nearly all dialogue. Except for Welles and Gielgud, I don't believe most of the actors' actual voices are what we here. There have always been some synchronization problems, and some issues with pieces being a little louder and softer than others. Though Criterion does a solid job with this uncompressed audio track, some of the inherent problems are still there. Occasionally, I found it best to watch with the subtitles on just to make sure I didn't miss anything. Still, a clean solid effort.
There is a great new commentary by film scholar James Newman (who authored a book on Welles), which is a good and informative listen. There are brand new interviews with Keith Baxter, Welles' daughter Beatrice (who appeared in the film as a child), biographer Simon Callow, historian Joseph McBride (who tells how he became Welles' favorite critic), a classic interview with Welles at the time of the film's making, and a segment from “The Merv Griffin Show” featuring Welles talking about the movie. Rounding out is a trailer and a terrific booklet.
Chimes at Midnight will never again be considered a masterpiece few have ever had the chance to see, thanks to this terrific Blu-ray and restoration effort from Criterion. Orson Welles' famed 'lost' film was not his final, but in many ways, serves as the great magician's swan song.