“Chimes at Midnight” is, to hear some tell it, the best Orson Welles movie you’ve never seen. “The best…of all Shakespeare adaptations,” says the AV Club. “Welles is at the height of his powers,” says Slant. Most convincingly, the director himself said “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up.”
And yet “Chimes” is, to the casual observer, a sloppily made film. The dialogue, most of it post-dubbed, is frequently out of sync and often nearly unintelligible. The editing feels ragged and almost random at times. And many of the sets and costumes seem to have been borrowed from a high school theater department. Compared to the clockwork perfection of “Citizen Kane,” it’s a mess by most traditional standards. So how has it come to be regarded as nearly that film’s equal, and does it merit the praise?
The movie has been well-nigh impossible to see, at least properly, since its half-hearted American theatrical release nearly fifty years ago. Filmed in Spain, with an insufficient budget and a start-and-stop production schedule, it provided Welles the chance to play his favorite Shakespearean character, Falstaff, the elephantine bon vivant and boyhood comrade to Prince Hal (the future Henry V) in “Henry IV, Part 1”and “Henry IV, Part 2.”
Actually, Welles had already played Falstaff a couple times on the stage—first as a precocious student at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, then in 1939 as part of a planned production drawing on several of Shakespeare’s history plays. Bringing the oversized character to the screen during the twilight of his productive career, then, serves as a capstone of sorts to one of American film and theater’s signal talents. By 1964, when filming on “Chimes at Midnight” began, Welles himself was a Falstaffian figure, both in terms of physical girth and appetite and as a self-mythologizer extraordinaire.
This was, of course, during that period when Welles was essentially exiled from Hollywood, forced to scrounge for money and relegated, in many eyes, to the status of has-been boy wonder. Still, he was able to assemble an impressive array of acting talent: John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford, and narrator Ralph Richardson. On the other hand, Keith Baxter, who played the role opposite Welles’ Falstaff during a 1960 stage revival, makes a fairly shallow Hal.
It’s Welles’ show, though, and he dominates the screen like very few before or since. His performance is everything, and it’s the only one in his career (besides Kane) where you can see Welles’ soul showing through. The film’s most praised sequence is the Battle of Shrewsbury, an Eisensteinian montage of mud, horses, and thoroughly unglamorous medieval melee that is truly astonishing to behold.
Apart from its masterful editing and brutal depiction of combat, the battle scene stands out for its relative dearth of dialogue. The single factor that will stick in the craw of many modern viewers is the clumsy post-production dubbing. Today, we’re used to this level of lips-don’t-match-the-words only in English-dubbed kung fu movies from the 1970s or in Italian cinema, where dubbing remained a regular practice until the 1990s.
But allowing oneself to be distracted by this technical quirk, or by the patchwork nature of the entire film, is to be seduced by a very narrow idea of what makes a quality film. Our expectations of the smoothness inherent in the film-viewing experience have ebbed and flowed over time. No one during the silent film era missed dialogue, for instance, and many felt its presence would ruin the art of cinema. Once Hollywood mastered the creation of artificial worlds in the 1930s, it took the postwar rise of neo-realism (globally) and location shooting (domestically) to take movies out of the studio and on to the streets.
When black-and-white cinematography gave way to color, the more “realistic” option was, again, seen by many—and not merely Luddites—as an aesthetic travesty. The same could be said for digital filmmaking, and the increasing seamlessness of visual special effects in film. In short, as mainstream commercial cinema has edged closer and closer to the holy grail of an experience indistinguishable on a sensory level from reality, we have been conned into thinking that’s the only way a movie can be “good.”
“Chimes at Midnight” has been rescued from the abyss. It will eventually, finally, be granted a legal American home video release as a Criterion Collection Blu-ray, encrusted with oodles of supplemental material. (You should still see it on the big screen, though!) It has been cleaned up, remastered, restored, and thoroughly deloused. These days, it probably wouldn’t have been too difficult to tweak those dialogue tracks or fix actors’ lip movements by computer so that we wouldn’t see the seams between the visual and aural information in the film.
But, of course, that would have been an unforgivable crime. This is a film that demonstrates the beauty of imperfection and the glory of passionate, messy, artistic creation.
(“Chimes at Midnight” is currently playing at Cinema 21. Check www.cinema21.com for showtimes.)