Take Three: ‘Chimes at Midnight’

April 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

Editor’s note: Take Three is a occasional feature at Roundtable Pictures in which Gina Carbone, Mike Gillis and Lars Trodson review the same film.


How Ill YouTube Becomes ‘Chimes at Midnight’

By Gina Carbone

I hope for Orson Welles’ sake the medium is not the message. At least, not when it comes to watching “Chimes at Midnight” in its most readily available format: You Tube.

Welles’ 1965 film on Shakespeare’s recurring character, Sir John Falstaff (played by Welles himself with doughy bravado), is apparently mired in who-owns-this? issues and unavailable in the United States . You can get it as an import DVD/VHS or you can watch the 11-part hatchet job for free on You Tube.

While it’s a truly an applause-worthy treat to have the film Welles was most proud of available in the world’s video common room, there’s nothing from “Seven Samurai” to “The House Bunny” that can be withstand being viewed in 10-minute segments on a tiny screen, with commentary posted underneath it like a VH1 “Pop-Up Video.”

For example, the climactic scene where playboy Prince Hal/Henry V (Keith Baxter) has delivered a fatal blow to ambitious rival Henry “Hotspur” Percy (Norman Rodway) includes a moving as-I-lay-dying recitation by Rodway.

“O Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth!

I better brook the loss of brittle life

Than those proud titles thou hast won of me….”

It’s a beautiful scene, even with a You Tube poster asking “At 9:47, is it a car passing by in the background at the very left?”

I’m easily distracted by things around me — e-mails popping up, something the cat is doing, those comments under the screen — and I doubt I’m alone, which is why going to a dark theater with a huge screen is still the best way to view anything.

I tried to blow the picture up to full screen, but the video quality — never good to begin with — just got more distorted with size.

Grateful You Tube posters sent their thanks for having this available online and I am glad it was there, too, but I can only wonder if Welles would appreciate this format. Does the end of a larger audience justify the means?

What would Sir John Gielgud — a rock of cold, lofty perfection as Henry IV — think of seeing his “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” speech cut off mid-stream between parts seven and eight?

Even putting aside the medium, “Chimes at Midnight” has its issues. You can’t blame the out-of-sync dialogue on You Tube, but it’s also impossible to ignore as it turns scenes into badly dubbed Japanimation. Some of the dialogue is unintelligible, and paired with a disjointed format it makes following the film more difficult than it should be.

Despite the low budget production and imperfect medium, this is clearly the work of a director in his prime. The artistry is sumptuous and deserves a bigger venue than a computer screen.

No one frames a shot like Welles. No one uses light like him. The fluidity of movement. The angles, the symmetry, the beauty. Just having shadows and light form what looks like bars on the walls of a castle. Simple to do, but it takes a visual master to carefully plan such perfect contrasts. Credit also goes to cinematographer Edmond Richard, but the look is so Welles you could check each shot for his fingerprints.

The battle of Shrewsbury alone –- the film’s most famous scene –- is such a textbook lesson in how to shoot battle scenes it’s influenced every such scene since (most notably “Braveheart”).

The music, the mud, the shots from horses legs, the cuts fast enough to please Tarantino. And through it all, the humor, as embodied by Falstaff and his merry mates.

Welles’ R-rated Santa Claus is everything Hal’s forbidding father is not. At one point, Falstaff and Hal put on a show for their friends; wearing a cushion and a pot as crowns, they poke fun at the king.

During the battle, Falstaff in his full armor, plays dead — leading to his famous “The better part of valor is discretion” line — but still tries to take credit for killing Percy.

At the end of the battle you can see the conflict building in Hal. The draw of ambition that ultimately propels him to cut ties with Falstaff — like the stoner buddy dumped by the friend who finally gets a real job.

And what a cold parting they have. Poor Falstaff, gleeful at the death of Henry IV, is elated at the rise of his old friend Henry V, not knowing the change that’s come.

FALSTAFF: “God save thee, my sweet boy!”

KING HENRY V: “My lord chief-justice, speak to that vain man.”

