Orson Welles boiled down five related Shakespeare plays, found the comic tragedy at their core, and created a masterpiece. Chimes at Midnight, also known as Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight, has been unavailable in anything like a complete version for decades. With the recent theatrical restoration, and Criterion’s new Blu-ray based on that restoration, it’s finally available in all of its troubled glory.
Chimes takes its story, inspirations, and most of its dialog from Henry IV Parts I and II, concentrating on Shakespeare’s ultimate loveable scoundrel, Sir John Falstaff (played, of course, by Welles, himself). Fat, drunken, and duplicitous, Falstaff embraces life and all the joys it provides. His self-serving yet occasionally wise philosophy provide much of the comedy. But age and rejection will turn him into a tragic figure. (A smattering of dialog comes from Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor–a comedy Shakespeare wrote to exploit the popular Falstaff character.)
The plot: King Henry IV (John Gielgud) faces insurrections in his kingdom and his family. The family problem involves his son and heir, Hal (Keith Baxter). Prince Hal ignores his royal chores, preferring to spend his time drinking, carousing, and whoring with Falstaff and his friends. Hal is caught between two worlds and two father figures, and his inevitable decision to take on his responsibilities will break Falstaff’s heart.
Welles created a believable and effective medieval world on an extremely limited budget. Mistress Quickly’s inn (no one seems to believe her claim that it’s not a bawdy house) is large, specious, and filled with raunchy joy. And yet the king’s austere and forbidding castle looms over it.
A seemingly large battle, brilliantly edited to disguise the thin budget, makes up the film’s centerpiece. Close-ups of mud and dying soldiers, sometimes in slow motion and sometimes fast, plays against a haunting music score that avoids heroics.
And through that battle, Welles provides comic relief as a Falstaff in absurdly fat armor, trying to find the safest spot on the battlefield. And his words condemn the romantic view of war: ” What is that honour? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday.”
The cast also includes Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford, and Fernando Rey–although Rey’s voice was dubbed in by someone else. Keith Baxter, who never gained true movie star status despite his looks and talent, plays the second lead, Prince Hall.
Chimes at Midnight has been a difficult film to see, at least in a decent form, for decades. It’s good to have it back.
How It Looks
Edmond Richard beautifully shot Chimes at Midnight in black and white (Welles called black and white “the actor’s friend”). The short lenses, deep focus, and strong contrasts makes this very much an Orson Welles film.
Criterion’s 1080p transfer does it justice. This is a beautiful disc. The image is pillarboxed to 1.66×1–the standard European widescreen of the time.
How It Sounds
The film’s audio has always been its one big weakness. Like most of Welles’ European films, the dialog was recorded after the film was shot. The words and the actors’ lips don’t always match–especially near the beginning. Sometimes, a minor character talks in what is clearly Welles’ own voice. It’s distracting.
The restoration fixed the soundtrack about as well as it could be fixed. But for some strange reason, the uncompressed, 24-bit, mono LPCM soundtrack was transferred at a very low volume. You have to turn up the audio to hear it properly.
And the Extras
Criterion shot four new interviews for this release. All of them are shown in 1080p, with clips from the films and stills from Welles’ life.
- Poster and article: Inside the package, you’ll find a folded sheet of paper. One side has an expressionistic illustration of the characters from the film. The other contains an article by Michael Anderegg that places the film in the context of Welles as an interpreter of Shakespeare on the stage and on film.
- Timeline: Like all Critierion discs, this one has a timeline where you can add shortcuts. It also has a bookmark feature, that lets you insert the disc and get back to where you left off.
- Commentary track: By James Naremore, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles. Interesting. He talks about the characters, the stage version made before the movie, the camera work, and just about everything. But Naremore made one serious mistake, assigning a scene from one play to another.
- Keith Baxter interview: 30 minutes. He discusses the making of the stage and film versions, and working with Welles and Gielgud.
- Beatrice Welles interview: 15 minutes. Orson’s daughter was only nine when she played a role in the film. Here she discusses what it was like having Orson Welles as a father. Interesting at first, but it gets dull.
- Simon Callow interview: 32 minutes. An actor and a Welles biographer, Callow played Falstaff in a 1998 production of the Chimes at Midnight stage play. Here he discusses Welles and his identification with Falstaff, as well as how the film was made and barely distributed. This is the best of the four new interviews.
- Joseph McBride interview: 27 minutes. Yet another biographer. This interview covers a lot of what’s already in the Callow interview, but it has some original content, as well.
- The Merv Griffin Show: 1080i (although it looks like standard definition), 11 minutes. This excerpt from a 1965 episode has Griffin interviewing Welles in his editing room while he adds finishing touches to the movie. It shows the editing tools of the day, and some footage of the battle scene. Welles discusses both this film and some career highlights.
- Trailer: 1080p; 2 minutes. Clearly a new trailer for this restoration. Fun.
The disc goes on sale August 30.