Friday, November 17, 2017
Chimes at Midnight
Based on five different plays by William Shakespeare and Holinshed’s Chronicles by Ralph Holinshed, Chimes at Midnight is the story of a knight and his relationship with a prince who is forced to make a decision on whom he should be loyal to. Written for the screen, starred, costume designed, and directed by Orson Welles, the film is an unconventional take on the work of Shakespeare with Welles playing the role of Sir John Falstaff as it explores friendship and loyalty. Also starring Keith Baxter, Margaret Rutherford, John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau, Norman Rodway, Marina Vlady, Fernando Rey, and narration by Ralph Richardson. Chimes at Midnight is a rapturous and evocative film from Orson Welles.
The film is set during the final days of Henry IV of England (John Gielgud) as it revolves around his son who spends much of his time with the knight Sir John Falstaff into a world of mischief as he is primed to be next in line for the throne despite opposition from relatives who want to have Edmund Mortimer released as he is the true heir to the throne. It’s a film that explores not just destiny but also a young man torn between two figures who are guiding him into manhood. Orson Welles’ screenplay is filled with a lot of the monologues and character study that William Shakespeare is known for in the plays that Welles would compile into the script. All of which play into the idea of identity and all of the glories an identity could bring where Falstaff is at the center of everything as he wants to be an influence to Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) knowing he is next in line. Yet, Hal does want to get the approval of his father where he would try to win it during a battle against a rebellion where he would go up against a prominent knight. Unfortunately, he would also see what Falstaff wants as it adds to this internal conflict that Hal would endure.
Welles’ direction is definitely stylish for the air of theatricality that he would maintain throughout the film as it would play into this world of 15th Century decadence with an air of 20th Century energy. Shot on location in Spain, Welles would use the desert landscape to play into the scope of the world that the characters are in. Notably with the castles and the tavern where much of the action occurs in the latter as it is a place where Falstaff and his band of brothers can enjoy themselves. While Welles would use some wide shots of the tavern to showcase the liveliness whether it’s in a big group dance or in a conversation scene involving Falstaff and Hal as there’s characters in the background such as a young page (Beatrice Welles), the tavern hostess Mistress Quickly (Margaret Rutherford), and the prostitute Doll Tearsheet (Jeanne Moreau). He would also create some close-ups and medium shots to capture some of the emotional aspects in the film including shots in the battle scenes.
The battle scenes is a highlight as it has a lot of action but also some offbeat humor as it relates to the armor that Falstaff is wearing which is designed by Welles who would also be the film’s costume designer. While there is a lot of stylistic elements that Welles would include in the film, he does maintain the theatricality needed in scenes where there are these long monologues such as the one Henry IV gives in the aftermath of the battles as it play into his own mortality as well as what the future holds. The third act is where Welles shines as a filmmaker where he would use some low camera angles to play into Hal’s acceptance into the role he is in but also what he had to sacrifice as it relates to Falstaff and his influence. Notably as what Falstaff would have to see when Hal becomes king as it would mark the end of something that he is forced to accept as well. Overall, Welles creates an intoxicating yet compelling film about a young man trying to cope with his destiny and the influence of a decadent knight.
Cinematographer Edmond Richard does brilliant work with the film’s black-and-white photography to play into the look of some of the interiors inside the castles as well as the scenes at the tavern and the exterior shots set at night. Editors Fritz Mueller, Elena Jaumandreu, and Peter Parasheles do excellent work with the editing as it is stylized with some jump-cuts in its approach to the action and conversations involving different characters. Production designer Mariano Erdozia and set decorator Jose Antonio de la Guerra do amazing work with the look of the tavern as well as some of the interior of the different castles including Henry IV’s palace. The sound work of Luis Castro is terrific for the way the sound is captured in the tavern and at the castles along with the chaos during the battle scene. The film’s music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino is superb for its orchestral bombast and flourishes along with some somber string pieces to play into the drama.
The film’s incredible cast feature some notable small roles and appearances from Tony Beckley and Patrick Bedford in their respective roles as Falstaff’s friends Ned Poins and Bardolf, Walter Chiari as Justice Silence, Michael Aldrige as another friend of Falstaff in Pistol, Jose Nieto as the Earl of Northnumberland who rebels against Henry IV, Alan Webb as another country justice official in Justice Shallow who is a friend of Falstaff, Fernando Rey as the Earl of Worcester that is Northnumberland’s brother that is trying to get his cousin Edmund Mortimer in line for the throne, Beatrice Welles as Falstaff’s page who helps him with a few duties, Marina Vlady as Hotspur’s wife Kate Percy, and Norman Rodway as Northnumberland’s son Hotspur who is trying to aid in the rebellion where he would face off against Hal. Margaret Rutherford is fantastic as Mistress Quickly as the tavern hostess who is trying to maintain order in her tavern which is a place of escape for Falstaff and his friends.
Jeanne Moreau is excellent as Doll Tearsheet as a prostitute who lives in the tavern that is a lover of Falstaff as she deals with the chaos around him as well as spout insults at others while displaying elements of sentimentality over what will happen to Hal. John Gielgud is incredible as King Henry IV as a man that is trying to deal with the rebellion as well as Falstaff’s influence on his son where he would deal with his own mortality in a monologue that is just engaging to watch. Keith Baxter is brilliant as Prince Hal as a young man torn between his duties as prince but also the influence of Falstaff whom he sees as a father figure where he wonders if he’s being used. Finally, there’s Orson Welles in a phenomenal performance as Sir John Falstaff as a knight that is literally larger than life as a man that is the embodiment of decadence where he hopes to become a nobleman unaware that times are changing with him having no role in this new world.
Chimes at Midnight is a sensational film from Orson Welles. Featuring a great cast, gorgeous visuals, a sumptuous music score, and a script that meshes many of William Shakespeare’s play into a study of loyalty, identity, and ambition. It’s a film that display many of Welles’ hallmarks of grand visuals to play into a man who tries to influence a younger man into a world of decadence instead of duty. In the end, Chimes at Midnight is a tremendous film from Orson Welles.
Orson Welles Films: Citizen Kane - The Magnificent Ambersons - The Strangers (1946 film) - The Lady from Shanghai - Macbeth (1948 film) - Othello (1952 film) - Mr. Arkadin – Touch of Evil - The Trial (1962 film) - The Immortal Story – F for Fake - Filming Othello – The Other Side of the Wind
Related: Orson Welles: The One-Man Band - They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead - The Auteurs #69: Orson Welles: Part 1 - Part 2
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