“There lives not three good men unhanged in England, and one of them is fat and grows old.”
It’s hard to know what to say about the two Orson Welles films just released by Criterion, Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story. Conventional wisdom regards the one, after years of relative neglect, as his final and perhaps greatest masterpiece, and the other as an underwhelming yet solidly-made and ultimately satisfying curiosity. I think that conventional wisdom has it just about right, in this case, which reduces my role to a little bit more than a cheerleader’s.
Though I of course re-watched the new Chimes disc for the purposes of this review, my own enthusiasm for the film came after seeing last year’s theatrical re-release (which was created from the same scan of the negative which is the source of the Criterion). My very first encounter with it was as an undergrad in the early 1990s, where I was able to rent a very bad VHS copy of dubious provenance from my local video store. The sound was barely audible (an especially unfortunate defect in a Shakespeare adaptation), and I seem to recall that some scenes were missing. But that was the best you could do in those days, and for a long time afterward. I don’t think that Chimes was ever officially released on video in the U.S., reflecting its rather poor distribution during its initial theatrical run in the 1960s. I actually got much more out of Rutgers University Press’s book of the screenplay than I did from the beat-up video, since at least I knew that it represented a kind of complete version of the movie, and I certainly wasn’t missing any dialogue.
I was always a bit skeptical of the film’s reputation after that, and halfway-seriously imagined that its inflated critical reputation owed as much to Chimes’s unavailability. It’s easy to spread the word – good or bad – about a movie if no one can see it and contradict you; furthermore, the film’s near-disappearance feeds into the sense of protective martyrdom many critics have toward Welles, who did legitimately suffer from tremendously bad luck during the production and distribution of his works. But no, believe the hype, it’s as great as everyone says it is. Chimes at Midnight (called Falstaff here on the title credit) is an excellent adaptation of the two parts of Henry IV (with some of Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Richard II to sweeten the pot), dramatizing and slightly fictionalizing the events of the English wars of succession which took place in the 15th century.
Chimes’s editing is disconcertingly fast, much more so than most Shakespeare films; compare it to Franco Zeffirelli’s much more conventional (and successful, financially) Romeo and Juliet and Taming of the Shrew, released just a few years later. Though I didn’t bother to measure out an average shot length, it seems that Chimes could probably fit comfortably among the infamously nervously-cut films of the 21st century, especially in its raucous first half. This was probably a partial result of the long, multi-year production schedule and consequently erratic availability of the actors; Welles later said that every shot in which an actor’s face isn’t clearly visible can be assumed to be using a stand-in.
Despite its speediness at the molecular level, Chimes, to me, makes much more visual sense than, say, Paul Greengrass’s Bourne films. The individual images, shot by Edmond Richard, read very clearly, even if they take up only a second (or less) of screen time. Welles is savvy enough, too, to make use of visual incoherence with intention, the famous Battle of Shrewsbury sequence being the obvious example here.
I think it’s also likely that Welles was simply becoming more interested in faster cutting as a formal device in its own right, possibly as part of a trajectory away from his early long-take work. Undergraduate intro-to-film courses still emphasize moments like The Magnificent Ambersons‘ kitchen scene between Tim Holt and Agnes Moorehead and the opening shot of Touch of Evil as essential parts of Welles’s stylistic sizzle reel, but for some reason downplay Chimes, or the even faster F For Fake.
Couple this it’s considerable sonic eccentricities – the levels of the mono soundtrack vary wildly, and the film occasionally drifts out of sync, though some of the worst instances of this have been corrected – and Chimes can be quite an assault on the senses. At times, this can even hamper narrative clarity; despite a spoken introduction taken from Holinshed, the beginning plunges the audience into the deep end, referencing events from Richard II and introducing characters and their motivations in the same fashion as Shakespeare had in Henry IV Part 1 (which is lifted more or less cleanly for the beginning scenes of Chimes), that is, asssuming a knowledge of English history that a contemporary viewer likely doesn’t have. But obviously, this is an intentional choice on Welles’s part; the point isn’t to necessarily explain everything perfectly, but to attack the audience with his erudition, his flamboyance, his willingness to push the limits of the medium even as he delivers an adaptation of the safest possible stuffed-and-mounted classic. In one of the disc’s fine supplementary interviews, Welles biographer Simon Callow summarizes the critical consensus by calling Chimes “autumnal,” but the funereal mood is balanced by a kind of wild energy that matches anything found in even the showiest sequences of Citizen Kane.
