Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Chimes at Midnight (1965), directed by Orson Welles.

Because of technical and legal problems this has always been a hard film to see, and very difficult to collect on home video. There were VHS editions and DVDs of questionable provenance, but now Criterion has delivered a rather good Blu-ray which will satisfy many want-lists.

What's it about?

Welles had done a mashup of several Shakespeare plays featuring Falstaff and Prince Hal on stage before. Now he scraped together a tiny budget and filmed on a shoestring in Spain. Even so he had to stop and run out for more funding.

I once saw a tabulation of how often each Shakespeare play is performed. Some are perennial favorites, other more rare. Henry VI 1 & 2 are odd in that their famous characters -- Hal, Falstaff, Hotspur, King Henry -- are well known, but the plays are almost never done. The figures are more familiar as literary characters than as stage presences.

I wonder if that isn't because these characters and their scenes are all we care about from these plays?

Of the central characters, only Welles (wearing a fat suit as he did in Touch of Evil (1958)) really stands out, a sort of Medieval Kris Kringle. He obviously loves the roguish knight and loves playing him. In previous centuries Falstaff was the villain of these plays, but more recent taste tends to exalt him.

John Gielgud was one of the most esteemed Shakespeareans of the 20th century, but his film work suffers from his formal, declamatory style. Henry IV was an intensely charismatic character, going from exile to invader with a handful of supporters, to the throne itself. We have little of that here.

Keith Baxter is not a well-known actor, and his Prince Hal is frankly dull. The character is meant to have immense wit and liveliness.

Some great faces in the rest of the cast; note Jeanne Moreau as sad-eyed, bordering-on-mental prostitute Doll Tearsheet.

If you want to see a good lead trio in a TV version of the plays, try the BBC Complete Shakespeare series of the 70s and 80s: Henry IV part 1 (1979) has Anthony Quayle, Jon Finch and David Gwillim as Falstaff, the King and the Prince. Shot on video with zero budget. The same cast return for Part 2.

Criterion Blu-ray with a commentary track by a Welles scholar.

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