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Thursday, May 18, 2017

CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT / aka FALSTAFF (1965)

Even those who first saw CHIMES in rare screenings 30, 40 years ago, had little trouble looking past battered prints and subfusc sound to recognize a masterpiece. Now that’s it’s out in Criterion’s stunning restoration, it should be putting the lie to all the rot you still read about Welles’ post-CITIZEN KANE decline. Of course, it’s not. And Welles would no doubt be amused to see that when it comes to his Stateside reputation, John Ford’s famous line from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, ‘When the legend becomes fact . . . print the legend,’ still holds. (Ford wasn’t his favorite American film director for nothing.) The film, his own remarkable distillation of decades of thought & productions on Shakespeare’s ‘War of the Roses’ plays, is now condensed, concentrated on Falstaff, the fat knight he was born to play. It’s a physically stunning film, made on the usual Welles’ slim dime, with cascading brilliance on all sides. Standouts include John Gielgud’s guilt-ridden Henry IV; Keith Baxter as an open-faced/ secretly hard Prince Hal (later Henry V), torn between a chilly father and the warm mass (and mess) of Falstaff’s humane anarchy; Margaret Rutherford’s doughty Mistress Quickly (you have to go back to Marie Dressler to find the like, though even Dressler couldn’t have topped the ‘cold as stone’ eulogy). Really, too many character gems to list, held aloft by the unified look Welles gives to every detail (click on the charming costume/action sketch below),

with the now legendary Battle of Shrewsbury (still looking technically advanced) positioned dead-center, as the world pivots to darkness & melancholy. Only Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s lively score, the flip side to his doom-laden music for Welles’ OTHELLO/’51, tries to keep contact with happier times, while cinematographer Edmund Richard brings a chiseled, contrasty b&w in place of the refined grey scale he gave Welles on THE TRIAL/’62. As a boy, Welles worked on a series of books called ‘EVERYBODY’S SHAKESPEARE.’ but only delivered on the promise 25 years after CITIZEN KANE. He never made a better film.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Back in radio days, Welles often played multiple parts. Not so easy in a film. But he could still dub vocals as needed . . . or even just for sport. Listen up here as he has a bit of fun voicing a sheriff who comes to Quickly’s inn looking to collect a debt from Sir John. Welles hiding from ‘Welles.’ Considering how he financed these things, it’s an apt gag.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Keith Baxter, such a wonderful, moving Hal (physically he’s like a more robust Anthony Perkins, Welles’ lead in THE TRIAL/’62) never got the film opportunities he deserved once CHIMES more or less disappeared. But he thrived on stage, even making something out of Shakespeare’s notoriously unplayable Marc Antony against Maggie Smith’s Cleopatra in Stratford, Canada.

DOUBLE-BILL: We’ve mentioned this before, but in a striking coincidence (if it is coincidence), Welles not only chose the same three Shakespearean subjects as Giuseppe Verdi for adaptation (MACBETH/’48, OTHELLO/’51, FALSTAFF), but made them in the same order.

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