After watching a great production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I at the Globe Theatre in London this autumn (sadly I didn’t make it to Part II), I was keen to see Orson Welles’ take on Falstaff, Chimes at Midnight. This film is less well-known than Welles’ other Shakespearean movies, and, for complicated reasons of copyright, until this month was only available on Spanish and Brazilian DVDs. I watched it on a Spanish DVD which I borrowed from a friend, with subtitles, which can easily be removed, and a good-quality picture. I have now heard that it has just been issued on a UK DVD as an exclusive from the HMV stores and website – I haven’t as yet heard from anyone who has bought this release and do not know what the quality is like, but a couple of people have suggested it is best to be cautious.
It’s a shame this film is so little-known, because it is excellent, with a towering performance by Welles as Falstaff dominating throughout. Just under two hours long, it brings together Falstaff’s main scenes from both the Henry IV plays, and the account of his death from Henry V. This works extremely well – I didn’t spot the joins and as far as I could tell most of the greatest scenes and speeches from Part I seemed to be intact, although it would have been nice to have a bit more of Henry Percy (Norman Rodway). I have a feeling that rather more of Part II has been cut, but it doesn’t feel rushed. And all the dialogue is taken from Shakespeare’s text, with just a couple of brief pieces of bridging narration by Ralph Richardson.
The haphazard, messy battle scenes are very well done and among the highlights of the film, as are the scenes of Falstaff moving through the countryside with his ragged army, and his nostalgic chats with a sublimely fussy Mr Robert Shallow (Alan Webb).
There are some similarities with Welles’ earlier Macbeth, although the mood of Chimes at Midnight is of course much sunnier – in both cases the films were made to a tight budget, and much of the mood was created with lighting and angles. In Macbeth, all the dialogue was dubbed after the filming, so it can at times seem out of synch. In the case of Chimes at Midnight, the film was actually made in Spain and the voices of the Spanish extras dubbed into English later – I’ve read that Welles himself supplied some of the extras’ voices, but must admit I couldn’t spot which ones!
Much of the film is set at Mistress Quickly’s inn, where Falstaff and his cronies hide out and drink their endless cups of sack. With its towering Tudor beams, this set is very similar to the stage at the Globe. In the production I saw there, Roger Allam was a great, charismatic Falstaff and got a rapturous response from the audience every time he walked on, but he struck me as maybe not quite fat enough – perhaps because on stage you can’t carry quite as much weight as the text suggests and still give the part enough energy! In this film, there is no such problem with Welles, who is inescapably enormous and really can’t see his own knees, as Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) mockingly says in one scene.
Jeanne Moreau is at first a surprising choice to play Doll Tearsheet, because she looks so beautiful for such a down-at-heel character – but she does a fine job of tearing away any glamour and soon makes you forget her film-star looks. She also makes a great contrast to Margaret Rutherford as the bustling Mistress Quickly. I found Patrick Bedford and Tony Beckley slightly colourless as Falstaff’s sidekicks Bardolph and Poins, but these characters are always overshadowed by the fat knight anyway. Another member of the group at the inn is Falstaff’s little page, played by Welles’ daughter Beatrice, who was about nine, and looks as if she is having a great time.
Welles doesn’t seem to bother as much about doing an English accent in this movie as he did about doing a Scottish one in Macbeth, and his American intonations often show through – but I think this actually works pretty well in terms of making Falstaff seem much more laid back and informal than most of the other characters. Welles’ warm, lazy voice is in sharp contrast to John Gielgud’s icily perfect Shakespearean delivery as the tormented king, bringing out the contrast between Prince Hal’s two father figures, one all for pleasure and the other all for duty. Roger Ebert’s original review of the film on release commented: “Gielgud supplies a traditional reading of Shakespeare, as if he were in the ‘real’ play and not in this version about Falstaff.” I think that’s just right – it is almost as if Gielgud and Welles are in two different plays, and Baxter, as Hal, is torn between them.
I must admit that in previous readings and viewings of the two Henry IV plays I’ve never warmed to Prince Hal, because his sowing of wild oats seemed so calculated – the way he is planning all along to abandon his companions once he has to take over the throne. I’ve tended to agree with Poins that he is “a most princely hypocrite”. However, this production made me think again about Hal, because Baxter brings out a poignancy that is all there in the text (“Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?”) but that I had missed in the past. He brings out the fact that the vice-ridden Falstaff and the self-serving Poins are really the only friends the Prince has, and it is a wrench to give them up even though he knows that he must.
Both Welles and Baxter are great in the famous scene near the end where Falstaff arrives at court and is publicly rejected by the new king – “I know thee not, old man; fall to thy prayers.” Welles does a lot here just with the changing expression on his face as he stands and looks at Hal in disbelief. When Baxter says the line “…know the grave doth gape/For thee thrice wider than for other men,” there is a touch of humour in his voice, and it really does seem for a second as if Hal is falling back into jesting with Falstaff. Welles gives a huge, relieved smile, opens his mouth and is ready to strike back with a grateful joke, but then comes the next line: “Reply not to me with a fool-born jest…”
All that is left for Falstaff after that is to fade away, and for Margaret Rutherford, as Mistress Quickly, to give the famous speech about his death from Henry V, which she does beautifully.
So is this a forgotten Welles masterpiece? I’d have to say yes – and here’s hoping the new DVD release means more people get a chance to see it.