Starring: Orson Welles, Keith Baxter, Norman Rodway
Director: Orson Welles
Visually, Orson Welles’ valedictory tribute to Merrie England is a triumph. Shot out of the studio on various live locations in Spain, it combines Bruegelesque earthiness and chilly grandeur in a way that still seems fresh and invigorating. As you’d expect with Welles, the camerawork is virtuoso, but perhaps more surprisingly given the meagre resources he was dealing with, the battle scenes are full-blooded, with a trick or two learned from Kurosawa in their array of flapping banners, glittering chainmail and swirling mists.
In other respects, however, Chimes at Midnight now seems rather rough around the edges. For starters, the acting doesn’t always gel convincing. Keith Baxter delivers a credible take on Prince Hal – beneath his high spirits, a cold fish like his father – and Norman Rodway makes an outstanding Harry Hotspur: perhaps the best scene in the whole film is the wonderfully relaxed, informal one where he’s taking a bath and chatting excitedly about the future with his wife Kate (Marina Vlady). But as Henry IV, John Gielgud seems to be in an entirely different, much stagier film. As for Welles, there’s no doubt that physically he fitted the part of Falstaff to a T, but his mumbling approach to Shakespeare’s lines makes this a performance to look at rather than listen to.
Given how lively and immediate the camerawork is, it’s also a shame that the impact of the film is deadened to some extent by the very obviously post-synched sound, especially in the case of poor Fernando Rey, who finds himself dubbed with an incongruous English accent (a fate which befell him again in The Immortal Story).
For these reasons, Chimes at Midnight hasn’t worn as well as, say, Touch of Evil, but it still manages to be visually striking and plangently melancholy, the more so as it was the last major film that Welles completed. 8/10
This restoration has just a few tiny scratches, but is otherwise extremely clean in attractive silvery tones. The attempted robbery in the woods has a crisp wintry glare, and all of the scenes in Mistress Quickly’s bawdy house have a lovely depth of field and are wrapped in an almost sculptural directional light – in the sequence where Falstaff pretends to King Henry, the saucepan on his head now looks gleamingly bright. The audio is also clear and resonant. All in all, it’s impossible to imagine this film looking or sounding better. 10/10
Also available to buy separately:
THE IMMORTAL STORY
Made for TV and based on a story by Isak Dinesen, this late work by Welles sees him playing the last in a long line of hollow figures of authority. Mr Clay is an ailing and possibly mad business based in Macao who decides to bring to life an oft-repeated sailor’s yarn about a young tar being bedded by a beautiful young woman, but the actors he enlists have ideas of their own about their roles and anyway aren’t necessarily what they seem.
As so often with Welles’ later works, The Immortal Story is flawed by tight budget, but it also gains from some nice location photography and an intense performance from Jeanne Moreau as the woman of ill repute who finds herself cast as a dewy young innocent.. The slow pacing and heavy use of narration make it feel less like a movie proper than a piece of armchair theatre, but, reflecting as it does cynically on the role of the film director, the story conjures up a powerful mood of futility tinged with voyeurism. The DVD transfer we saw was a little soft and blurry, but with nice mellow colours. 6/10
TOO MUCH JOHNSON
This is a work print of an unfinished film created by Welles’ Mercury Theatre. Although made in 1936, well into the sound era, it’s shot in the idiom of a silent movie and set back in the 1910s/20s. Joseph Cotton plays a young man romancing a girl of loose morals, but when another one of her lovers turns up and flies into a jealous rage, a frantic chase ensues.
In the early scenes, the young Welles seems to be channelling Eisenstein and Un Chien Andalou, with brilliant and visually arresting results – the lovers’ early cavortings are expressed in a breathless montage of surprisingly louche imagery. Later on, as the two men engage in various Harold Lloyd-style antics, clambering over rooftops, the story loses its way and eventually peters out, but not before you see many glimpses of the future – the absurdist humour that drives The Trial and the keen eye for period detail apparent in The Magnificent Ambersons are both very much in evidence, and there’s an overhead shot of a maze of crates that seems to foreshadow Citizen Kane. The print quality is excellent, with just a little damage but mainly clean and sharp. 6/10