Criterion Prediction #16: Chimes at Midnight, by Alexander Miller
Title: Chimes at Midnight aka Falstaff
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford, John Gielgud, Marina Vlady, Walter Chiari and the voice of Ralph Richardson
Synopsis: Orson Welles’ adaptation draws from Shakespeare’s Henry V as well as Henry IV Part I and II, Henry II, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Holinshed’s Chronicles. Welles’ literal amalgam became Chimes at Midnight, and of his many Shakespearean adaptations this remains one of his strongest. While there are many literary dimensions to Chimes of Midnight, the story focuses on the heir of Henry IV, Hal and his boisterous ne’er do well father figure (and drinking buddy) Prince Falstaff. Hal’s allegiance is called into question once a rebellion led by Henry Hotspur Percy leading into the Battle of Shrewsbury. Prince Hal swears loyalty to his father Henry IV and, as heir to the throne, Hal matures beyond his mentor Falstaff, who is, in turn, ecstatic at the news that his friend will soon be crowned. Falstaff
Critique: Welles was plagued with a cruel irony that followed him throughout most of his career as a director. The boy wonder was handed the keys to the kingdom at 25 only to be scolded for making what many consider the finest film of all time. The rest of his career would be a series of gambits and wagers with studios to finance his films; Chimes at Midnight was produced under the pretense of another project (Welles lied and said he was going to shoot a version of Treasure Island) the studios played him, and Welles played them back. The fruit of his hustling this time around was Chimes at Midnight, one of Welles’ best productions and is considered by the director and fans alike to be his finest work. This film is indeed the child of its director, to a degree that exceeds auteurship. Cradled as a stage play since the 1930’s first titled as The Winter of Our Discontent, later retitled as Five Kings, and in 1960 (after countless adjustments and rewrites) it was christened as Chimes at Midnight.
The film is a patchwork of various Shakespearean materials and Chimes at Midnight may function as if it were an original work of the great bard. However, the film is all Orson. Chimes at Midnight solidifies Welles’ position as one of cinema’s foremost stylists imbibing in a myriad of technical indulgences that overplay the visual rhetoric while simultaneously building a textured and vivid spread of dynamic images. The battle sequences are replete with mud, grime, clashing iron and barbarism; the absence of baroque romanticism predates cinemas revisionist standards of (though not limited to) Shakespearian/Medieval violence we would see later in movies like Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth. Welles’ relationship with Hollywood was anything but consistent, but his masterful craftsmanship never failed him, and Chimes at Midnight is further evidence confirming his genius as a director
Why it Belongs in the Collection: As I’m writing this, I imagine the good folks at Janus Films and Criterion are fine tuning their release of Chimes at Midnight; curating bonus features and cover art for the film. After looking at the latest wacky drawing in the Criterion newsletter, (as well as Wikipedia, Janus Films, NPR, and Wellesnet), it’s obvious that Chimes of Midnight is lined up for a Criterion release.
Criterion president Peter Becker announced in an interview featured on Wellesnet.com that Chimes at Midnight is undergoing a thorough restoration in collaboration with Filmoteca Espanola. He also remarked, “There is no film we have waited longer for or worked harder to free up and none we are prouder to present.” There was a New Year’s Eve screening of the restored print at The Film Forum and Cinefamily January 1st, followed by a dozen screenings at select theaters throughout the US. Criterion hasn’t announced an official date; speculation places it towards the end of 2016 for a Blu-Ray/DVD release.