OK, a couple days back I made an oblique allusion to a really bad viewing experience. For podcast listeners, you’ll hear more (but not much more) about it in this week’s podcast. But today, I want to accentuate the positive. So, from one of the worst Shakespeare films I’ve ever seen, to one of the best. It’s not The Merry Wives of Windsor, but it does contain a line or two from it. In 1965, Orson Welles finally released his labor of love, Chimes at Midnight, also known as Falstaff. Welles, the director, is while NOT at his height of artistry, is pretty damn near the height of his ingenuity. And as a writer, he’s pretty freaking miraculous, culling together bits of The First and Second Parts of Henry the Fourth, Henry the Fifth, and The Merry Wives, with some bits of Holinshed’s Chronicles tossed in for good measure.
The film seems to be framed with the device of two old men, Falstaff and Shallow, reminiscing at the end of their lives (“the days that we have seen!”). The opening shot of the two old men slowly making their way through a snowy winter field makes that connection for us. We hear them talk of the past, and then there we are, in those earlier days.
Throughout the film, we see Welles as the master of composition, framing shots of the royals in cathedrals and castles, the low-lifes in the low-ceilinged bawdyhouses and taverns. But when the camera isn’t taking in static vistas, Welles sends it careening, hand-held, in his rough and tumble scenes with Falstaff and Hal (played by Keith Baxter).
Of course, only a technical genius like Welles could make a masterpiece out of the cinematic equivalent of spare parts. Sections were filmed not only out of sequence (which is the norm for film), but filmed in fits and starts whenever he had the cash. And because of it, we get a lot of shots of the backs of actors (doubles standing in for the no longer available ones), and a horribly out of synch soundtrack. Suffice to say, that some of the scenes give the Bruce Lee chop-socky dubbed flicks of the 1970s a run for their money.
We can see why Welles was willing to go to such lengths to make the picture. He was born to play Falstaff, and he can say more with a single look or smile than most can with an entire Shakespearean speech. Plus the opportunity to roll around in bed with Jeane Moreau as Doll Tearsheet probably didn’t hurt, either. On that note, let’s just say that in Welles’ universe, there is no doubt that the tavern Quickly runs is a bawdy-house, as the dozens of attractive, giggling, bouncy whores demonstrates.
Welles is a master (I’m a huge fan of Citizen Kane and The Trial), and this is a masterpiece, filled with great little choices: Hotspur doing a great John Geilgud imitation as the northern youth imitates Henry IV’s “revolted Mortimer” (Geilgud plays Hal’s dad). Hal turning his back on Falstaff to deliver his “I know you all” soliloquy… here, not so much a soliloquy, as Falstaff hears every word, and we can see the battling emotions in the old man’s face: pride, hurt, love. A brutal battle of Shrewsbury, that certainly influenced Branagh’s Agincourt in his Henry the Fifth, and Gibson in his Braveheart. Falstaff tripping and falling and not being able to get up in his armor, and that is the “dead” body Hal sees… though Hal knows he’s alive, as he can see the breath rising in the cold air from Falstaff’s helmet.
Remember how I said it seemed that the film was set within a framing device? Well, Welles has another trick up his sleeve. Instead, we learn that the scene we see is from just before Henry IV’s death, and the fatique of age is alleviated by the news that his Hal is now king. The old fat knight is alive again. But when Hal turns him away, it’s a crushing blow.
And here’s where Welles gives us the coup de grace. Falstaff is taken away, convinced that the king will call on him. And where we’ve seen in The Second Part and Henry the Fifth, that this is a delusion, Welles makes the fairy tale ending come true. He gives us the Southhampton scene from Henry the Fifth, where the new king tells his chief justice to release the man who railed against him, excusing that it was excess of wine that set him on. Welles makes it explicit that this man is Falstaff. Falstaff was right all along. Of course, he dies. But he was right.
It’s a beautiful if possibly even more tragic ending to the film. A perfect capper to a great film. Highly recommended. Even more so than the versions of Merry Wives…