Chimes at Midnight: Criterion Collection
November 17, 2016
For years, Orson Welles wanted to portray Sir John Falstaff, a recurring character in William Shakespeare’s plays. In 1939, Welles had produced a Broadway stage adaptation of nine Shakespeare plays and revived it in 1960. While neither were successful, the filmmaker wanted to capture his take on Falstaff on film and did so in Chimes at Midnight (1965). While not critically well-received, it won two awards at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival and has gone to be regarded as one of his best cinematic works.
With Chimes at Midnight, Welles seamlessly weaves text from Henry IV, Part I, Henry IV, Part II, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. King Henry IV (Gielgud) of England has succeeded Richard II whose heir, Edmund Mortimer is imprisoned in Wales. Mortimer’s cousins demand that Henry free Mortimer. He refuses and the cousins plot to overthrow his reign.
Prince Hal (Baxter) is his father Henry’s greatest disappointment. Instead of hob-knobbing with royalty he spends most of his time with Falstaff (Welles) and disreputable types – prostitutes and thieves. He is merely biding his time, however, until he decides to reunite with his father and take his proper role.
Welles embodies Falstaff with relish, delivering the definitive take on this iconic character. With his sizable girth and beard to match, the actor certainly looks the part but also brings the character to life. He was just the right age to play Falstaff and brings a world-weariness that wouldn’t have been possible years earlier. It only adds to the authenticity of his performance.
The film’s story is full of plotting and political machinations but Welles injects light moments, like the scene where Falstaff participates in a robbery only to be then robbed by Hall in disguise. Later, in an amusing scene, Falstaff recounts what happened in a wildly exaggerated tale to a bemused Hal.
For a film that was shot on a low budget and sporadically over a year, Chimes at Midnight looks great, instantly transporting us back to this time and place. Welles even stages an ambitious battle scene with an exciting, visceral approach. This film is one of the best Shakespeare adaptations and features one of Welles’ finest performances.
The Blu-Ray transfer shows off Welles’ richly textured black and white cinematography brilliantly with fine detail and a pristine print!
There is an audio commentary by film scholar James Naremore, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles. He delivers a thoughtful, extremely informative look at the film and Welles.
Actor Keith Baxter is interviewed and talks about playing Prince Hal both on the stage and in Welles’ film. He also offers his impressions of working with the man.
Welles’ daughter Beatrice is also interviewed and she gives her impressions of watching her father shoot the film as well as her small role in it.
Welles biographer Simon Callow talks about Welles’ ambitious adaptation, which took several Shakespeare plays and fused them into one coherent film.
Film historian Joseph McBride also talks about adapting Shakespeare and the later period of Welles’ career.
There is also a vintage interview from The Merv Griffin Show with Welles while he was editing the film.
Finally, there is a trailer.