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Chimes at Midnight

Chimes at Midnight(1965)

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teaser Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Chimes at Midnight (1965) was a tour de force from the legendary Orson Welles, in which he served as star, director, costume designer and screenwriter, adapting Shakespeare's classic plays Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part 2, Richard III, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry V. It is a film that until recently had been largely unavailable to audiences; a forgotten masterpiece. A restoration was completed and screened in New York's Film Forum, with wider national distribution in January 2016.

This was not the first time that Welles had tackled the character of Sir John Falstaff. He had played the role on the stage in 1939 in Five Kings which was an amalgamation of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. The play had a brief out of town run in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., but did not play in New York. Welles played the character again in 1960 in a revival of Five Kings in Belfast and Dublin, Ireland renamed Chimes at Midnight, with Keith Baxter as Henry V, the role he would reprise in the film.

Usurper King Henry IV (John Gielgud) must defend the English throne that he has won by killing King Richard II. At the same time, his son, known as Hal, (Baxter) behaves in an un-princely manner by carousing at the Boar's Head Tavern with the lower class, including the prostitute Doll Tearsheet (Jeanne Moreau), tavern hostess Mistress Quickly (Margaret Rutherford), and the outsized knight and part-time thief Falstaff. When Henry IV dies and Hal becomes King Henry V, he must give up his old life and friends.

Orson Welles has often been compared to Falstaff. Both were large men who lived large, but despite their early promise, had checkered careers and ultimately became tragic figures. Welles peaked early in a blaze of innovation and glory in theater, radio, and cinema, but had to act in other director's films to raise money for his own projects. Many of these were never made or never completed, and Welles ended up being known to a new generation as the man who performed magic tricks on talk shows and starred in commercials for budget wine. Welles himself admitted the similarity to director Peter Bogdanovich, saying, "The closer I thought I was getting to Falstaff, the less funny he seemed to be." Despite the character's obvious flaws, Welles considered Falstaff "one of the only great characters in all dramatic literature who is essentially good. [...] He's just shining with love; he asks for so little, and in the end, of course, he gets nothing."

Produced by Emiliano Piedra and Angel Escolano for the Internacional Films Espaola, a Swiss/Spanish concern, Chimes at Midnight was in production from September 1964 to April 1965 with a break from late December until February due to budget problems and because Welles had fallen ill. Location shooting occurred at various locations in Spain, including Barcelona, Avila, Cardona, and the Casa de Camp Park in Madrid, used for the battle sequences. Despite the notable cast, the budget for Chimes at Midnight was a modest $1million. Welles was able to make the film so cheaply by having only one set built - The Boar's Head Tavern, which was constructed in a garage because it was "a hell of a lot more economical than a film studio [...] I painted it myself and blowtorched it - the whole damn thing. [...] Had to paint by hand everything in [actor] Michael Redgrave's antique shop." The palace scenes were shot in a ruined church Welles was able to secure for only a week, with the interiors consisting of "one piece of plastered wall and lots of miniature columns in the foreground." Another way of keeping costs down was to shoot all of Gielgud's lines in only ten days and then film a Spanish extra in Gielgud's costume from behind in over-the-shoulder shots to give the illusion that the star was in the scene the entire time. Rather than shooting the film in color, Welles stuck to his signature black-and-white because he felt that it was more flattering to actors. Color film, said Welles, made actors' faces "look like meet - veal, beef, baloney."

Post-production work was done in Paris throughout 1965 and into the early months of 1966, in time for Chimes at Midnight to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Palme d'Or and won the Technical Grand Prize and a special award in honor of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the festival. The festivalgoers gave Orson Welles an ovation that lasted for several minutes, but success at Cannes did not translate to the United States. Chimes at Midnight (renamed Falstaff for the initial US run) received scant publicity, despite being advertised with the slogan "A distinguished company breathes life into Shakespeare's lusty age of Falstaff." On its release in New York in March 1967, Chimes at Midnight received mixed reviews, including one by The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. He complained - as did many others - that the soundtrack was out of sync and "fuzzy," and had not improved since he had viewed the film at Cannes the year before. Chimes at Midnight, he wrote, was "still a confusing patchwork of scenes and characters, [...] designed to give major exposure to Jack Falstaff, performed by Mr. Welles. [...] He makes him a sort of Jackie Gleason getting off one of his homilies when he gives the great apostrophe to Honor, much of which I simply couldn't understand. And he chokes up like a soap-opera grandma when he is suddenly banished by the new Henry V."

Years later, Chimes at Midnight underwent a reevaluation. Roger Ebert wrote that, "Welles was born to play Falstaff, not only because of the physical similarity but because of the rich voice, sonorous and amused, and the shared life experience. [...] Both knew disappointment, and one of the most sublime moments in Welles' career is simply the expression on his face at the coronation of Henry V, when he cries out "God save thee, my sweet boy," and the new king replies, "I know thee not, old man."


Anderegg, Michael A. Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture
Brody, Richard "Orson Welles's Mighty Chimes At Midnight" The New Yorker 8 Jan 16
Crowther, Bosley "Screen: Orson Welles is Falstaff in Uneven Film: Cannes Movie Arrives at Little Carnegie" The New York Times 20 Mar 67
Ebert, Roger "Chimes at Midnight" The Chicago Sun-Times 4 Jun 06
McBride, Joseph What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career
Welles, Orson, Bogdanovich, Peter, and Rosenbaum, Jonathan This Is Orson Welles
Welles, Orson and Lyons Gellert, Bridget Chimes at Midnight

By Lorraine LoBianco

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