LORD CHIEF-JUSTICE: “Have you your wits? know you what ’tis to speak?”

FALSTAFF: “My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!”

KING HENRY V: “I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
… Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.”

Ouch! Falstaff is banished upon pain of death — basically given a restraining order of 10 miles.

In the scene, King Henry is shot from below and Falstaff from above. The merry student has become the harsh master. Daddy issues get the best of ‘em every time.

So much of the story is about Henry IV and Henry V, it’s not really fair to consider this a spotlight on Shakespeare’s supporting characters — ala “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”

And yet it is through the lens of Henry V that we see Falstaff evolve from a lazy hedonist to a brokenhearted old man betrayed by a hypocrite.

The end of the film leaves a sad, ironic taste in our mouths — Falstaff’s coffin is wheeled away as we hear the chronicler Holinshed (Ralph Richardson), praising Henry V:

“The new king, even at first appointing, intended to put on him the shape of a new man. This Henry was a captain of such prudence and such policy that he never enterprised anything before it forecast the main chances that it might happen. So humane withal, he left no offense unpunished nor friendship unrewarded. For conclusion, a majesty was he that both lived and died a pattern in princehood, a lodestar in honor, and famous to the world always.”

“Chimes at Midnight” is a film that deserves the high-quality Criterion treatment. If anything, this 11-part YouTube posting is a sad Sally Struthers commercial someone should send to the Criterion Powers That Be. For only 10 cents a day you too could save this Orson Welles masterpiece.

And it deserves saving.

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Remembrance Of Things Past: “Chimes At Midnight” by Orson Welles

By Lars Trodson

Orson Welles was the most nostalgic of the modernists. He was recognized for the way he told a story, not for the stories he invariably chose to tell. “Citizen Kane” is pulpy, after all. It was elevated by the elegance and vision of the photography and acting, and the perceptions in the screenplay. But it’s not a terribly profound story. And then came “The Stranger”, “The Lady From Shanghai” and “Touch of Evil” — all of which are potboilers, and all of which have cinematic flair unmatched by almost any other filmmaker. Welles was creating a new vocabulary for movies, but almost strictly from a visual point of view. Welles was no threat to the censors.

Given that Welles had an affection for paperback fiction — don’t condescend to this, almost everyone does — it might seem at first glance that William Shakespeare would be the ideal collaborator for Welles. Maybe Shakespeare could energize his craft. If so, we could be treated to Welles’ visual feasts while enjoying the beauty of Shakespeare’s language.

But by the time the two met up, Welles had been kicked out of Hollywood and he no longer had any money to work with. In order to enjoy Shakespeare you have to hear the words. And Welles, having apprenticed in radio and who understood the need for clarity on the soundtrack, was saddled in the 1950s with a still active cinematic imagination but equipment that was too inferior to the task.

And so it is with “Chimes At Midnight”, Welles’ 1965 remix of the King Henry plays that puts Sir John Falstaff at the center of the action. The film is now available in its entirety on You Tube, which is becoming your friendly neighborhood arthouse.

No matter the technical limitations, “Chimes At Midnight” is a beautiful film. Welles did a magnificent job of pulling the threads out of five Shakespeare plays to create this portrait of the old, dissolute, lying and gentle-souled man named Falstaff, who may be the single most beloved character Shakespeare ever created. Welles was not even 50 when filming began on the project, but he had already been looking back for some time. It’s no wonder he gravitated to Falstaff — the “false staff”, the fake king — the inveterate storyteller, the charlatan, a man who accomplished little but floated by on his charms and his connection to those more richer than he. The parallels between Welles and Falstaff have been gone over too often to repeat here. But the connection in this instance makes the experience of watching “Chimes At Midnight” richer, not poorer.

If only because we realize that while Falstaff was never really royalty, in real life Orson Welles actually was.

Once. and now he is again. The king is dead, they say, long live the king.

