When we last encountered old Orson meddling around in the realm of the most respected English author ever to grace the Earth (Welles prone to giving odes from one auteur to another), he was content to do nothing less than reshape Othello’s vocabulary from the ground-up, trading barbed words for jagged angles and producing the most vivaciously visual Shakespeare adaptation ever released, and also arguably the best. Admittedly, Othello was something of a little slice of miracle, an accident turned into an avant-garde masterwork not only by Welles’ intent but by the simple fact that the film Welles set out to make was interrupted by budgetary constraints, reshoots, haphazard location hopping, non-linear shooting times that required the piece to be shot piecemeal over several years, and seemingly every other plague Welles could sick upon himself. We may never know what Welles intended Othello to be, but he turned every adverse occurrence into an advantage by making one of the great scrap heap guerrilla masterpieces of the cinema.
It is a miracle then that Chimes at Midnight nearly matches it, and it is, in all honesty, a much greater showcase for Welles’ intent to reread and recompose Shakespeare at a core level. If Othello was turned into an accidental masterpiece during its production, Welles’ desire to reform the Bard’s plays is much more apparent in the raw girders of planning inherent to Chimes at Midnight. The screenplay for Othello, if we boil it to a structural level, is not so different from the play, but Chimes at Midnight is a confrontational exercise in tonal and structural switcheroos the likes of which only a mad genius like Welles could concoct. Take Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V, and Richard III, scissor them to pieces with your finest pair of garden sheers, and stitch them together with your dreams and nightmares, and you might approach something akin to Chimes at Midnight.
A film that focuses, of all characters, on Falstaff, a bumbling, hedonistic, bellicose, tragically flippant, angry thunderstorm of a present-tense human being who uses his towering girth as an expression of his backstage power and his omnivorous desire for immediate pleasure. Falstaff is an anti-hero of sorts, even a villain, but Shakespeare’s attitude toward him, and most certainly Welles’ attitude, is one of contrasts. He is brutish and greedy, by all means, but his relationship with Prince Hal, who will soon become King, is born not so much out of a desire to corrupt or pursue power for himself, but because he sees in Hal a figure who will listen, a boy who he can talk to, and a companion upon which he can buffoonishly attempt to find a soul for himself.
And who else could play Falstaff but the venerable Welles, as booming and egotistical and brashly charismatic a man as the acting field has ever seen, a man who could flip from sinister to charming on a moment’s notice such that the coin is tossed on its side and the emotions intertwine permanently. He was also, importantly, an underdog, a genius who had it all, lost it all, and then grubbily and often difficultly sought to find it all again. He was forced, like Falstaff, to occupy the back alleys and the rafters of the world, taking the form of the Boar’s Head Tavern for Falstaff and cavorting across the independent European cinema scene for Welles. In Falstaff, a man who spends most of his time drinking his sorrows away in the tavern with other criminals, we see not only a bonafide showpiece for Welles’ reverberating baritone voice, as thick as molasses, and his feline, venomous, siren-like eyes. We also see in Falstaff a touch of Welles himself, the pitiful man who was quickly growing girthy on his own insatiable lust and belligerent bon vivant nature.
In Welles, who sells Falstaff’s perpetually round shape and demeanor as an onion where the layers never stop emerging, we see a star giving himself the role of a lifetime (although for Welles, every role was the role of a lifetime) and a role that arguably could not be played by anyone but Welles. We find everything that made the director/actor/writer/ drinker a crawling king snake who was, above all, fully inebriated with life and lust. It is he who sympathizes with Falstaff, and in this sympathy we understand why Welles needed to play him. We see genuine pity and even self-hate in Welles’ performance of Falstaff. We see Falstaff the dangerous lost soul playing with and prowling around a young boy with eyes alight with desire. We see the lecherous man who would do anything for a buck. But we also welcome the implication that a better man resides in Falstaff, and that some small part of him is trying to locate that part, or drink it away. Whatever comes first. In the end, when Hal is to become a leader, and he is surrounded with worshiping souls before him, and Welles cuts to Falstaff, surrounded by a great big wide nothingness as he alone resides in the frame, we don’t so much mock Falstaff as we shed a tear for his scabrous loneliness.
This sympathy also frees the film up to explore Shakespeare the master of pinprick comedy. Tragedy looms over Chimes at Midnight, but it doesn’t suffuse it. It is, far more than Welles’ other Shakespeare films, a comedy scaffolded with tragedy. Again, Falstaff is not simply a tragic figure, but a booming ball of joy whose lust for immediate pleasure and life is also a beacon to recklessness, rebelliousness, and an endless thirst for seizing the moment. Welles doesn’t play the wagging finger to Falstaff. Even at his most difficult, the director always found time to enjoy life (his enjoyment of life made it more difficult for him, you might say). So much so that Welles seems to have given himself the part out of respect for the character, and the animalistic, vertiginous camerawork that surrounds Falstaff’s natural habitat, the tavern, exerts a life seen nowhere else in the film.
Intentionally nowhere else in the film, mind you. The diabolically clean, ascetically rigid halls of the elite castle where Prince Hal and the like make play are, at best, squared-off, sanded-down temples to order and respectful society, but Welles clearly wants Falstaff in the tavern. There’s an exuberance found there that keeps Falstaff’s flame alight, and there is a sense that Hal discovers what it means to be a good leader after exerting himself in the thresher of the tavern with Falstaff. Welles vocally concocts the tavern as a boundless prism of human rage, bustling sound, and electrified camera swirls dancing with beams of geometry that keep the tavern standing only by severing the frame in two. It is a scary place, perhaps, but also a realm of contagious verve, a rejuvenation of Shakespeare as libido-driven bacchanal. If you ask me, I’d rather spend a day in the tavern than in the castle anyway. Judging by Chimes, one of Welles’ most purely joyous and gallantly meddlesome motion pictures (meddling with performance, writing, representation, and visual storytelling that is), Welles would rather be there too.