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Orson Welles gives his finest performance in Chimes at Midnight

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“It is no sin for a man to labour at his vocation.”

Those words are spoken by Orson Welles in the writer-director-costume designer-star’s woefully underseen Chimes at Midnight (1965). Welles plays Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s foremost creations, affectionately embodied by Welles as a roguish boxcar bon vivant or giant bearded baby. With Falstaff Welles gave what was arguably his finest screen performance, not the least of reasons being that Welles was in many respects playing a variation on himself. Think of Falstaff always looking for funds and dodging creditors, telling tall tales, eating, drinking, ever pursuing the good life and accepting even a devastating betrayal with a wise man’s aching smile.

Released nearly a quarter-century after Welles’ legendary Citizen Kane (1941), Chimes, a Spanish-Swiss coproduction, is one of many examples of Welles stubbornly labouring at his vocation long after his cultural currency began to dwindle—the inverse trajectory of his infamous waistline. Chimes was barely noticed in its day and would later be found only on negligently transferred home video releases. Thus it is very happy news that Chimes has been beautifully restored and will be released next week on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

Drawing together elements from both Henry IV plays, along with Henry V, Richard II and The Merry Wives of Windsor, Welles once summarized Chimes as a love story about a boy torn between two father figures, the boy being Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) and the father figures being the noble King Henry IV (John Gielgud) and Welles’ naughty, lovably uncouth Falstaff. This masculine love triangle, building up to a poignant climax of self-actualization and disloyalty, forms the core of a narrative teeming with busyness, history and myth. If you don’t know your Shakespeare or the Wars of the Roses you could be forgiven for not quite following all the political scheming that occupies much of Chimes, which is a very talky movie. But it’s also a beautiful movie, flush with charismatic performances—from Welles and Baxter most especially—endlessly inventive visual design and a stunningly smoky, muddy, bloody mid-point battle scene.

Great as Chimes is, however, I confess that I found Criterion’s supplements just as entertaining—we’re talking about Welles here, and I don’t know that any other figure in film history forged a career more complex and colourful. An interview with Baxter is a major highlight. He describes having left RADA to wash dishes when he heard Welles was holding auditions. The men hit it off and worked together on the commercially disastrous stage version of Chimes. Then Baxter was called to Spain to make the film of Chimes. Except that the film turned out to be Treasure Island—until it became Chimes again. The story gets wilder as it goes, punctuated by numerous lunches that would go on for hours. Welles’ daughter Beatrice, who plays a page in Chimes, is also interviewed, describing a childhood of no school, much caviar and encounters with Picasso. Welles scholars Simon Callow and Joseph McBride provide oodles of fascinating context for Chimes in separate interviews. McBride describes traveling from Wisconsin to Chicago to see Chimes during its paltry original US release. He watched it three times in a row in a theatre filled with academics and winos. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect audience. V

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