Perhaps the most difficult-to-see of Orson Welles’ films — and his own personal favorite — is Chimes at Midnight, his amazing consolidation of the Falstaff sections of five Shakespeare plays into what the venerable theatre critic Brendan Gill described in The New Yorker (at the time of its tiny 1967 U.S. release under the title Falstaff) as a brand new play by William Shakespeare, for which Welles deserved our undying gratitude (available in foreign DVDs presented in English).
Orson had been working on this project off and on for thirty years, having done it first on an American stage tour in the 1930s as Five Kings, and in the 60s on the Dublin stage as Chimes at Midnight, not long before he went to Spain with a million dollars, and directed, scripted and starred in the best, most human and touching Shakespeare movie ever made.
As Henry IV, John Gielgud is regally heartbreaking — especially in the “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” soliloquy; Keith Baxter is the ultimate ambitious politician — Welles used to compare him to Jack Kennedy — as Prince Hal/Henry V; Jeanne Moreau is the most sensuously understanding Doll Tearsheet, particularly memorable in the moving scene of impotency between her and Sir John Falstaff, which Welles (heavily made up and padded) does as the role he was born to play. So does Margaret Rutherford as Mistress Quickly, as well as the rest of the exceptional international cast.
There is a brilliantly shot and edited battle sequence that Welles cut by hand frame for frame into a terrifying, savage denunciation of war. The final wordless — on Falstaff’s part — renunciation scene with Henry V is one of the few really tragic moments in picture history. If you want to believe again that movies are an art, for God’s sake find this, and run it every time you need reassurance.
The single movie Welles directed in Hollywood that became a financial success was his 1946 thriller, The Stranger — the first movie he was allowed to make after Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons — starring Loretta Young, Edward G. Robinson and himself as a former Nazi hiding out in a small New England town (available on DVD). It is also the least of all of his directorial efforts, but still pretty damn good, if only as an example of the kind of work he could have continued to do within the system if he had not been the restlessly iconoclastic and innovative artist he was, who, however sullied his acting career became, remained true behind the camera to his tragic, darkly poetic vision of life.