“Chimes At Midnight” opens with two distant characters walking slowly on the snow-covered countryside, and we hear the pipes, and it is Falstaff and Justice Robert Shallow (Alan Webb), and they are already reminiscing. “Oh the days that we have seen,” says Shallow. And they talk about people they have known, including a woman once young, but who is now “Old, old,” according to Falstaff. As they settle in near a small fire, Swallow once again tries to lighten the mood about their past exploits, but Sir John Falstaff is having little, if none of it: “We have heard
the chimes at midnight,” Falstaff says. He is not rejoicing. Falstaff, who at this point may have already been banished by the newly crowned king he loved, knows his life is nearly over.

It is then the credits roll, with horses galloping across the frame — a strong motif throughout the film — and the thrilling music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino begins. Welles uses the old John Ford trick of putting the earth very low in the frame to make the sky seem huge and the possibilities endless. The vista goes on forever, but it is a cold, misty, fog-bound vista, and it does not look friendly.

Ralph Richardson
, reading from Holinshed’s Chronicles, sets the scene — a kingdom torn by two pretenders to the throne. In the first scene after the credits, the old King, Henry IV (John Gielgud), banishes Worcester (Fernando Rey), Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, and their father, Northumberland (Jose Nieto). The scene for the confrontation is set, but Welles is more interested in Falstaff, the stuff of comedy and meditations on what it is like to be once known and loved, only to turn old and forgotten.

We soon meet Henry VI’s son, Hal, and his youthful partner, Ned Poins (Tony Beckley) after they’ve picked Falstaff’s empty pocket. They soon propose a jest: a robbery in the woods during which they will hide Falstaff’s horse, and after which Hal and Ned will dress as the victims. They want to see how “brave” Falstaff will turn a tale of cowardice into one of bravery. Falstaff agrees, and out to the woods they go.

“How longest Jack did thou seeest thy own knee,” Hal asks Falstaff as he helps the old man put on his disguise.

The scene of the robbery in the woods is beautifully shot (by Edmond Richard), and the stands of trees look like sentinels against the white snow. Hal and Ned do indeed pretend to be those raided upon, and they chase a fleeing and frightened Falstaff into the woods. Later, when Falstaff tells the story not knowing that Hal and Ned are listening in, he lies and says he repelled an attack by two — no four, no eight! — men.

But this series of scenes, even though comic, foreshadows Hal’s betrayal of Falstaff. He loves the old man, but only as a foil, as a diversion. Hal belittles Falstaff throughout, he’s a “huge hill of flesh” or a “horseback breaker” and our hearts sink because we know — Welles knew — that Hal’s renunciation of Falstaff was soon to come.

(In the play within the play at Mistress Quickly’s roominghouse, where Falstaff lives, Hal and Falstaff play roles. In their playacting, Falstaff pathetically tries to seek reassurance that his place with Hal is secure, but Hal assures him, if only in jest, that it is not.)

The subplot that leads to the action in the movie, the enormous, panoramic Battle of Shrewesbury, begins when the aggrieved Harry Percy (Norman Rodway) begins the plot to overthrow Henry IV. Percy and King Henry IV were once allies, but a broken pact has set them against each other.

The early scenes between Percy and his wife Kate (Marina Vlady) are playful and flirtatious, and they are memorable for the fact that it is here that Welles discovers sex — that is, adult, mature, healthy sex between two people who love each other. Once the scene is set for the confrontation, Welles returns to the messy life of Sir John, who also enjoys a lover, the beautifully named Doll Tearsheet (Jeanne Moreau), which gives you an idea of how energetic a lover she must have been.

And in the meantime we also have King Henry’s disappointment with Hal. He calls him an “effeminate boy” and laments the “dissolute crew” he keeps (which includes Falstaff) — while wishing that his own son was more like Percy, whose manliness and athleticism is defined by his nickname, Hotspur.

In his choice of locales, Welles makes it supremely clear just how cold and uninviting life in a castle must have been: shut off, surrounded by stone, cavernous and dank, and almost assuredly littered with garbage, smeared with shit, with pools of rancid water lying beneath the foot. Welles, as much as any filmmaker ever has, makes you realize that the royal life is one of compromise (at least in the 15th century).

