News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New 'Chimes At Midnight' DVD Recalls Orson Welles' Autobiographical Turn As Falstaff


This is FRESH AIR. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz is also a professor of English, and he's really excited about a newly restored version of Orson Welles' 1965 film "Chimes At Midnight." Welles stars as Falstaff, and Lloyd says Welles gives one of the all time great Shakespeare performances.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Orson Welles was obsessed with Shakespeare from the very beginning of his career. One of his first successes came in 1937 when at the age of 21, he directed for the Federal Theatre Project, a production of "Macbeth" set in a mythical Haiti with an all black cast. In his controversial movie versions of Macbeth and Othello, he cast himself in the title roles, but his greatest screen performance was surely as Shakespeare's irrepressible and incorrigibles Sir John Falstaff in "Chimes At Midnight" with a script Welles assembled himself from at least five Shakespeare plays.


ALAN WEBB: (As Master Shallow) Jesus, the days that we have seen. Ah, Sir John, said I well?

ORSON WELLES: (As Falstaff) We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Robert Shallow.

WEBB: (As Master Shallow) That we have. That we have. That we have. In faith, Sir John, we have. Jesus, the days that we have seen.

SCHWARTZ: Falstaff is Shakespeare's most inspired comic invention, a life force, even if his name comically suggests impotence. He first appears as the earthy drinking buddy of Prince Hal, the son of Henry the IV, a king who didn't take the most honorable path to the throne. But when Hal eventually becomes Henry the V, the story takes a much darker turn.


WELLES: (As Falstaff) God, save thee. God, save thee my sweet boy.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: (As Lord Chief Justice) Have you your wits? Know you what 'tis you say?

WELLES: (As Falstaff) My king, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart.

KEITH BAXTER: (As King Henry V) I know thee not old man. Fall to thy prayers.

SCHWARTZ: In the close-up of Falstaff's puffy, bearded face, Welles conveys not just the pain of Falstaff's rejection, but even more heartbreaking an uncanny flicker of pride in the young man who has learned more from him about kingship than from his real father. It may be the most profound moment of Welles' entire film career.

There's something almost autobiographical in Welles' Falstaff.


WELLES: (As Falstaff) Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me, the brain of this foolish compounded clay man is not able to invent anything that tends to laughter more than I invent or is invented on me. I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in another man.

SCHWARTZ: Wasn't Falstaff a kind of showman, fallen on hard times, having to beg, borrow or steal to survive? One reason fans of "Citizen Kane" might not be familiar with "Chimes At Midnight" is the painful story of Welles' producer selling the distribution rights which resulted in legal chaos. The film nearly disappeared only to resurface occasionally in bad prints with terrible sound.

But now the Criterion Collection which is responsible for many great film restorations has turned to "Chimes At Midnight" with masterful results. Welles' wintry black-and-white images are crisp and haunting and countless touching or comic details - sometimes both at once spring vibrantly to life. During the filming, for example, the wind blew off the helmet of a ragtag soldier. And the actor, actually a waiter at one of Welles' favorite restaurants in Madrid near where the film was made, fell out of line trying to retrieve it. Instead of reshooting the scene, Welles kept it in the film under the titles. The movie's visceral battle sequence, breathtakingly assembled from thousands of cuts, has never looked grittier or more vivid.

Welles also assembled an astonishing cast. There's so much affection between him and Keith Baxter, who also played Hal in an earlier stage version with Welles. They almost seem like father and son. The legendary John Gielgud is the incarnation of a king whose sense of guilt is as palpable as his ruthlessness. French film icon Jeanne Moreau is a sensual and mercenary Doll Tearsheet. And Margaret Rutherford, best known as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, is infinitely touching as Mistress Quickly, who delivers the slightly but poignantly off-color narration of Falstaff's death.


MARGARET RUTHERFORD: (As Mistress Quickly) He parted even just between 12 and 1, even at the turning of the tide. For after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers' ends, I knew there was but one way, for his nose was a sharp as a pen, and he babbled of green fields. How now, Sir John, quoth I. What, man, be of good cheer. So I cried out, God, God, God three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him he should not think of God. I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So he bade me lay more clothes on his feet. I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone. Then I felt to his knees, and they were cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was cold as any stone.

SCHWARTZ: The greatest screen adaptations of Shakespeare may actually be the least literally faithful. Akira Kurosawa's "Throne Of Blood" doesn't include a syllable of "Macbeth" but comes closer to the spirit of Shakespearean tragedy than any other movie. In "Chimes At Midnight," Welles moves Shakespeare's memorable but mostly peripheral character to the center of the film and captures not only Shakespeare's high spirits, but also his melancholy vision of aging, lost honor and the betrayal of friendship.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the DVD and Blu-ray release of Orson Welles' film "Chimes At Midnight" on the Criterion label. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews Miguel Zenon's new album "Tipico." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.