Blindspot January 2017 (March edition): Chimes at Midnight
Finally kicking off my 2017 Blindspot series! This one was a treat.
With the creation of Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare made his greatest contribution to the grand literary tradition of supporting characters who are so entertaining that they upstage their stories’ protagonists. In Chimes at Midnight, he’s the star of the show, and it’s a glorious romp. When supporting characters shift center stage in any medium it can risk exposing them as more facile than we realized before. Some characters thrive in the wings and the shadows, bursting out from time to time but letting someone less fun but more substantial drive the story. But played and directed by Orson Welles, Falstaff proves a durable and thoroughly entertaining protagonist. Chimes at Midnight is not based on any one play, but rather pieces together several plays with Falstaff as the planet holding everything in orbit. I’ve seen few Shakespearean adaptations that so vividly capture the spirit and sense of fun in his work.
One risk of moving supporting characters to the forefront of any story is that they are generally more static, more easily defined by their characteristics than the leads. Welles doesn’t tame Falstaff or his overwhelming personality, but rather uses his penchant for simple joys and avoiding responsibility, for getting the most out of life with as little effort as possible, as a source of both conflict and eventually, an ending both befitting of Shakespeare and more respectful of Falstaff than the Bard actually provided (in Henry V, it is mentioned that Falstaff has died off stage, without him ever making an appearance).
Chimes at Midnight uses material from both Henry IV plays as well as Richard II and Henry V, eschewing much of the political theatre of the Wars of the Roses that those plays cover in favor of straightforward action; essentially, if it somehow affects Falstaff directly, it makes the cut. Falstaff couldn’t really care less about who is on the throne so long as he can sleep into the afternoon, put off paying his debts, and drink sack (sherry) from a seemingly bottomless mug. He spends his days and nights at Boar’s Head Tavern. It’s heaven to a jolly hedonist like Falstaff. The owner, Mistress Quickly (Margaret Rutherford) hovers around him asking him to pay his debts, but she’s in no rush to make a demand of it. The tavern overflows with booze, friends who chant his name, and of course Doll Tearsheet (Jeanne Moreau), the mistress who is always at her wit’s end with Falstaff even as she can’t quite muster true anger with him. Although Falstaff might like to give off the appearance of giving a damn, he does about a few people. For one, there’s Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), son of King Henry IV (John Gielgud) and heir to the throne. Falstaff’s fondness for Hal is more than just apparent. There’s an extended comic piece where Falstaff leads a group to rob some pilgrims heading to Canterbury. Hal thwarts Falstaff by posing as an armed guard, and when he gets back to the tavern he humors his mentor by letting him spin a tale in which he fended off an increasingly huge number of foes, before revealing that he had seen the whole thing. Falstaff’s reaction of feigned knowledge followed by joyful laughter is all we need to know about the depth of their friendship.
The duties of the throne eventually drive a wedge between Falstaff and Hal that cannot be removed. When the rebellious Duke of Northumberland and his son declare rebellion against Henry IV, Hal leads his ailing father’s troops into battle. Falstaff, known across England as a fearsome warrior, joins the war effort- or at least makes the appearance of it. The ensuing Battle of Shrewsbury is a brilliant directorial sequence, both as action and comic filmmaking. Faced with limited numbers of extras, Welles sticks the camera in the center of the action, which quickly becomes a whirl of mud, steel, and chaos. It’s a thrilling battle scene, intercut with shots of Falstaff, stuffed into a massive suit of armor, skirting around trees and trying to avoid being seen lest he have to actually fight. It’s apparent that his skills as a speaker are much more responsible for his reputation than his actual deeds on the battlefield.
The final act of the film sees Hal turn into Henry V, accepting his lot as king as his father’s health fails. When the coronation arrives, Falstaff is ecstatic, presuming that his surrogate son will have a place for him at his right hand. The final conversation between Hal and Falstaff is as stunning a sequence as the battle, without any threat of violence. It’s at once startling and inevitable; Falstaff’s life of avoiding consequences finally bites him, and it’s heartbreaking.
Chimes at Midnight is every bit the visual triumph that Citizen Kane was for Welles 25 years earlier. His expressionist tendencies hadn’t faded by the sixties. The castle halls of the scenes with Henry IV are ominous and remote. His throne seems perched atop a mountain of shadow. In contrast, the scenes in the Boar’s Head are delightfully grimy, the camera lunging back and forth between assorted characters, following the seemingly endless movement of its inhabitants. There is a splendid moment when Falstaff announces that he is going to put on an impromptu play, and the entire tavern circles around him spontaneously, and then in the upper floors several prostitutes burst out to watch as well, dressed only in bedsheets. The world of kings has no place for John Falstaff. But at Boar’s Head, Falstaff is beloved, and is perhaps the only person who can get everyone’s attention at once.
That Chimes at Midnight is available to watch at all is remarkable. It originated as a play that Welles performed in 1960. The play version of Chimes at Midnight was itself an adaptation of an even larger, more ambitious Shakespeare adaptation called Five Kings, in which Welles tried to condense all of Shakespeare’s plays about the Wars of the Roses into one production. Production and distribution of the film were rife with trouble, a common theme in Welles’s career. The film had a tiny budget, his actors were available for short periods of time, and Welles had to rush post production to get it ready to premier at the Cannes Film Festival (several characters’ voices are dubbed, some by Welles himself). It was never given wide release in the US, a fact often blamed (perhaps unfairly) on New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, who gave it a scathing review. It fell into obscurity before receiving a critical reevaluation in the 90’s, but it remained unavailable on DVD in the US until last year, when Criterion (God bless them, they do such incredible work) released a stunning 2-disc remaster of the film on DVD and blu-ray. It looks magnificent, and finally a film as good as any Orson Welles ever made is available to watch in North America. Chimes at Midnight isn’t just worth checking out; it’s essential.