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Arts & Entertainment

With Blu-Ray release of "Chimes at Midnight," it's time to re-evaluate Orson Welles' legacy

Orson Welles as Falstaff in his
Orson Welles as Falstaff in his "Chimes at Midnight," now out on Criterion.
Chimes at Midnight

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In 1962, Orson Welles gave an interview to the CBC in Paris. One question brought him up short.

Interviewer: Does the word "home" mean anything to you?

Welles: Oh yes...

Interviewer: And when you think of it, where do you think of it?

Welles: Now that's a problem...

Interviewer: No such thing for you?

Welles: No.

"Home" had ceased to be a clear concept for Welles 14 years earlier, when he left the US at the start of the McCarthy era and established himself in Europe. He directed six films there. All were fascinating. Each went all but unseen in America. And so a myth took hold: Welles the washout, who peaked at age 25 with "Citizen Kane," and never lived up to his promise.

Two new Criterion Blu-Rays demonstrate the depth of Welles' European achievement. "Chimes at Midnight" and "The Immortal Story" were the last two narrative films Welles completed as a director.

Welles made "The Immortal Story" in 1968. It's a haunted fairytale about the creative process adapted from a story by Isak Dinesen. Notable for its painterly compositions and uncharacteristically static camerawork, "The Immortal Story" is Welles' only completed film with a sex scene in it. It's also his only narrative shot entirely in color.

If "The Immortal Story" is a chamber piece, 1965's "Chimes at Midnight" is an opera.  

The US half-sheet for
The US half-sheet for "Chimes at Midnight"
Chimes at Midnight

A remarkable Shakespearean mashup, "Chimes" is an epic summation of Welles the artist on a canvas as broad and alive as "Citizen Kane." Welles was originally a theater prodigy. As a schoolboy, he co-authored a series of Shakespeare books that became standard schoolroom texts. Welles adored Shakespeare, but he didn't revere him. On stage or onscreen, he attacked Shakespeare's plays, tearing them apart line by line, then reassembling them for new purposes.

"Chimes at Midnight" combines the two "Henry IV" plays, "The Merry Wives of Windsor," "Richard II," "Henry V" and passages from Holinshed's "Chronicles" into a new tragedy, centered on a comic character: Sir John Falstaff, a role Welles was born to play: a pleasure seeking force of nature who mentors an English crown prince in the ways of hedonism.

In an extra on the DVD, Welles' Prince Hal, Keith Baxter, explains the deep psychic links between Falstaff and Welles: " The similarity between Falstaff and Orson Welles--not just the physical appearance, the greediness, the loving of food and wine. But more than that. He was always looking for a buck. He had to duck and dive. And I think the identification was peerlessly exact."

"Chimes" is Welles' most confidently directed film. In its celebrated central sequence, a long and horrific battle scene begins with the pomp of mounted heraldry and ends in mounds of men, bleeding into battlefield mud. Welles does something here that isn't in the original source material. He deconstructs the myth of heroic violence.

Watch the battle scene in "Chimes at Midnight"

John Gielgud -- a great stage actor mostly ill-served by movies -- play's Prince Hal's long-suffering father, the doomed usurper Henry IV. When Gielgud recites the tormented king's most famous monologue ("Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown..."), Welles -- a king of camera movement -- simply holds his actor in a perfectly composed profile, and lets him speak. Geilgud's Henry IV is quite possibly the finest Shakespearean performance ever committed to film. But it's Welles -- a far more problematic actor in other contexts -- who gives "Chimes" its beating heart.  

Welles was the son of an alcoholic father, who like Falstaff, introduced his brilliant child to a worldliness beyond his years. Like Falstaff, Welles' father was rejected by his son because he had to be. And like Falstaff, Richard Welles died before he and the boy who loved him could make amends. Late in life, Welles wrote an article about his dad for Paris Vogue. In it, he unfairly says he "killed" his father by rejecting him.

On Criterion's Blu-Ray, experts and eyewitnesses including actor and Welles biographer Simon Callow strive to describe the devastating impact of Falstaff's wrenching close-up when Hal shuns him. "There is something quite extraordinary in Welles performance at that moment," says Simon Callow, actor and Welles biographer. "He expresses something so unexpected! Which I'm not sure I even understand, but I acknowledge its authenticity completely. Which is that when Hal banished him, Falstaff is suffused with a kind of loving admiration of him. As if to say, `That's my creation. I taught him to be a man, I taught him to be a king. And he was in tears, himself."

Was Welles grieving his father here? Was he forgiving himself? Is this the drunken Richard Welles acknowledging his son's call to glory? This one moving and mysterious close-up affirms Welles' greatness as auteur and actor. If you subscribe to view of Welles as essentially a tragic artist, "Chimes at Midnight" isn't just a consequential Welles film. It's the essential one.