Thursday, May 14, 2015

Campanadas a medianoche (Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles, 1965)

(Note: plot discussed in close detail--but at 450 years old and counting, is anyone still unfamiliar with the story?)

Bigger than life

What to say about this film? I first saw it on a pirated VHS tape I'd rented in New York back in 1991 (the tape startled me; I had no idea pirated tapes still existed in the USA), and despite the video snow, unstable vertical, wretched sound (not that the actual soundtrack was a model of clarity), thought it the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. Haunted Theater 80 at St. Marks for the longest time, because I'd been told they screened it before and might again, but it never showed up. Finally had a chance in Detroit of all places, in an arthouse theater which served coffee and sandwiches while you watched. There were two screenings, and I went to both; had no reason to change my opinion.

Welles based his script on four plays: Henry IV Parts 1 and 2; Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. I'd seen a published screenplay with annotations noting which line was taken from which play--a patchwork of words from all four sources, mostly Henry IV parts 1 and 2, some early scenes from Henry V, and (far as I can tell) only a few lines from Merry Wives, all held together by excerpts from Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, narrated by Ralph Richardson. Scenes are not only shortened but moved earlier or later in the story, changing the flow of narrative; sometimes a line is used in an entirely new way, or unrelated passages from two, even three different plays are stitched together to create a new line of dialogue. 

Many cite Welles' directing and performance in the film, but I can't recall anyone commending his writing. It's quite an achievement: sixteen hours of Shakespeare, boiled down to a hundred and nineteen apparently seamless minutes (took him long enough; arguably, he's been working on this since his overambitious theater project Five Kings in 1939), not just condensed but radically reinterpreted--Shakespeare as raw material to fashion an essentially new story.

The dramatic thrust of Shakespeare's Henry IV is the struggle between King Henry Bolingbroke (John Gielgud) and Sir John Falstaff (Welles) for the soul and affection of young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter); still there in Chimes but with judicious use of atmosphere acting imagery and 
Holinshed, Welles alters the landscape on which the conflict takes place and the significance of said conflict.

In the play, when Henry is informed that Edmund of Mortimer had been kidnapped and held hostage by the Welshman Glendower, Henry complains of the expense and of his delayed crusade into the Holy Lands. You think: Henry's irritation makes sense--why pay for someone who led a failed military campaign, messed up your timetable and in the king's words, is "foolish" and perhaps even "revolted" (with no doubt all the meanings the word evokes)? 

When the film opens the narrator (Richardson) quotes from the Chronicles: that Henry is an usurper, having seized the throne from his predecessor Richard II; the action then continues with the play's first scene. The excerpt casts Henry's stubbornness in an entirely different light, the king's indignation acquiring an element of self-interest: Edmund being the rightful heir of Richard, Henry's not lifting a finger to help Edmund--partial basis for his differences with Mortimer's brother-in-law Henry Percy, or Hotspur (Norman Rodway)--sounds more like a stubborn man's refusal to undermine the legitimacy of his rule (Henry's guilt over Richard may also be prodding him into quarrel with the Percy family). 

Mind you Shakespeare's play does mention all this (Richard's usurpation, Henry's true motive for abandoning Mortimer) but  later, when Hotspur is being prodded by Worcester (hardly--as is pointed out by Henry--a disinterested observer). Shakespeare in effect presents Henry's official story, then complicates matters by introducing other points of view; Welles introduces doubt right off, and has us listen to Henry's words with a mistrustful ear.

Welles elaborates further with images. The opening credits show horsemen riding across bleak landscapes; a soldier walks past some scaffolding, a hard wind knocking his helmet off--prophetic, considering what follows. The sequence's final shot reveals the scaffolding's purpose: a line of soldiers in belligerent poses glare at the camera, swords swinging in slow motion while the corpses hanging behind twist in the wind. 

I've always wondered about that slow motion--a way to stretch the footage, so we can read Welles' name better? A punctuation meant to cause the image (the swing of corpses rhyming with the swing of the soldier's blade) to linger in memory, the way it has lingered in mine? In this image Welles summarizes Henry's England--a totalitarian regime filled with unrest, barely held together by a policy of terrorism, summary executions, military campaigns in foreign lands.

A look at Henry's court is equally instructive--his castle has cathedral-high ceilings illuminated by shafts of light (you feel like kneeling upon entry). When people talk there's an echo (like a cavern or--better yet--a tomb), the vapor from their mouths suggesting a wintry chill (to match the owner's temperament?).
Henry is parodied at least three times--first by Hotspur, fuming over Henry's decision not to help Mortimer; second by Falstaff, playacting with Prince Hal; third by Hal himself, trading places with Falstaff. If imitation is the sincerest flattery Henry should be double flattered; none do him justice (Hal's impersonation comes closest I think, though Hotspur's is the most startling). Perhaps the most vivid impression one forms of the king is a sense of utter loneliness--Welles has Henry standing on a high stepped platform while his courtiers keep ten or so feet away. It's as if Henry feared assassination or--conversely--as if the courtiers feared Henry would have them killed, hence their speaking in low cautious tones (only Henry Percy, hot spur indeed, dares raise his voice in defiance). 

