director Orson Welles
viewed: 01/30/2016 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA
Timing, they say, is everything.
A few weeks back, I watched the documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014), a reasonable primer on the man I think of as cinema’s patron saint. The film gave a good deal of focus to Chimes at Midnight, a heretofore (for me) lesser known work by the creator of Citizen Kane (1934), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and Touch of Evil (1958). Welles considered Chimes at Midnight to be his most fully realized film, his personal favorite, and jokingly mused that if he had to be judged by one work in order to enter Heaven, this would be the film he would choose.
Lo and behold, only a couple weeks out and Chimes at Midnight has emerged from its prison of rights issues, been given a 4K restoration, and is released on screens in theaters. And for us, it was here at our brand spanking new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema at the New Mission Theater (opened only just in December after over 20 years of languishing and debate. The theater is very nice BTW.)
The film is a striking thing, taking a play that Welles had cobbled together from five different Shakespeare plays, centering the narrative on John Falstaff, the obese, cowardly, jocund knight (played winningly by Welles) and his friendship with young Hal, the future Henry V (Keith Baxter). They gallivant and romp and drink and rob and play, while Hal’s father, Henry IV (John Gielgud) disapproves, and a battle, the Battle of Shrewsbury, comes to a head.
One of the biggest things with this film is the sound quality. Apparently, it was notoriously bad, and even with restoration, it’s still a right challenge to discern. I’m not particularly attuned to the Shakespearean language, so concentrating is key, but dialog spills forth fast and furious and often indiscernible. That said, even that didn’t fully take away from the film, but it does as well. Perhaps repeated viewings lessen this issue, though at times it was almost like watching a film in a foreign language sans subtitles.
But there is a greatness here as well. This film was not only Welles’s personal favorite and his last fully realized project, but something that had germinated with him for decades, through iterations of plays, honing in on his Falstaff, a character he identified as Shakespeare’s most profound creation and perhaps identified with as well. Some have compared Welles to Falstaff, forsaken perhaps by Hollywood, or Welles as Falstaff, but also Falstaff as an emblem of Welles’s own father. Who knows?
The passion for the character and story shows. It’s a vastly interesting film, if confounding on the sound front. We all enjoyed it quite well.
And my kids both wanted to get jobs at the Alamo Drafthouse (which is hiring).