To celebrate what would have been Orson Welles’ 100th birthday, Mr Bongo Films are releasing a collection of much sought after and rare films from the acclaimed director, including a brand new restored 50th Anniversary Edition of Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight. I was lucky enough to get my hands on screeners for three of the films in their lineup. I must admit I’d only actually seen three of Welles’ films prior to this week; Citizen Kane (of course), The Lady From Shanghai and Touch of Evil. I love all three (Shanghai to a lesser extent), so I was keen to dig further into his filmography. Below are my thoughts on the films I was sent.
Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight
Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Based on the Work of: William Shakespeare & Raphael Holinshed
Starring: Orson Welles, Keith Baxter, John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau
Running Time: 116 min
BBFC Certification: PG
Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight (a.k.a. Chimes at Midnight) was the only title of the three I was aware of before seeing the press release from Mr Bongo Films. It was interesting project for Welles. Back in 1939 he produced a play which brought together nine Shakespeare plays, called Five Kings. It was a disaster and was quickly pulled. However, he revived the idea in Ireland in 1960 under the moniker Chimes at Midnight. That play failed to find an audience too, but Welles decided to turn the idea into a film, which is what we have here now.
The film version of Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight is based on four of Shakespeare’s plays; primarily Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, but also Richard II and Henry V. Some dialogue is also taken from The Merry Wives of Windsor. It sounds like a recipe for an complex and confusing mess, but it’s actually got a surprisingly small focus. The story looks largely at two of Prince Hal’s (Keith Baxter) key relationships at a point in his life where he is moving towards becoming king. One relationship is between him and his father, the King (John Gielgud), and the other is between him and the oafish knight Sir John Falstaff (Welles himself).
The King has a very low opinion of his son due to his drinking, thieving and womanising, which seem to be inspired by the influence of Falstaff. Hal seems to treat Falstaff like a surrogate father because of being shunned by his father. Despite often playing tricks on the portly knight and showing him little respect, Hal clearly has an attachment to Falstaff, so when he finds out his father doesn’t wish to pass the crown on to him, he is torn between making a better man of himself or carrying on with his hedonistic ways.
Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight was a bit of a tough watch. Shakespearean language can be hard to follow if you don’t already know the play, but what didn’t help was that I was writing notes whilst watching the film and was quite tired too. Added to this, the audio levels get low occasionally with characters whispering and mumbling their lines, so I couldn’t always catch what was being said and probably missed a few details.
Nonetheless, I could still follow the film easily enough. It doesn’t have a particularly complex plot and Shakespeare’s prose is as beautiful to listen to as usual, especially being performed by such a magnificent cast. Welles is hugely charismatic and Gielgud makes an excellent king. Both of them and I imagine most of the cast were seasoned theatrical pros so knew how to do the subject matter justice.
The main thing that kept me hooked on the film whenever I might get a little lost in the dialogue was the visual style. Welles once again makes stunning use of deep focus, boldly filling each frame with strong compositions. An ambush scene in a forrest is particularly stunning, keeping largely at a distance from the characters, making great use of the tall thin trees around them.
The film has a great energy in the first half too. The pace of the editing is quite fast in sections and there is a lot of camera movement. The performances are full of life here too and there is much humour as Hal and Falstaff remain in high spirits before a key shift in tone in the mid point.
The middle of the film delivers an astonishingly good battle sequence when Hal and Falstaff join the King in battle against a rebellion. It’s very intense, full of quick cuts, handheld camera work and strong violence. It proves a turning point for Hal though and after this sequence the film deliberately drops its pace and becomes more serious. It feels like the film meanders a little in this second half, but the change in mood was always going to do this, so it fits the tone.
It’s quite a unique film, with a fairly unusual theme. Some of the finer details got a bit lost on me due to the prose and circumstances and the film notably slows down in the latter half, but it’s so wonderfully executed I stayed on its side. I imagine a second viewing without note taking will pay dividends.
Too Much Johnson
Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Based on a Play by: William Gillette
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Virginia Nicolson, Edgar Barrier
Running Time: 66 min
BBFC Certification: U
I was always under the impression that Citizen Kane was Orson Welles’ debut feature, but three years earlier back in 1938 he’d directed Too Much Johnson. This was meant to be integrated with Welles’ stage production of the play of the same name, by William Gillette. The venue didn’t have any projection facilities though, so the film was never screened. It was believed to be lost for decades after a fire in Welles’ home in 1971, but a work print was rediscovered back in 2008 and has now reached British homes through this DVD release.
