FILM PICK / NO. 01
Chimes at Midnight, The Loft Cinema, March 18-24
Falstaff: “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”
Shallow: “That we have, that we have, that we have, in faith, Sir John, we have.”
William Shakespeare, Henry the IV, Part Two
The chimes at midnight in play here are those that only thieves and revelers would be hearing in 15th century London, where lights after dark were torches, fires and candles, and only those of disrepute would be out at the hour of midnight.
The head reveler here is Sir John Falstaff, a small player in five of Shakespeare’s plays, cannily folded into a single narrative by Orson Welles in his 1966 period piece Chimes at Midnight. Not exactly long-lost - there were always copies in vaults and collections - Welles film is more like long-litigated, essentially unseen due to legal issues for decades save for the odd screening here and there, and never released on DVD (until a recent British import) outside of bootleg copies. Merely the latest in a long-line of industry insults to the long-abused Welles, this absurd and glaring wrong has finally become a right due to a full restoration and release by Janus Films and The Criterion Collection, a double headed stamp of quality if there ever was one. It plays at The Loft for one week starting March 18.
Welles himself plays Falstaff, the corporeal, hard drinking, whoring and fighting friend of Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), wayward son of King Henry the IV, the heir to the crown. At the beginning of the film Hal is solidly in Falstaff’s orbit, with little thought for royal matters or the concerns of the King (the always magnificent John Gielgud), but the story of Chimes at Midnight is the journey of Hal away from his scandalous adopted father towards his blood one and the responsibilities of being the heir to the crown. If that sounds dry or uninteresting in any way, banish the thought; Chimes at Midnight is Welles at his absolute best, right up there with Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil and Macbeth. Welles felt the same way himself; he is quoted as saying that, “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up.” Big words from the man who turned film history on it’s ear with Citizen Kane.
Along the way we get Jeanne Moreau as Falstaff’s fellow reveler Doll Tearsheet (whoa!), Fernando Rey, narration by Ralph Richardson, lots of drinking and fornicating, Welles in full throttle as the profane, hilarious, gutter-witty overseer of essentially a den of thieves, and one of Welles’ greatest set pieces, an astounding reenactment of the Battle of Shrewsbury. Fought in 1403 between opposing English armies, this is one of Welles most spectacular pieces of filmmaking, as the camera literally gets down in the mud of the battle, with horses and knights flailing away at each other, sometimes in slow motion, others times speeded up. The film, a torturous, two year long ordeal, was shot in magnificent black and white by Edmond Richard. Technically a Spanish/Swiss co-production, it debuted at Cannes in 1966, picked up a couple of awards, and then more or less disappeared into some legal limbo for several decades that was all-too-typical of Welles' fate as a filmmaker.
I haven’t seen the restored film that just opened at The Loft, but the trailer looks magnificent, and the word is that the restoration is fantastic. Having seen dozens of screen adaptations of Shakespeare over the years, Chimes at Midnight has always stood out in my mind as being in a class by itself, although I haven’t actually seen the film in decades. As tricky as memory can be, this is one I’m confident of: Chimes at Midnight is likely as good as anything that will play in Tucson in 2016.