Saturday, February 20, 2016

Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff)

A new restoration of Orson Welles Chimes at Midnight, sometimes also known as Falstaff, is currently on-tour.  Although I know the film well and, indeed, own a somewhat dodgy video-tape of the production, I availed myself of the opportunity to see the movie on the big screen.  (I think I saw the picture in a church basement in the mid-seventies projected in a 16 mm print -- in that showing, the projector was louder than the mumbled and disorienting soundtrack so that the movie was, in effect, silent, a jumble of beautiful images, a harrowing battle-scene, with some trumpet fanfares thrown in for a good measure.)  Restoration of the film seems to have focused in large part on improving the sound, a problem with this film heavily criticized when the movie was premiered.  Shot in Europe on a shoe-string budget, Welles mobilized an international cast, had them mime the words and, then, post-synchronized the film in English -- the effect was catastrophic:  Welles uses extremely deep focus and characters standing a hundred yards from the lens were recorded at the same volume as whispered conversations shot in close-up -- the film's sonic landscape was surreally jumbled and this led several major critics to complain that the movie was amateurishly made and, perhaps, even incomplete.  In the restored version, some of this sonic chaos has been corrected -- people remote from the camera sound more distant now and I don't recall the Shakespearian poetry as being as clear and distinct as voiced in this present version of the film:  you can now hear what the characters are saying, and, although their lines are spoken very quickly, an alert listener can generally understand what is being said. 

Of course, the film is visually gorgeous and brilliantly edited -- almost every shot is masterfully composed and Welles' command of film grammar is absolutely impeccable.  Indeed, in its visual aspect the movie is just about flawless.  Seen on the small screen of a TV set, Welles' canted perspectives and habit of interposing faces seen in close-up with remote action hundreds of feet away, seems mannered, and ostentatious -- Welles was always a great show-off and this film is no exception:  in some instances, the expressionistic lighting is almost too brilliant -- it draws attention to itself.  But this aspect of the film is muted when seen on a big screen.  Viewed in an actual theater, it's clear that Welles' compositions are not merely highly theatrical and wildly imaginative -- these compositions are, in fact, supremely expressive.  And, in this film, Welles achieves an almost perfect fusion of set, actors, and lighting -- his sets are extraordinarily detailed and the camera roams through them:  Welles prismatic editing gives the impression of a moving camera exploring the space, but, in fact, this is an illusion -- rather, his editing is so logically designed, moving from shot to shot so swiftly and effortlessly that viewer feels a sense of seamless reality.  Fore- and background is expertly managed -- in a close two-shot in a tavern, for instance, we see a prostitute peeping through an open window in the deep background of the image:  these kinds of effects give the viewer a sense of heightened reality.  Furthermore, Welles carefully delineates the different spaces that the film explores:  Mistress Quickly's tavern and brothel is a maze of low timbered cubby holes and banqueting rooms, an open atrium with a balcony providing a gallery from which the prostitutes can observe (and comment on) the action.  King Henry's castle is an icy cloister with cold beams of light piercing through darkness and somber annexes, all pendant to the barren throne room where conspirators whisper to one another.  The Battle of Shrewsbury is fought on a windy plain where dying soldiers drown in a field of mud.  The final coronation by which Prince Hal becomes Henry V is shot in greyish sepulchral shadow -- the spectral crowds of courtiers and monks and soldiers standing under a stark and vast forest of lances seem trapped in stone chambers far underground, a nightmare procession filmed in quasi-documentary style, somber and deadly and grave so that it is all the more shocking when Falstaff invades this macabre ceremony to demand that the King acknowledge his friendship.  Henry's disavowal of the old man is one of the great moments in film, an immensely powerful and tragic scene shot in huge, enigmatic close-ups.  Although the second half of the movie lags a little -- this is a defect in the source material -- the ending of the picture remains poignant and gruesomely ironic; its the kind of movie-making that can wring tears from its audience.  At least, I was much affected by the film's ending, particularly the narrative from Holinshed's Chronicles extolling the virtues of Henry V while we see, from an overhead angle, two laborers pushing Falstaff's huge coffin across the ravaged countryside -- an image that could have been made by Brueghel.  Welles' plays Falstaff as a force of nature, a great Homeric figure, impossibly fat and massive -- he is less endearing and comical than a titanic force.  And Welles doesn't sugarcoat his hero or conceal his vices -- there is a terrifically sinister scene in which Falstaff impresses hapless peasants and working men to join his brigade, soldiers who will soon be slaughtered in the horrific battle at Shrewsbury.  The battle scene itself is a show-stopper, one of the greatest scenes of this type ever filmed -- the camera slips from marching men and friezes of horsemen to savage-looking instruments of war and an image in which knights are hoisted from trees onto their horses in has a savage impact.  The battle itself is staged as a fury of black and white combat -- the shadows of the men flapping like immense crows against the white fogs and mists of the landscape.  It is altogether shattering.  After this battle, the film's energy declines and we witness the physical deterioration (and moral diminution) of Falstaff -- the poetry becomes less regal and more death-inflected.  Everyone is diseased, it seems, and dying.  This comes as an emotional disappointment after the tremendous fury of the battle scene with its climactic duel between Hotspur and Prince Hall, both flowers of chivalry -- but Welles' film is fully coherent and the emotional let-down in the last third of the picture is thematic.  It's the end of Merry Olde England, the collapse of chivalry, and, with Falstaff's death, we have the sense of the ending of an era.  This film was a touchstone of my youth and decisively framed for me many issues about Shakespeare and Shakespearian poetry and how these plays might be translated to the screen.  So I am happy to report that Chimes at Midnight has not lost any of its power and beauty -- in fact, if anything, I admire it more now than I did forty years ago. 

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