CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT - Orson Welles deserves respect
It’s been hard for anybody to top Citizen Kane and, at this point, it’s not likely to ever happen. A vocal audience disputes its often-cited position as “The Greatest Film Ever Made,” and viewing it for the first time can be a polarizing experience. Some will walk away irritated, almost offended, at the implication that they’re uneducated because they weren’t blown away; others (myself included) are immediately swept up in its narrative and visual grandiosity, and the myth around it crumbles away to reveal an astounding experience. Both are valid reactions, however the reason Kane will never be superseded is precisely because of that myth. Reputation takes decades to construct and is a nearly permanent phenomenon. Kane, regardless of anybody’s views on it, will always be associated with being The Greatest. So if it’s been hard for every filmmaker since to try and compete, imagine how it was for the 25 year Orson Welles who made his debut with it. Welles holds a close place to my heart, being one of the first directors I became completely enamored with, reading and tracking down all his subsequent films no matter how their poor quality. What surprised me was the sheer number of masterpieces Welles managed to produce throughout his career that, to the general public, are relatively unknown. One of his finest, and I would posit one of the greatest films ever made, is 1965’s Chimes at Midnight.
In an interview once, Welles once stated that in his mind, the worst thing someone could do was to betray a friend. This belief is omnipresent throughout his body of work, from Kane to his posthumously completed The Other Side of the Wind, but never is it more central than in Chimes at Midnight. The film is a composite of five Shakespearean plays featuring the bombastic and farcical character of Falstaff (played delectably by Welles) and centers itself around his relationship with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter). Despite his royal responsibilities, the Prince opts to spend his time drinking in taverns with Falstaff but ultimately begins to abandon his friendship due to pressure from his father, King Henry IV (John Gielgud). Shot in expressionistic black and white, the film is a typical Wellesian tour de force of style and drama. It also features what may be the greatest battle scene ever filmed in the Battle of Shrewsbury. There’s nothing I could say here that could aptly describe the full-throttle immersion that spawns from Welles’ editing and handheld camera in the scene, but its unlike anything since and is a sequence best experienced for yourself. It has touched every battle scene that followed but is unrivaled in cinematic craft.
The seed for Chimes initially began when Welles was 15 and attempted to put on a three and a half hour play combining various works of Shakespeare, but school officials made him cut it down; an apt foreshadowing of his artistic life to come. Welles was long enamored with the character of Falstaff, calling him “Shakespeare’s greatest creation”, and longed to play him in a film. He met with a Spanish producer who agreed to fund the film so long as he simultaneously made an adaptation of Treasure Island. Welles agreed, lying about his intention to make Treasure, and used the funds entirely for Chimes. As was characteristic of Welles’ later films, time, money and cast members were always at a shortage.
With a budget of $800,000 and actors such as Jeanne Moreau only available for a couple days, within a matter of months, the money ran out. Welles had to temporarily pause filming to raise additional funds. For the Battle of Shrewsbury, only 180 extras were available so Welles’ implemented quick camera-moves, distorted angles and jarring editing to give the impression thousands of soldiers were on the battlefield.
Like most of Welles’ post-Kane work, Chimes has been the subject of retrospective praise with some critics - including Roger Ebert- claiming it to be among Welles’ greatest films. Welles agreed, calling it his “favorite picture” due to it being closest to what he envisioned and stating: “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up.” If the test of a great filmmaker is that when you look at their work, you’re certain no one else could replicate it, Chimes is the ultimate testament to Welles’ reputation. It is perhaps the director at his most quintessential, stylistically and thematically, but also at his most vulnerable: an exploration of friendship and how it dies. A theme as immortal as the film’s maker.