This is my contribution to the Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by the Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy blogs. Please do visit and read the great range of postings for this event.
For millions who were never lucky enough to see Laurence Olivier play Shakespeare on stage, the nearest we can come is to watch his films of the Bard’s works. My favourite out of his Shakespearean roles is undoubtedly Hamlet – and I’m clearly not the only one, as my review of that film is far and away the most popular posting ever on this blog. (It’s had nearly twice as many hits as the second on the list, which is my own small testament to the power of Olivier’s performance.)
But Olivier didn’t just take on the role of Shakespeare’s most beloved tragic hero. In Richard III, he also relished playing his villain of villains. To be honest, at first while watching this I found the outrageously over-the-top quality of his portrayal a bit hard to take – as he struts, sneers and shouts and is always many times larger than life. He towers over the rest of the cast just as his own misshapen, spidery shadow looms over him, and his mannered speaking sits uneasily with the more naturalistic speech used by most of the other actors.
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.