Welles’s performance as Falstaff is legendary; it really was a role he’d been preparing for his whole life, having played him as a teenager during his time at the Todd School for Boys, as well as in a failed stage production in Ireland earlier in the 1960s (as well as in this famously astounding moment from The Dean Martin Show). But every actor is great here. It’s often forgotten that this is an ensemble film, every bit as much as The Magnificent Ambersons is. Welles is typically generous with his cast here, with nearly everyone finding one scene to make their own and show off another, less public-facing dimension of their character. My favorite of these belongs to Margaret Rutherford, who, as Mistress Quickly, spends most of her time in Chimes drawing on her roots as a comedian to mug for the camera, play up her elderly grotesqueness and heap lavish insults on Falstaff, all of which serves to make her final soliloquy at his burial all the more poignant. The ultimate debt for scenes such as this is to Shakespeare, of course, but Welles deserves credit in the near term for not only including such scenes in the final version (a lesser director, faced with the task of condensing the whole of two plays and parts of three others into under two hours, might’ve tried to paper over such small moments) but, as importantly, integrating them into the film in a way that feels organic and seamless without disrupting the pace.
The Immortal Story, meanwhile, is such a contrast to grand and rambunctious Chimes that it’s hard to imagine they were made by the same man. Although it clocks in at just under an hour (it was produced to French television), it is slowly paced, and its performances subdued. The actors move around the frame much less often, and tend to keep their voices on an even level. The scope of the film is more restricted as well; rather than an epic of English history involving the destiny of whole nations, The Immortal Story features just four characters, and takes place over the course of just a few days. Mr. Clay, an aging industrial baron, lives alone in his mansion in Macau. His only company comes in the occasional visits from Levinsky, his accountant, who reads to him from his expense books during periods of insomnia. One evening, Clay – who is introduced in a visual echo of Kane’s “hall of mirrors” shot – tells Levinsky the tale of an old man who hired a sailor to sleep with his younger wife; informed that this is an old sailor’s urban legend, he resolves to re-enact it in reality. He sends Levinsky to find the daughter of a disgraced ex-business partner, Virginie, and recruits Paul, a young sailor, himself. They reluctantly agree to this, and consummate Clay’s fantasy in his mansion as he waits outside. Having fulfilled his fantasy of sexual control, Clay expires quietly.
It’s perhaps a testament to Welles’s continuing relevance to the modern culture at large that his Clay character here reminded me of no less than Gawker-bankrupter Peter Thiel. Himself a creepy entrepreneur, Thiel was recently revealed to have funneled hideous sums of money to research on a kooky scheme to extend one’s youthful years via transfusion of the blood of the young and healthy. Clay’s actions are less gruesomely literal-minded, but seem driven by a similar impulse: to experience vicariously the vital energies of youth in all its flower, something he missed out on the first time around because (as the movie implies) he was working too hard. He tries to will a sexual bond into being via the force of his own generative powers – money, in other words – rather than through an interpersonal connection, which he, paradoxically, succeeds in creating between the two young lovers, though he doesn’t actually get to experience it himself. Clay may be able to summon vast heaps of wealth out of the earth, but the easy eroticism of youth is beyond even his grasp. Thiel should check The Immortal Story out; he might save himself some money.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of The Immortal Story is that it’s Welles’s first color film (first to be completed and released, that is – parts of his aborted 1940s documentary It’s All True were in color as well). In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, he complained that color cinematography makes actors looks like pieces of meat, but I think he might just be lingering resentment over how awful he looks in The Immortal Story. His old-age makeup here is distractingly had, and it has the rare effect of taking some of the wind out of the sails of his otherwise fine performance. Otherwise, the image looks very good, and special mention must be made of the supplementary interview with cinematographer Wily Kurant, who is able to explain some complicated photographic concepts with surprising clarity.
Unlike Chimes, The Immortal Story is unlikely to roar to life as a re-discovered lost classic; though it’s very good, it’s simply too modest of an achievement, its somber tone and brief running time and televisual crampyness go against all of what we think we’re looking for in movies. Frankly, it feels slight enough that I’m not sure why Criterion didn’t just include it as a bonus disc in the Chimes package. But there are worse things to be than a Welles completionist, and the loss of that extra inch of shelf space will be more than made up for by the considerable virtues of even this lesser effort.