BOOTLEG FILES 322: “Chimes at Midnight” (1965 Shakespearean production directed by and starring Orson Welles).
LAST SEEN: Available at several online video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Problems regarding the ownership of the film have kept it out of commercial release.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Hopefully some day, but nothing is on the near horizon.
In writing this column over the years, I have found myself returning with too-great frequency to the films of Orson Welles. It is rather astonishing that the creative artist that many consider to be America’s greatest filmmaker has so much of his work only available for viewing courtesy of second- or third-generation duped prints. Woes involving either litigation regarding ownership rights or the absence of current copyright protection can be blamed for this mess – whatever genius Welles put on film was conspicuously absent when it came to the legal aspect of who controlled his cinematic canon.
This is particularly glaring in regard to “Chimes at Midnight,” his 1965 Shakespearean riff. Welles reportedly considered this to be his finest work as a director – yes, even better than that 1941 thing about the newspaper owner. But today, it is impossible to enjoy “Chimes of Midnight” through proper commercial channels. Legal issues surrounding the film has kept it unavailable in all markets except Spain, where a commercially released DVD is available. The problems in clearing up the ownership of the film have also prevented it from receiving a much-needed restoration.
“Chimes at Midnight” is embraced by many Welles scholars and film critics as being his crowning achievement. Since I am not afraid of marching to the proverbial different drum, I can say that I cannot share that opinion. In my view, “Chimes at Midnight” is easy to admire but difficult to embrace. It has a wealth of artistic considerations in its favor, but as a cohesive whole it leaves me strangely unsatisfied.
The genesis of “Chimes at Midnight” began in 1939 when Welles staged “Five Kings,” a too-ambitious reconfiguring of several Shakespearean dramas into a new work. “Five Kings” was an expensive flop that sped the end of Welles’ Mercury Theatre project – his well-timed RKO contract took him to Hollywood, leaving the Shakespearean debacle behind. However, Welles never truly dropped the idea of tinkering with Shakespeare. In 1960, he staged “Chimes at Midnight,” which chopped together “Henry IV, Part 1” and “Henry IV, Part 2” along with “Henry V,” “Richard II” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Welles, playing the role of Sir John Falstaff, staged “Chimes at Midnight” in theaters in Belfast and Dublin; it was not a rousing commercial success.
However, Welles was not discouraged. With bare-bones financial backing from a pair of Spanish investors (who were initially expecting to finance a Welles film version of “Treasure Island”) and Canadian producer Harry Saltzman (best known for his involvement in the James Bond series), Welles sought to bring his long-gestating project to the screen.
In typical Welles circumstances, however, the project ran into endless problems. Hiccups in his cash flow and health flare-ups forced the production to shut down for a while. Difficulties in the sound recording process (a weird habit for all of Welles’ European-based productions) resulted in a film marred with uneven synchronization. Welles’ penchant for personally redubbing the roles of supporting players resulted in a number of voices that did not match the actors on screen. And to ensure commercial interest in Europe, French sexpots Jeanne Moreau and Marina Vlady were given roles despite their lack of comfort levels with English (Shakespearean or otherwise).
“Chimes at Midnight” focuses on the struggle for the emotional allegiance of Prince Hal (Welsh actor Keith Baxter, who bares a strong resemblance to Anthony Perkins, Welles’ star in his film of Kafka’s “The Trial”). Keeping Prince Hal amused with hijinks involving debauchery and pranks is the inebriated Falstaff (Welles, made-up with a shock of snow-white hair and a milky thick beard). But pushing the prince to acknowledge his responsibilities is his father, the dying King Henry IV (John Gielgud, in a brilliantly commanding vocal performance).
Welles stages several memorable sequences showing the Falstaff-Prince Hal relationship. Their larcenous rough-housing with a group of pilgrims in a snowy forest is a marvel of comic pacing and inventive camerawork – and Welles, who was always cagey about displaying his girth on camera, not only allowed full-body shots of his circular physique, but also showed remarkable agility in a chase through a maze of trees. Later in the film, Falstaff and Prince Hal stage a comically rude mock-royal court for the lusty ladies employed at the “bawdy” house owned by Mistress Quickly (Margaret Rutherford, the beloved comic character actress in a rare Shakespearean role).
Yet the film’s key sequence is the Battle of Shrewsbury, which Welles stages in a daringly glamorous manner. The sprawling mass of horses, knights and foot soldiers tearing at each other across a muddy plain offers a vision of medieval war as a tragic mess of blood, fury and futility. To his credit, Welles did an extraordinary job in hiding his micro-budget – the same 100 extras were used repeatedly, with several costume changes and inventing camera placements to suggest a grander scale conflict.
Ultimately, Prince Hal’s duties to his country require him to emotionally mature and take on the royal duties as King Henry V following his father’s death. Falstaff’s foolish disturbance of the new king’s coronation results in a harsh public rebuke from the monarch, who orders Falstaff banished. Welles’ silent suffering response to the humiliation from his one-time devoted friend is genuinely touching, and this portion of the performance provides an uncommon emotional jolt.
But, in a way, that also emphasizes my problem with “Chimes at Midnight” – up until that moment, there is no emotional pulse throughout most of the film. Yes, there are the trademarks of Welles’ directing style – the bold camerawork, the quirky editing, the strength of an eccentric ensemble – but the effect feels like a patchwork quilt rather than a flowing tapestry.
Bosley Crowther, reviewing the film in its 1967 U.S. theatrical premiere (oddly, under the new U.S. title “Falstaff”), rightly complained that the central character remained an enigma: “Is this Falstaff a truly jovial person? Does he have a genuine wit and a tavern-companion’s grand affection for the fun-loving scapegoat, Prince Hal? Has he, deep down, a spirit of rebellion against stuffy authority? Or is he merely what he looks like – a dissolute bumbling, street-corner Santa Claus?”
Crowther’s negative review brought about a furious rebuke from Andrew Sarris, then writing for the Village Voice – yet Sarris’ anger seemed more focused on Crowther’s Times-based power position rather than his commentary on Welles, which was mostly indifferent rather than sadistic and actually contained praise for several supporting performances. While the film found interest with European viewers, U.S. audiences did not care to seek out “Chimes at Midnight,” a failure that depressed Welles.
Over the years, the film’s reputation has been bolstered by the likes of Roger Ebert, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Peter Bogdanovich. “Chimes at Midnight” occasionally turns up at film retrospectives of Welles’ works and it has been broadcast several times on television – in one Bravo presentation, Newsweek critic David Ansen introduced the film by claiming that it was the greatest Shakespearean film ever made.
For those who would like to seek out the film, unauthorized postings of the film can easily be located on several online video sites. Granted, this is not the best way to view an Orson Welles film, and the prints that were used suggest a second-generation dupe. Nonetheless, no serious Welles lover can claim completion without experiencing “Chimes at Midnight” – for all of its many faults, it needs to be seen.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!