Too Much Johnson is a silent comedy in which Augustus Billings (Joseph Cotten) is caught in bed with another man’s wife. He escapes out the window before the husband Leon Dathis (Edgar Barrier) gets his hands on him, but this sets the scene for an epic chase across the city and eventually all the way to Cuba.
That’s pretty much it for the plot. The film is basically just one long chase scene. I got the feeling that the film was missing something without the accompanying play. There are no inter titles either, although the film doesn’t really need them due to its simplicity. Another reason these are missing though is that what we are watching now is actually a work print according to an opening statement. This means that the print we are watching wasn’t the finished product. In fact, a lot of shots are repeated in alternate takes, so it looks like this was a print meant to show Welles all the options he had available for the final cut.
Because of this, the film is very repetitive and grows tiresome after a while, even at a mere 66 minutes. I’d go as far as to say that the final cut probably wouldn’t have been feature length, because so much of what we see is just an alternative version of footage we’ve already seen.
That said, the film remains an interesting watch. There are some nice visual gags, such as the classic chase wide shot with the chased and the pursuers coming and going from different entrances and exits. In general the film is a pitch perfect parody of a silent comedy (the silent era came to an end by the early 30’s). The over the top performance styles are enjoyably mimicked and some rapid cross cutting near the beginning seems to be parodying Soviet intellectual montage.
Welles’ eye for a strong visual can be seen here too. It’s not nearly as groundbreaking or impressive as Kane, but he makes nice use of locations, especially the strong lines of buildings in the city.
It’s more of a curio than anything though, particularly due to the circumstances of the print we have available. It’s interesting to see all the footage captured that Welles had to work with, but it’s a slow watch with not enough substance to justify a feature length. It would have likely made a wonderfully enjoyable short though had it remained in its complete form.
The Immortal Story
Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles, Louise de Vilmorin
Based on a Novel by: Karen Blixen
Starring: Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio, Norman Eshley
Running Time: 61 min
BBFC Certification: 15
The Immortal Story takes us from Welles’ first film to one of his last. Made in 1968, it was originally broadcast as a TV movie in France, but later made it to theatres elsewhere. It’s based on a short story by the Danish writer Karen Blixen.
The story sees a wealthy old merchant, Charles Clay (Welles), wanting his clerk Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) to read him the accounts before bed to calm him down. When Levinsky tells him a prophesy instead, Clay retorts that he only likes to hear facts, not prophesies. Clay then tells him a story he heard about a rich man who paid 5 guineas to a sailor to father a child with his wife. Levinsky claims this isn’t a true story either as he has heard it many times before from different sailors. On hearing this, Clay gets angry and orders Levinsky to make the story come true, so the clerk pays Jeanne Moreau (Jeanne Moreau) to be the tale’s ‘wife’ and hunts for a down and out sailor to play the other part.
It’s an unusual film, quiet and slow, with much time spent pondering the ideas and implications of what transpires. I found it a little pretentious and dull because of this, but at the same time I was strangely captivated by the idea and the vaguely creepy mood of it all.
Because it was shot for TV it has a bit of a cheap look to it when compared to other films of the era, but it’s far better shot than most TV movies back then. Once again Welles displays his skills at controlling mis-en-scene, with a lot being made of very little. There is some peculiar framing used for instance to add interest or to accentuate mood or character.
It’s an interesting little oddity from Welles’ chequered career. It’s strangely beguiling, but never really moved or enthralled me enough to make much of a deep impression, which is probably why I kept this review so short.
Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight and Too Much Johnson are out on 29th June on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Mr Bongo Films and The Immortal Story is a DVD only release. Also released on the same day is Welles’ The Stranger, the first film after World War II to show footage of concentration camps starring Edward G Robinson, Orson Welles and Loretta Young. I didn’t receive a screener for this though.
The picture quality on Falstaff is very good. It’s occasionally a tad burnt out, but this is likely due to the source material rather than the remastering process. The audio levels were quite inconsistent though (again probably to do with the source). Too Much Johnson looks pretty good considering the circumstances, although one scene is badly damaged. The Immortal Story has quite a soft picture, but the colours come through nicely and there’s very little damage or dirt. There are no notable special features on any of the releases, which is a shame.