Throughout his life, Orson Welles was fascinated by Shakespeare – studying and editing the texts (usually pretty drastically), directing them and performing them on the stage and in the cinema.
His third and final Shakespeare film, Chimes at Midnight, was the completion of a project first embarked on when a schoolboy in 1930 as Five Kings, a conflation of plays about the Wars of the Roses. It was eventually shot over a year in Spain with money conned out of a Spanish producer, who believed that Welles was simultaneously directing on the same sets and location the Shakespearean Chimes at Midnight (a potentially unprofitable venture) and a new version of Stevenson’s Treasure Island (a far more commercial prospect) with himself as Long John Silver. In fact, not a foot of the adventure movie was made, though Welles did play Long John in 1972 in a rarely seen Spanish-Italian production.
Chimes at Midnight draws largely on Henry IV Part 1 and 2 with a few lines from Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor and a linking narration from Holinshed’s Chronicles spoken by Ralph Richardson, himself celebrated for an appearance as Sir John Falstaff. This being a Spanish production made in English, several minor roles went to continental actors (eg, Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet, Fernando Rey – dubbed by Welles himself – as the Earl of Worcester).
But otherwise the cast is made up of classically trained British performers led by a bearded Welles who dominates the film as the elderly, lecherous, obese Falstaff, his eyes twinkling, his nose looking like a strawberry about to burst. Welles thought Falstaff Shakespeare’s greatest creation, considered this his own best film and saw its theme as “the betrayal of friendship”, though it is much more than that.
The film ran into a lot of trouble. Welles fell ill. There were problems at the lab. Actors came and went and had to be shot around. The budget proved inadequate and Harry Saltzman (recently made rich through the Bond franchise) bailed the production out with some million dollars. But this was to create problems later as to who owned the film: for decades, the rights were in dispute and the picture withheld from distribution. Even when the shooting ended. the editing was postponed while Welles went off to appear in René Clément’s Is Paris Burning?.
Like all Welles’s films after Citizen Kane,it is deeply flawed and even in this restored version the soundtrack is poor, some performances are crude and it has an unfinished feel. As has often been observed, it’s as if Welles deliberately avoided fully completing or polishing his work, providing himself with alibis and excuses for failure.
These shortcomings were seized on by many critics in the English-speaking world and it took time for it to be properly appreciated outside France. But overall this elegiac, monochrome movie, shot in the snow and mud in wintry landscapes, is a rich masterpiece. The battle of Shrewsbury is filmed in long takes with considerable use of hand-held cameras, then cut into fragments and superbly edited by Welles. The effect is like a brutal horror show glimpsed through a fog of war. John Gielgud is deeply moving as the guilt-ridden Henry IV and Keith Baxter is an appropriately chilly Prince Hal. Above all, Welles dominates the film. Warm, witty and sly, both proud and self-loathing, he’s a dishonest man in search of higher truths in a corrupt world of power and brutal ambition. This mercurial Falstaff can be seen as a painfully honest self-portrait, one of a series that goes back to Charles Foster Kane.
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