FOCUS (Films: Old, Classic & Unknown on Saturdays) is basically a two-man operation, led by film experts Henry Landa and Dan Guenzel, who track down films of interest that can be run on 16mm projector. This involves renting movies from archives across the country and even overseas.
The description of “Chimes at Midnight” is: “Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Kenosha born Orson Welles, The FOCUS Film Society presents Welles' last important film, CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, his take on Shakespeare's Falstaff stories. Plagued by money problems and filming logistics in Spain Welles nevertheless created something extraordinary and, we might add, entertaining. Supporting Welles are such artists as Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford, Fernando Rey and Sir John Gielgud. Great visuals, beautifully-spoken dialog and an exciting battle scene (filmed on a shoestring though you wouldn't know it) highlight this forgotten masterpiece.” That is a pretty good run-down. This is Welles’ centenary year, but the tenth of October was also the 30th anniversary of his death.
Welles of course plays Falstaff, the raffish knight who accompanies Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) through the events of Shakespeare’s plays “Henry IV, Part One,” and “Henry IV, Part Two,” with some dialog lifted from “Merry Wives of Windsor”. Welles is the iconic Falstaff, and Baxter stands up to him very well as the Prince. John Gielgud is aloof and distant as the disapproving King Henry IV, who, knowing the questionable legitimacy of his reign hopes to leave a secure crown to his son, and that his son will be worthy and capable of holding on to it.
The film does a good job of following the royal politics as the rebellion of Northumberland, his cousin Worcester, and his son, Hotspur, ferments; meanwhile, Falstaff and his ragged gang of bandits, whores, and ambitious commoners, surf the waves of unrest as best they might, looking out for any advantage.
Distilling two lengthy plays into one two-hour movie requires a lot of cuts, and quite a few characters familiar to Shakespeareans, such as Douglas, Glendower, Scroop, Mortimer, and Lady Mortimer do not appear.
All the acting is notable, with Welles leading as Falstaff. After his long run as the buoyant and seldom at a loss reprobate, his devastation at Hal’s final rejection of him is powerfully done (as is Hal’s blistering rebuke when Falstaff interrupts his coronation procession). In the scene in which Falstaff and Hal take turns mocking the King, it is discernible that the voice they are “doing” is Gielgud’s. Norman Rodwell as Hotspur is big, handsome, and loud, the proper captain of the team, likable as a man and for his enthusiasm, and unlikable for his stubborn cocksureness. Welles is ably supported by Margaret Rutherford as innkeeper Mistress Quickly, and Alan Webb as Justice Shallow, his annoyingly cheerful friend.
The sequence of the Battle of Shrewsbury is surprisingly long given the length of the movie, but, unlike some films, not tediously so. It is amazing, not least in its frank depiction of war as dirty and brutal. I appreciated the fact that many poor foot soldiers, such as Falstaff’s levy, are armed with nothing more than clubs, with which they are still deadly.
The settings, exteriors shot in Spain, are perfect, and the film is dramatically lit and very artistically shot. One area where the poverty of the budget unfortunately manifests is in the sound, with some of the otherwise “beautifully-spoken dialog” getting lost, but not so much that you lost the gist of what was going on.
Recommended for fans of Shakespeare, Welles, or historical dramas. The film is available on DVD.
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