The crowning achievement in “Chimes At Midnight” is the Battle of Shrewsbury. Long famous even before the movie could be seen. it was widely believed to have influenced the battle scenes in Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” — and it is easy to see that Gibson wasn’t influenced by them as much as he ripped them off. The battle is an undisputed cinematic achievement. It’s astonishing, tense and dramatic, and full of believable action. Something, by the way, Gibson failed at — if you look at the back of the frame in Gibson’s “action scenes” some of the extras are barely moving.

Welles, however, had everything under control, and the battle moves fluidly and realistically. The viewer never loses his place. Men look like they die, and they look like they hurt.

I get disgusted when the people who heap praise on Steven Spielberg and “Saving Private Ryan” make you think no one had ever directed a realistic battle scene before. Samuel Fuller could have done it — and just as well and even more realistically — if he had money and computer effects. But he had no money when he made “The Big Red One” — and that movie has real more heart than “Saving Private Ryan” will ever have.

But Welles, God bless him, invented a battle scene with almost no cinematic equal with no money and no effects. He just had a supreme cinematic eye, a gift for editing film, and a passion for art.

The scenes of battle are a magnificent achievement. They should be studied, they should be emulated, and they should be justly praised. But they also need to be acknowledged.

Then, after the battle, and threats to the throne have been vanquished, the old King dies. Hal ascends to the throne as Henry V. Falstaff and his friends rejoice — friends in high places, after all.

But Falstaff has not been paying attention to what Hal has been saying. He has not heard the contempt, and the ridicule. Welles makes the audience both see and hear the forthcoming betrayal all through the film. The storytelling here is masterful — in each scene we want to yell to Sir John, “Wake up!” Welles has made Shakespeare intimate — like a chamber play, a few characters playing before a tiny group of sympathetic friends.

But Falstaff has not heard Hal’s cruel rebukes. No doubt drunk, Falstaff breaks up the new king’s procession in an effort to praise his friend Hal. It is here that Hal — well, no longer Hal, but a King, after all — says “I know thee not, old man.” The humiliation is complete. Falstaff holds out a false hope: “I shall be sent for in private to him” — but the dream is over, the days are done. The only thing now before Falstaff is a barren, wintry landscape.

It is then we finally learn how truly sad the opening scene is. And it is only then that we realize how masterfully Welles has crafted the story.

We now know that it is only Justice Shallow, as he and Sir John slowly move through the snow in that first scene, who yearns for the days that the two of them have seen. It is only Justice Shallow who believes they were good days, the best days. “Jesus, the days that we have seen!” says the high-pitched Shallow. But John Falstaff never answers the memory directly. “Old, old,” he says. And then, when Justice Shallow prods his memory once again, Falstaff, looking into the embers of a fire too distant to warm the distemper in his soul, doesn’t acknowledge what Justice Shallow is saying. Falstaff only knows that the good old memories are over. “The chimes at midnight,” are no longer a celebration of what has happened, but come now more as a gentle, if firm reminder, that the day is done.

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“Chimes at Midnight” Rings True

By Mike Gillis

Let me get this out of the way first: Watching a film on You Tube, in 11 parts and of low quality, is a chore. Even more so if the audio is out of sync and the video’s pixels warble like vision one too many stiff drinks into the evening.

A few fuzzy minutes into “Chimes at Midnight,” Orson Welles’ remarkable Shakespearean fusion, I was ready to throw up my hands and power down the computer. But then something rare happened: Except for having to click subsequent parts every 10 minutes, I largely forgot I was watching a movie on a tiny screen.

For now, You Tube is one of the few places you’ll see “Chimes at Midnight.” The film, shot in Spain between 1964 and 1965, is still of questionable ownership, no doubt because of how Welles raised the money to finance the production. DVD copies can be had, from Brazil, I believe, if you’re willing to shell out upwards of $50.