As played by Gielgud, you can't ask for a more astringent villain--yes, villain. Shakespeare was too much an artist not to create rounded characters, but Welles chooses to underline certain aspects of Bolingbroke over others, to a more pointed effect. "My blood is too cold and temperate," Henry complains--this king speaks constantly of wars, of punishing enemies and putting down rebellions but does so in such a passionless manner you wonder why he even bothers; not for his wastrel son certainly (by way of contrast it's clear why Hotspur--whose martial spirit the king admires more than that of his own flesh and blood's--often talks of battle: the young firebrand relishes the prospect of unleashing his boundless energy). When not wearing his crown Henry sports a monkish skullcap (this monarch you imagine pores over passages from the Bible before bedtime); in war he dons gleaming black armor without helmet (apparently he refrains from actual fighting). Welles constructs a convincing portrait of near-absolute power, but if Henry derives any comfort or pleasure from that power, we don't see it.

Falstaff on the other hand is all about pleasure; as played by Welles he's often shot from a low angle to emphasize rotundity. His 'realm' (the inn in which he resides) is visually and dramatically opposed to Henry's castle--homely wood against hard stone; low-beamed roofs against high vaulted ceilings; hay beds against what (in Henry's private chambers) looks like a sepulcher draped with sheets, the pillow on which rests Henry's crown the only concession to comfort (for the crown, not Henry). More, Falstaff is in constant physical contact with his "courtiers"--where Westmoreland and Worcester approach Henry by at most a few steps (even Harry Percy can only lunge at the man) Falstaff is pummeled pushed bussed hugged, even lifted bodily up a table by a gaggle of kids to play king (the table is a nice touch--Falstaff's parody of the raised platform). Unlike Henry, loneliness and loss are not something Falstaff seeks out; he does his level best to live life fully, inviting everyone and anyone to join him physically socially sexually.

Shakespeare darkened Falstaff's character considerably--the man is vying for the soul of the prince after all, and the prince must be seen to have made the right choice. Welles includes that dark side but with emphasis changed--the Gadshill robbery is treated as a romp, Falstaff's attack repulsed (by Prince Hal in disguise), the money returned (during the heist we hear the main theme plus another melody that will repeat later on). Falstaff's role in accepting bribes for draft exemptions is a far more serious issue but should be seen in the context of Shrewsbury, where Henry and Hotspur's quarrel come to a head, and where Welles stages the one battle sequence of his career--arguably the greatest ever filmed.

Half the struggle is in the preparation they say and it's no less true here: armored knights are lowered from tree branches onto horses; racked spears point directly at the screen, as if ready to fire at the audience. We have preparatory slapstick from Falstaff--the knight, clad in what looks like a potbelly stove with a supersized thundermug perched on his head is raised by a team of men; his gravitas too much they let slip and he crashes to the ground. The unmounted knight is forced to content himself with waving a sword in the direction of the enemy, urging the men forward.

The battle itself gives the impression of chaos, but chaos with an underlying progression--charges to the right and left by Henry and Hotspur's cavalry; when the soldiers finally clash the distinction between sides is quickly lost. Mounted armored men swing swords at fellow armored men; a knight with lance charges at a man with spear (when lance hits Welles cuts to a gorgeous long shot of spear spinning through the air). The action degenerates into slaughter--unarmored infantry pull knights off their horses and bludgeon them; soldiers with swords wander about, stabbing the wounded. The men tumble over each other into the mud, struggling in slow motion; at one point we see a pair of legs atop another sunk in mire, parodying the sex act. Throughout Falstaff runs ineffectually from one side of the screen to the other; if he shows any real allegiance it's to the surrounding shrubbery, which offer protection.

Welles' sound--remember he started in radio, and has been a constant innovator of film sound--is at least as important as his visual effects and editing. The thunder of hooves gives way to the clash and clang of sword on armor (the shrieking metal suggesting more weapons than is actually onscreen) gives way to the thud of club on flesh gives way to the squelch of mud. This in effect is war: a devolution of trained and coordinated soldiers into mindless crustaceans, all spiky armor and wavering antennae, groping in the primordial muck. 

At a certain point we recognize the mournful voices: the music at the Gadshill robbery. It's as if Welles were inviting us to compare the activities of Henry and Falstaff--whose is more honorable? Whose result in more deaths? Up to this point we saw Falstaff's antics--his refusal to take part in the battle and his earlier impromptu catechism on 'honor'--as comic counterpoint to the violence. "What is that honour?" he asks.  "a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning!" Post-battle his cowardice comes to seem less like counterpoint and more like sane skepticism, a heroically distinct point of view.

