August 30, 2016
Chimes at Midnight (1966) and The Immortal Story (1968) were the last two fiction features that Orson Welles completed. Still to come would be the self-reflective essays of F For Fake (1973) and Filming Othello (’78), as well as the perpetually promised to-be-finished projects like The Other Side of the Wind (1970-’76), but Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story mark an endpoint. Both deal with aging, obsolete men living outside of their times, belonging to previous epochs. In Chimes, Welles’ Falstaff is a ruddy-cheeked representative of the Merrie England torn asunder by the War of the Roses, while his “Mr. Clay” in The Immortal Story is a wealthy Macao merchant who lives inside his account books, completely cut off from the world outside. Chimes at Midnight is the capstone to Welles’ extraordinary career, while The Immortal Story is a dream-like coda. Today both have been released in essential DVD and Blu-ray editions from Criterion. Chimes at Midnight has never had a satisfactory home video release in the United States until now, subjugated to dupey transfers and muddy audio (always blamed on the original production circumstances, which required extensive dubbing, but the dialogue is crisp and clear on the Criterion disc). Both releases are causes for celebration, and Chimes has pole position for home video release of the year.
Welles had been making versions of Chimes at Midnight his entire life. When he was fifteen he condensed Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III into Winter of Our Discontent, which he performed at the Todd School for Boys. He tried again on a larger scale for the Mercury Theater production of Five Kings in 1938, a compilation of the history plays whose failure was largely attributed to a rotating stage that kept malfunctioning. He returned the idea to the stage in 1960, where it was now called Chimes at Midnight, and would focus on the relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal. It was staged to strong reviews but dwindling attendance in Belfast and Dublin, and plans for a world tour were scrapped. But the material was never far from Welles’ mind, and so in 1964 he began planning a film adaptation, and secured money from a Spanish producer, Emiliano Piedra, but only if he would shoot an adaptation of Treasure Island simultaneously, with the same cast and crew. It is unclear whether Welles ever intended to follow through with Treasure Island, which he had once adapted for the radio, but he put on the image of seriousness, drafting the 2nd Unit director on Chimes, Jess Franco, to lead the Treasure Island shoot. In the third volume of his Welles biography One Man Band, Simon Callow writes that a few scenes were shot on board the Hispaniola that still exist, which were “energetic” and “in sumptuous Technicolor”. But no more was done with Treasure Island, as Welles funneled all the money into Chimes (he told Peter Bogdanovich it cost “a million-one”).
Chimes at Midnight is a boisterous, earthy and deeply melancholy film, focusing on Prince Hal’s (Keith Baxter, reprising his role on the stage) relationship to two father figures, his biological one, King Henry IV (John Gielgud, flawless), and Falstaff (Welles), his drunken playmate who teaches him about the good life. When King Henry IV’s reign is threatened by the rebellion of the House of Percy, led by the impulsive Hotspur, Prince Hal is forced to choose between Falstaff’s medieval Merrie olde England and the patriotic militarism of his father. Welles is a nostalgist, seen most vividly in pre-industrial sequences in The Magnificent Ambersons, and he plays Falstaff as a tragic figure placed in a time that no longer needs him. The tone is set in the opening, in which Falstaff, Justice Shallow (Alan Webb), and Silence (Walter Chiari) sit by a fire, talking of the past. Webb plays Shallow with a cracking and wheezing falsetto, and wields that voice with singsong sadness: “Jesus, the days that we have seen!” Falstaff replies slowly, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” They are men of the past, awaiting their flames to be snuffed out.
James Naremore, in The Magic World of Orson Welles, describes his appearance as a “filthy Santa Claus who has carried ‘gourmandizing’ to a dangerous extreme” (according to Callow Welles wore “knitted chain-mail tights and a suede jerkin worn by Jayne Mansfield in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw.”) Welles is enormous, and enormously filthy, though he gives Falstaff that baby faced cherubic grin of young Charles Foster Kane. He is a walking paradox, an immature and naive old man, an inebriated child. Early on in the Boar’s Head bar, a set designed, painted, and blowtorched by Welles, Falstaff and Hal perform a burlesque of King Henry interrogating his son. They trade the roles back and forth, wearing a pot on their heads as a crown. Welles and his DP Edmond Richard shoot with a barrelling handheld camera in the bar sequences, keeping the viewer as tipsy as its patrons. This parodic scene will become tragedy at the end of the film, when Prince Hal becomes King and disavows his former tippling playmates (“I know thee not, old man”). But Falstaff’s innocence had already been despoiled in the Battle of Shrewsbury, a rightly celebrated sequence that begins with traditional spatial geography, orienting the viewer to each side of the battle, until the cuts get faster and unmoored, the movement is both sped up and slowed down, ending with the camera knee deep in the mud with indistinguishable bodies trembling to their deaths.
The Immortal Story depicts another tragic, if less sympathetic, old man. Welles had long admired Isak Dinesen, and planned to adapt three of her stories for an omnibus film. Only The Immortal Story was completed. It follows the curious case of Mr. Clay (played by Welles with one of his more distracting fake noses), a rich old bastard and stubborn realist, who wants an old sailor’s story to come true. The story, passed from ship to ship, concerns a rich merchant who hires a sailor for five guineas to impregnate his wife. Clay is a rigid literalist who is childishly upset that this story was a fabrication. He wants to re-enact the story for real, so at least one sailor can tell the tale and mean it. Clay entrusts his accountant Levinsky (Roger Coggio), whose family was killed in a pogrom, to carry out the bizarre task. Levinsky is an ascetic who enters his task with a hidden smile, as if happy to have no more to do with the world. Levinsky hires Virginie (Jeanne Moreau) to play Clay’s wife. Viriginie’s father was once Clay’s partner, but they split and Clay ruined him, kicking him out of his own house. So Virginie is returning to her childhood home, when she still had dreams of a happy life. Clay finds a ragged sailor (Norman Eshley) to complete his menagerie, and the story commences. But as life is not a story, and Clay’s “pieces” do not act as he intends, a mortally threatening outcome. Welles’ first color feature, shot by Willy Kurant, is heavily filtered and gauzy, appropriate for the dirge-like dreaminess of the film. Everyone is withholding themselves, so it is appropriate for Kurant to add more barriers in the form of filters. At only 58 minutes, it is a drowsy, hypnotic miniature about a man whose lack of imagination is his undoing.
The Criterion discs are piled high with useful extras, including an extraordinary interview with Orson Welles on the Merv Griffin show, included on the Chimes at Midnight disc. It was conducted in Spain while a haggard, unshaven Welles was sitting at a moviola in the process of editing Chimes. He plays back the just-edited battle sequence while Griffin peppers him with questions about Kane and War of the Worlds. Though clearly exhausted and seemingly near-collapse, Welles answers these tired questions with grace and charm, hoping for a box-office boost that would never come. Though studios admired Chimes, Fox’s Darryl Zanuck called it “far and away the best film in this category I have seen”, but didn’t pick it up for distribution. It eventually received a small release (presented by Harry Saltzman and released by Peppercorn-Wormser, Inc. Film Enterprises), but was doomed by a harsh (and bizarre) New York Times review by Bosley Crowther (“a big, squashy, tatterdemalion show.”) It received a strong notice from Pauline Kael in The New Republic, writing that it “came and went so fast there was hardly time to tell people about it, but it should be back (it should be around forever) and it should be seen.” With the Criterion disc it is now possible to follow Kael’s sage advice.