I’m not aware of any efforts to restore “Chimes at Midnight” so I can’t be sure the version on You Tube isn’t a doctored or cobbled print –- syncing issues seem to plague many of the prints that still exist –- and that’s shame. “Chimes at Midnight” deserves to be seen on a big screen and in better shape. Why not Criterion to the rescue?

I admit I’m a little tired of Shakespeare these days. It seems everyone is looking to rewrite Shakespeare for the modern world, changing settings and characters or transplanting Shakespeare’s dialogue to a contemporary setting. Welles himself said setting doesn’t matter much when staging Shakespeare. “There are, for instance, a thousand Shylocks: grim patriarchs, loving fathers, cunning orientals, and even comics with long noses. Remember that every single way of staging and playing Shakespeare — as long as the way is effective — is right,” Welles wrote in “Everybody’s Shakespeare.”

That may true, if not a little overwrought after a while, but Welles had a special gift when it came to Shakespeare. “Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight” is the clear distillation of that gift. The film, which is carefully threaded with plot and character from a handful of Shakespeare’s plays, most notably Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, is a remarkable tapestry of Welles’ considerable talents as a filmmaker and actor and some of the best dramatic elements of Shakespeare. The object of Welles’ affection and attention is Sir John Falstaff, the old, obese knight who opines to a young and impressionable Prince Hal in Henry IV, 1 and 2, and is forsaken by Hal once throned as Henry V.

Watching “Chimes at Midnight,” even on the smallest of screens, I was first struck by Welles, who plays Falstaff with such incisive balance: humor, wisdom, joviality and unexpected charisma. It is, to me, a career-capping performance, the culmination of a life’s dream and work. With Falstaff, Welles also makes his first leap off the pages of the play and carves a new path. Welles’ Falstaff, whether gregarious or pathetic, comic relief or prosaic soothsayer, is real in a way seldom seen. I suspect that has more to do with Welles, who in “Chimes at Midnight” seems to be reflecting on the nature of friendship, above all, and that connects Falstaff with the viewer far more effectively.

As expected, there are many fine performances in “Chimes at Midnight,” including John Gielgud as Henry IV and Keith Baxter as Prince Hal and Henry V.

Apart from Welles as Falstaff, the real pleasure and departure in “Chimes at Midnight” is Welles’ unwavering eye. This is the world he has always wanted to populate with celluloid characters and locations. Welles, so well known for the deep focus of “Citizen Kane” or the open spaces where his camera relaxes and lets life unfold, finds real purpose in “Chimes at Midnight.” There are magnificent exteriors, of castles and battlefields, and well-made interiors, from the bawdy house and tavern where Falstaff spends much of his time, to the keep of Henry IV. Welles knows when to keep the camera still, as he often does in the confined spaces he often prefers, andwhen to push it with great effect, as he does with sweeping shots inside the raucous bawdy house or outside the castle walls. This is Shakespeare come to life.

There is another treat for me. “Chimes at Midnight” is often recalled for its Battle of Shrewsbury. I’d never seen it but remember hearing that Mel Gibson watched it in anticipation for “Braveheart.” The Battle of Shrewsbury, which tops five minutes, is brutal and masterfully shot, stained with the graphic damage of war, caked in mud, blood and smoke. Apart from being what has to be one of the most gripping battle sequences I’ve seen, Welles focused on the horror of war, which isn’t often the point in Shakespeare adaptation. It dispenses with political observations and patriotism, such as can be found in Laurence Olivier’s battle sequence in his version of “Henry V,” and shows war for what it is. I find it interesting that film like “Saving Private Ryan” is recognized for underlining the horror of war by making it bookends in a melodrama, where Welles uses the stark horror of war midway through his film, and seemingly out of place for its violence, for greater effect.

Below you can watch part one of “Chimes at Midnight.” Click on the video after part one for parts two through eleven. It’s not the ideal way to see this picture, but it’s a start. So thanks to You Tube for giving “Chimes at Midnight” a chance to find an audience.

I do hope to one day see it, as intended, on a screen just a bit bigger.

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“Chimes at Midnight” Part 1

http://www.youtube.com/v/oOhq0AyRNjY&hl=en&fs=1

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