Friday, March 3, 2017

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare at the Movies: Chimes at Midnight (Welles, 1965)

The Play: A mashup of Henry IV part 1 and Henry IV part 2, with borrowings from a few others as well.
Directed by: Orson Welles, 1965.

imdb: 8.0
Ebert: 4 Stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%

Genre & Setting: The Henry IVs are history plays set in the late Middle Ages -- about 200 years ago, from Shakespeare's perspective, or a bit over 600 years ago from ours.

Orson Welles, working without much in the way of a budget, filmed his version in down-at-heels 1960s Spain, and captured a landscape that looks reasonably late-Middle-Agesish.

The Gist, which will obviously involve spoilers: The young heir to the king goofs off with a bunch of nogoodniks, but says he'll take on his responsibilities of state when the time comes.  Then, by gum, he does!  Chimes at Midnight focuses on the lead nogoodnick, stately, plump Sir John Falstaff.

The Adaptation: No matter what you say about Chimes of Midnight, you're an iconoclast.  It was released to near-universal critical and popular indifference, and then sank like a stone, and for many years it apparently could not be seen in any format in North America.  After resurfacing on various media, it was both restored and rehabilitated, and now is widely considered one of Orson Welles' core masterpieces.  If you think it's fabulous, you get to make an implicit dig at the ignorant original audiences who were too slackjawed to recognize its genius.  If you think it stinks, then you are pretty much shooting the bird at the film-loving community of today.

Predictably, I thought it was so-so.

Well, not really.  I thought it was brilliant in some ways, dull in others.  The brilliant parts are, basically, everything visual.  The costumes are pretty good, the battle choreography is impressive, and the locations and interiors are fabulous.  And the photography, geez, the black and white photography is often downright spectacular.  This is evident right from the opening scenes, in which I found the sharp-focus contrast between brilliant brights and deep blacks just in Falstaff's beard to be well-nigh hypnotic.  

So at that point, I was poised to fall in love with the thing.  But then, people started talking.  And for as much as they sounded pretty good, it was immediately apparent that this is a film in the "early" period of Shakespeare screen adaptations.  What I mean is that here, as in other older and beloved Shakespeare movies, there doesn't really seem to be too much effort put into helping you interpret the language.  Everybody knows, for instance, that Lawrence Olivier's Hamlet was the best thing since sliced bread, but if you've ever tried to actually watch the damn thing, you'll see that it consists mostly of Olivier staring moodily behind the camera and reciting his lines.  The assumption seems to be that if you're watching this thing, you probably know the whole script more or less by rote from school, and that you just want to hear the actors voice it in mellifluous tones.  Orson Welles and his fine cast are far more mobile and emotive than Olivier, of course, but the many tricks that actors, directors, and cinematographers can employ to help you navigate Shakespearean dialog are surprising in their absence.

Then too, the whole plan of the adaptation is clunky.  Henry IV part 1 and Henry IV part 2 are both good plays, but they are to a certain degree the same play twice.  Young Prince Hal, in both iterations, hangs around with riff-raff, but then rises to the hour when England needs him most.  If you watch them back to back, the first half of part 2 is baffling: Prince Hal, having assumed the mantle of responsibility, has apparently taken it right back off, and no one seems to find this odd.  But Welles, in order to extract all of the bits with Falstaff, runs the two plays straight together.  Instead of a single satisfying dramatic arc there is what seems like a satisfying dramatic arc, and you get ready to put your coat on, except now you're at the beginning of a second dramatic arc.  The second arc, moreover, feels rushed, as if Welles was trying to get the movie to finish up within a commercially viable length.  Even if you yourself are willing to stick it out, the film seems impatient with itself.  And then, rather suddenly, there is a visually magnificent final scene, with a bit of script imported in from Henry V if I'm not mistaken.  At that the great flawed sprawling film, like its focal character, trundles off to Arthur's bosom, if ever man went to Arthur's bosom.

Clocks in at: 119 minutes

Prognosis: It's lovely to look at, but not nearly as fun or as funny as you would expect a film centering on Falstaff to be.  It shows flashes of being a great film, without every managing to coalesce into an especially good film.

Michael5000's imdb rating: 6.

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