Orson Welles was publishing his own versions of Shakespearean plays by the time he was a teenager, so it seems Welles was destined to make Chimes at Midnight, and much has been written comparing his life to that of the Falstaff character. Welles went through great trouble to make this film and now film buffs must go through similar hoops just to find a respectable copy of it. Whether you like this film or not, it is worthwhile if only for the fact that one of America’s greatest film directors counts this as his last feature film of significance.
- Director: Orson Welles
- Writer: Orson Welles, William Shakespeare, Raphael Holinshed
- Cast: Orson Welles, Keith Baxter, John Gielgud
John Falstaff (Orson Welles) is a father figure to Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of England. With much of the their time together spent drinking and indulging in women, their friendship appears to be solid despite seeming unsustainable. Eventually, Hal’s father, King Henry IV (John Gielgud), strongly urges Hal to detach himself from Falstaff. When a royal tragedy occurs, the friendship will be tested.
If you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, Chimes at Midnight may be hard to endure. The first half is especially disproportionate in dialogue-heavy scenes. There are times when comedic intentions are not immediately recognized. However, even with only a semi-understanding of the banter that takes place, there are a few redeeming qualities that still make the film worthwhile. Much of the film is noteworthy for its use black and white photography. One of the first striking uses of contrast can be seen when Prince Hal visits Henry IV, a scene where deep shadows are broken with piercing rays of light emanating from the windows of a castle. This type of lighting is not only visually stunning but also elevates the sense that you’re watching an intense private moment. If only there were more scenes of intimate moments such as this.
The acting feels theatrical, as one would expect with Shakespearean performances. But also, as one would also expect from the director of Citizen Kane, Chimes at Midnight enhances the experience with the technical achievement of crane shots and handheld movements. And while much of the films is shot in wide angles and medium shots, there are times when close-ups accentuate the dramatic effect of a film filled with human frailty and disillusionment. When Prince Hal becomes King and denounces Falstaff, Welles moves his camera closer to his subjects and creates the type of emotional weight that this type of tragedy should bring. The battle sequence during the second act is a rare mix of close-ups and wider shots, helping to create a frenetic pace but at times failing to establish a clear sense of the action. This scene is mostly commendable for the fact that Welles never had more than 100 extras on the set and carefully positioned his actors to create the illusion of an epic battle.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Ebert taught a class on Orson Welles at one point and clearly had an deep appreciation for his work. As evidenced by the beginning paragraphs of his review, where he mentioned attending the epic production of both parts of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Ebert also clearly had an appreciation for Shakespeare. Therefore, it is not surprising that an Orson Welles film about Shakespearean subject matter would be right up his alley. Although I think Chimes at Midnight is a good film, I think that it has a barrier of entry that requires an appreciation for Shakesepearean dialogue. Sure, Shakespeare wrote great stories, but to truly enjoy them on Ebert’s level I believe it requires a genuine appreciation for his writing and I know I currently don’t have it.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like Chimes at Midnight? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Le Boucher
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight this week, he now has 338 under his belt and less than 30 films left to go.