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Orson Welles ascends in Chimes at Midnight

Orson Welles, on camera and behind it, for the movie he hoped would get him into heaven.

Orson Welles, on camera and behind it, for the movie he hoped would get him into heaven.


Chimes at Midnight brings to mind an old Onion headline: "Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place Shakespeare Intended." Some will have grown so accustomed to the Romeo + Juliet and 10 Things I Hate About You school of adaptation that a conventional approach probably seems square, despite Orson Welles being anything but. His own take drew on several of the Bard's plays (mostly from the Henry IV cycle) featuring Sir John Falstaff, whom he played himself. A supporting player in those works, the boisterous knight is brought to the fore in this 1965 adaptation currently in re-release.

This is Shakespeare for people who don't think they like Shakespeare, foregrounding the playwright's playfulness without losing sight of his dramatic heft. The material is alive in a way that CliffsNotes enthusiasts never thought it could be on the page (or, for that matter, in the theatah). It's handsomely staged and eloquently performed. By working with nearly a half-dozen plays, Welles is able to highlight the friendship between Falstaff and heir-to-the-throne Prince Hal — a best-of approach that cuts to the soul of a figure whom Welles considered Shakespeare's greatest creation.

His adoptive father-son relationship with Hal provides the film's main through-line, which is to say that it alternates between festive and bittersweet. The two join together and drift apart, and the cumulative effect on our man accelerates that of his already hard-living lifestyle — he burns the candle at both ends, and there's never much doubt that he's the type to burn out rather than fade away.

This Falstaff is a loud, vibrant personality who throws his weight around in a way that probably only Welles ever could; the one-of-a-kind actor/writer/director is said to have had a great affinity for the character, which is easy to believe. You can see his enthusiasm in the arched eyebrows, curled mustache resting atop a full beard, and silver tongue that gives clear, vibrant expression to Shakespeare's prose. It's a performance at once studied and lived-in, and one he worked up to for his entire career.

Welles shows as much skill with the action as he does with the dialogue, mounting a prolonged battle sequence with breathless clarity — you feel the brunt of every body collapsing onto the ground, muddy from the trampling of a thousand warhorses. Behind the camera, Welles makes each death feel real on a shoestring budget that had to be creatively economized; in front of it, wearing a comically oversized suit of armor, he adds levity.

If you're suspicious of critics — which, as an American, you have every right to be — then take it from the Citizen Kane director himself: "If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie," Welles once said of Chimes at Midnight, "that's the one I would offer up." (Personally I would have gone with The Magnificent Ambersons, but the point stands.) It's a fitting summation of a work implicitly concerned with how we're remembered, a legacy that few are lucky enough to have as much control over as Welles did.

Chimes at Midnight
Directed by Orson Welles
Now playing, Lagoon Cinema