CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT
This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Margaret Rutherford.
Orson Welles, post-Citizen Kane, seem to forever wander in the cinematic universe, plying his acting wares to make ambitious films that managed to mostly come together despite always being short on funds to make them to the level he would have liked. Despite the limited budget, his Shakespearean adaptation Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff) rises to one of the great versions of Shakespeare's work.
Freely adapting from Henry IV, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Richard II, the film centers on the relationship between the wastrel Sir John Falstaff (Welles) and his equally dissolute protégé, Prince Hal, also known as Henry, The Prince of Wales (Keith Baxter). Henry's father, Henry IV (John Gielgud) despairs for the future of both his realm and his heir. Hal is too involved in the pleasures of the flesh and the merry decadence of Falstaff's world than in taking up his duties as the next King of England.
Henry IV also has pretenders to the throne to contend with, but at last Hal soon starts becoming the monarch he is meant to be. First, he fights for his father at the Battle of Shrewsbury to secure Henry IV's hold on the throne, where he takes down the rebellious Henry Percy (Norman Rodway). Despite his love for Falstaff, Hal sees his mentor is not above trying to take credit for Hal's actions, and Hal now is divided between his love for his father figure and his duty to his father and monarch.
With Henry IV now fully in control, the heavy weight of his rise and his poor health finally are catching up to him. Hal now finally transforms into Henry V, determined to be the King his father and nation want and need him to be. Falstaff, however, now dreams of great riches and power with his dear boy as King. However, Falstaff is in for a rude shock when Henry V literally turns his back on his old friend, declaring "I know thee not, old man". As Henry V prepares to fight in France, the old jolly man dies of a broken heart, mourned only by the Hostess of the Inn, Mistress Quickly (Margaret Rutherford).
As Orson Welles continued to try and cobble his cinematic visions, I think audiences can see why Falstaff was a character so much like Welles. His almost decadent disinterest in the truth, his delight in mocking those in power unless useful to his own ambitions and the tragedy of rejection somehow make Chimes at Midnight seems closer to being a portrait of Welles than of Falstaff. Perhaps that is reading too much into things, but in this elegy for a con man the viewer can see that interpretation.
As a director, we see just how strong Orson Welles was. Visually, Chimes at Midnight uses the budgetary limitations to its advantage; the large cavernous sets give the film an almost epic feel, these figures dwarfed by their grand surroundings. The big set piece is the Battle of Shrewsbury sequence, one of the most bravura battle scenes in film. It's a strange thing that one can see the limited budget here in that it is not filled with massive armies or expansive vistas.
However, Welles uses those very limits to his advantage. Using a variety of techniques: various speeds, fast cutting, Angelo Francesco Lavagnino's score, Welles creates this grand and tense battle. From the mist arising across the field to the closeups of the chaos of war, the Battle of Shrewsbury sequence is an intense and gripping battle that leaves the viewer enraptured.
At times, yes one can see that there was not a lot of money spent (one can for example, see the armies are surprisingly small, and Henry Percy is shown quickly closing his mouth postmortem), but on the whole one feels the brutality of the battle.
In terms of acting, Orson Welles shows his deft touch in the performances he gets from his cast. The double act between Welles and Baxter is pitch perfect. Welles gives a mirthful yet ultimately heartbreaking performance as Falstaff. He can be rakish and foolish, lumbering about in his armor and avoiding as much fighting as he can at Shrewsbury. However, the final encounter between Falstaff and Henry V is devastating, the look on Welles' face mixing fatherly pride with deep pain at the loss of their relationship.
Baxter too excels in his transformation from the foolhardy Hal to the noble Henry. You see how he enjoys the company of this court of fools, but as he matures and comes to accept his place the regal nature of Henry emerges. In that final farewell, Baxter shows a that bit of sadness at the parting, knowing he must now be a man but also having a tinge of regret at having to dismiss his former friend.
In smaller roles, Gielgud's Henry IV is commanding if perhaps appropriately stiff as the despairing monarch, Rutherford as the put-upon but ultimately mournful Hostess and Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff's loyal mistress.Chimes at Midnight takes the rapscallion Shakespearean figure and gives him his due as both a delightful fool and an ultimately tragic figure. Featuring strong performances and some astonishing sequences, Chimes at Midnight is a monumental film built from a miniscule production.