Falstaff's taking credit for Hotspur's death from Prince Hal is crucial to the story--we need an ostensible reason for Hal to turn on his friend (though the prince has already been preparing us in a series of asides, telling us he's only pretending to cavort with Falstaff). A despicable thing to do, except that in Falstaff's eyes honor is important only for what it can give him--a promotion, perhaps--and not valuable enough to risk life and limb to acquire (as many of the dead in the battlefield behind him have done). Stealing credit is no big deal for Falstaff, no more so than robbing roadside travelers or taking bribes from draft dodgers--ordinary folk with no more stomach for violence than he has.

The earlier scene where Falstaff plays the prince and the prince his father seems to lie at heart of what Welles is saying (or rather, part of what he's saying--more later). At a certain point the play stops being play; Falstaff, accused of iniquities and threatened with banishment
 by a pretend king who one day will be crowned, suddenly finds himself begging for clemency: "banish not him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's company--" His final plea is haunting in its pathos (the way Welles tumbles the words out, repetitive throwaway lines that contain the very meat of the speech): "--banish plump Jack, and banish all the world." Falstaff is the world Welles seems to say, not just in size but in flaws heart appetite for life; that his equating himself with humanity does not seem altogether inappropriate is a measure of Shakespeare's and Welles' achievement.

Contrast this with the film's climax--Prince Hal's coronation as Henry V, with Falstaff presenting himself loudly and openly to the new king. In the earlier scene Welles' Falstaff makes an eloquent case for his nobility and against his banishment, to which Baxter's Prince Hal has a short but serious answer ("I do, I will."); this time Falstaff's plea is short and Hal--now King Henry--delivers the sermon ("
know the grave doth gape for thee thrice wider than for other men")

If Welles has a rebuke to this scene and to Hal's eloquence, it's in the actors' faces. Baxter's Hal chides Falstaff in slow, measured words--much like the older Henry only this time Hal's not doing a parody. But Hal's voice trembles at certain points, his eyes wide and staring; he seems fully aware of the enormity of what he's doing. 

Falstaff's response is even more poignant: silent on his knees, he looks up at what in effect is his son with undisguised undiluted pride. 

Baxter in a recent interview describes the "tremendous bond and affection" between him and Welles; I think that bond, the severing of it in terms of story and real life (it was towards the end of the shoot), Welles' forgiveness and acceptance of the separation--all that shines through.

Henry IV in dying had earlier bequeathed to Hal not just his crown, but advice: "Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." Hal takes the advice to heart, and in a later scene (which Welles takes from Henry V) initiates an adventure that will inflict great suffering on both the English and the French. At the same time Hal pardons Falstaff (again Welles borrowing lines meant for another offender in Henry V) suggesting that the youth has learned from both fathers, and will perhaps do better with his reign than his blood father ever did. 

Perhaps not--Welles' final image is of Falstaff's enormous coffin being carted away, human carnality disposed of as inconvenient garbage. Exeunt Falstaff; enter police state, part two.

What more to say? Chimes for my money is Welles' finest film, is the finest film ever made from Shakespeare, is flaws and all the finest film ever made. 



David said...

I'm so glad to see this detailed analysis--I saw this a few months ago (in 35mm, part of which was recently restored and should be released shortly), and it's probably my all-time favorite movie. Thanks for all the commentary.

Noel Vera said...

David, it's a freaking privilge to write about this film...

Noel Vera said...

Got mixed feelings about the restoration. If it's going to be like Othello, fuhgeddaboudit. The sound may synch more, but they simplified the soundtrack. I'd rather they clean up the print, reshow it in a few theaters, then release it in DVD

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

The version I saw actually was a hybrid--the first half was the old non-restored version and the second half was restored, so it made for an interesting comparison. They actually weren't too different--the restored quality wasn't much better, and the non-restored wasn't much worse. But personally, I'd take the non-restored. I saw it at a Welles conference and one of the scholars made a fascinating comment that Welles' post-dubbing adds a sort of nostalgic memory-like effect to the action, wherein the characters don't seem to be in control of what they're saying, but slated to say their lines in a non-diegetic sound-space (I'm pretty sure he put it better). I couldn't agree more, and it's a perfect approach to Shakespeare, both in the fact that they're performing these famous works, and more importantly, that the whole thing has such a bittersweet hint of fatalism, that the arch seems inscribed in the action from the start, in which they run joyously across that barren field of snow (am I remembering this correctly)?

And yeah, it's a total privilege to even watch the film--one which I wish I had right now.

Noel Vera said...

I don't know about that scholar, whether he wrote the article or read it, included in BFI's series of screenplays of films (that's where I saw how Welles put together what lines from what plays), but there's an article there that makes a similar argument--that there's a haunted feeling to the slightly disembodied voices, that any 'improvement' would only diminish the film. That said, I'd love to see it again in 35 mm

Nick said...

Noel, a British company, "Mr. Bongo" recently did a DVD-release of Chimes. It's without a doubt the best DVD on the market, as the print has been cleaned up (it looks very good) and the sound synced up properly. Regrettably, it lacks extras (even subtitles!), but I'd still highly recommend it.

Noel Vera said...


Can I play this on a Region 1? Is it PAL SECAM? Or am I spouting outdated tech talk?