Orson Welles is immortalized for his early milestone, Citizen Kane. But he created some other exceptional works after that: The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, and Chimes at Midnight. The latter, both directed by and starring Welles, is now celebrating its 50th anniversary with a gorgeously restored print. Unlike Citizen Kane, Chimes of Midnight is not perfection, nor does it try to be. But it is one exhilarating and dazzling re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Henry the IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Holinshed’s Chronicles. Though the language is Shakespearean and its delivery superb throughout, the narrative thrashes about in an unwieldy, discombobulating way that has its rewards. So the way to watch it is to think of riding a roller coaster.
Chimes at Midnight was a vehicle for Welles to play the role of Falstaff, the hedonistic and debauched corrupter of would-be King, Prince Hal. The two are a good generation-plus apart, but they are contemporaries as if from the same heavy-drinking fraternity. Hal is in total denial, in the beginning, that the English crown he should inherit, is under threat of being defeated by warring factions in the kingdom. He’s too interested in having a good time. And libertine Falstaff takes joy in misleading him.
It’s a proverbial story of the prodigal son, which is surely a major reason why Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays have such resonance. Moreover, the Falstaff character resonates today because of the infantile level that too many older American men have come to live within: excessive interest in spectator sports, porn, stupidly violent films weak on dialogue, and a militant disinterest in ideas. Falstaff is prophetic and Welles may well have felt this.
Welles’s Falstaff embodies the full essence of corruption incarnate and is unsettling in his evocation of that. He is out to destroy the young man, though he is drunkenly oblivious to his own destructive power. Keith Baxter gives one of the most magnificently princely performances in film history as Prince Hal. How Baxter never became a household name in the country is beyond me. If anyone personified Apollonian splendor it was Baxter at this time in his life. He was signed to play Octavian “Augustus” Caesar in the 1963 film version of Cleopatra with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, but Taylor’s case of pneumonia affected the shooting schedule, hence, Baxter could not oblige. Regrettably, Roddy McDowall, sadly miscast and weak in performance took the role. Baxter’s appearance would likely have improved the film tremendously and quite possibly have given him access to roles in this country.
Chimes at Midnight also features a splendid majestic turn by John Gielgud as Henry IV. Margaret Rutherford (still the best Miss Marple ever) and Jeanne Moreau captivate as Hostess Quickly and Doll Tearsheet. Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s beautiful score, Edmond Richard’s visionary cinematography, and Fritz Muller’s mercurial editing help shape this dazzling gem of a movie.
Chimes at Midnight
Extended Through Mar. 3
Lagoon Cinema, 1320 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis