Saturday, February 13, 2016

Chimes at Midnight

Chimes at Midnight was released in 1965 and filmed then and in the preceding year. It's just been re-released, in limited distribution, and we saw it yesterday at the Landmark E Street.  As one might expect with anything put together and presented by Orson Welles, it just could be the best picture I'll see this year.

Welles adapted his script from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts One and Two; there's apparently not one line in it that isn't taken from the original.  (He even credits Shakespeare's source: Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles.) He had played Falstaff on stage as a young man--for no one has had such an incredible career in theatre as Welles had, all before he reached the advanced age of 25.

Everything works. The tavern scenes are bawdy and blowzy and full of dancing and carrying-on of all sorts. The great battle scene of Shrewsbury, where Prince Hal proves his mettle by taking on the great Hotspur Percy, is long but perfectly shot.  The rest of the cast is fantastic: from John Gielgud as old King Henry IV to Margaret Rutherford as Mistress Quickly, the "Hostess" to Jeanne Moreau as Doll, Falstaff's most intimate friend.  A young Keith Baxter is fine as Prince Hal. Welles even found Alan Webb, a marvelous old English actor who played the father to Hal Holbrook's son in I Never Sang for My Father, to depict Justice Shallow, Shakespeare's greatest joke on the judiciary.

It all fits together perfectly. You come to appreciate Falstaff in all his glory and sleaze. He's his own greatest salesman and con man and celebrant, yet you see his quickness despite his huge size, his ability to recognize immediately what the situation is and how to confront it, even when Hal, crowned Henry V, disowns him. For it was with Hal as much as Justice Shallow, who gets to say the line, that Falstaff surely often heard the chimes at midnight. And yes, it's in black-and-white, which is absolutely smashing for this production.

As with all of Shakespeare, every so often a very famous line sort of jumps out and hits you in the face.  But mostly, you are entranced by Welles' performance: his facial expressions, always his fabulous baritone voice, and his always knowing what his character would do under any and all circumstances.  Falstaff thus is so much more than a Shakespearean clown or jester; though that is what Shakespeare was focused on when by popular demand he brought him back in The Merry Wives of Windsor. And even so, Verdi made a marvelous opera out of this play that Shakespeare clearly wrote to profit from his character Falstaff's popularity. 

He had a view of how to live life to the fullest and you feel that even if Henry V has moved on from him, he will always carry some part of "sweet, wise, loving Jack" with him, when in Henry V he must turn to convincing a princess who doesn't understand English--Katherine of France--to marry him.

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