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Orson Welles’ ‘Chimes at Midnight’ Returns to Cinemas For the First Time in Decades This New Year’s Day

Orson Welles' 'Chimes at Midnight' Returns to Cinemas For the First Time in Decades This New Year's Day

After Distribpix Inc.’s Steven Morowitz and filmmaker Joel Bender  unearthed a 35mm print of Orson Welles’ 1965 Shakespearean classic—after decades when the film was unseeable—there was hope that it would soon hit theaters. Now there is a definitive restoration from Janus Films, which took 20 years, but not from this source. Janus will present “Chimes at Midnight” in an exclusive engagement at New York’s Film Forum and L.A.’s Cinefamily starting January 1, with a rollout to select U.S. cities to follow. 

READ MORE: “How a Near-Pristine 35mm Print of Orson Welles’ ‘Chimes at Midnight’ Was Found”

The part Orson Welles was really born to play wasn’t Charles Foster Kane, nor the candy-addicted Hank Quinlan, or Harry Lime, or Cardinal Wolsey. It was a character who first appeared 418 years ago, who ducks in and out of several plays contributing bon mots and bad behavior; a wit, a lout, a drunk, a fool, and a character whom Welles called the “the most completely good man in all drama.”
Shakespeare never gave him his own play, so Welles – with typical Wellesian audacity – made one for him.
“Chimes at Midnight,” the film Welles seemed most proud of, stars its director as Sir John Falstaff, the comic character whom Shakespeare introduced in “Henry IV,” parts I and II, who makes an appearance, too, in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and in a movie — first released in 1966 and unavailable for decades – that also references “Richard II” and “Henry V.” But it is Falstaff – corpulent, conniving, merry, muddled and a well of humanity —who dominates, even as his fellow debauchee, the young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) approaches his date with destiny, history and power.
Tweaking English literature with the same brio by which he revolutionized American cinema, Welles pays his due respect to Bard, but also shows what Shakespeare might have done, if he’d only had a movie camera.

Like other Welles projects of the period, films that struggled to their feet, it was shot in fits and starts in locations throughout Spain, with a negligible budget and its sound dubbed in post, with endless lapses in synch; Welles wanted it in black and white, which it is, but only because the producers couldn’t afford color stock. The seams show almost everywhere: In one shot, of the dead Hotspur (Norman Rodway), antagonist to King Henry IV (John Gielgud), Hostpur’s mouth most definitely moves. What is he saying? Probably, “We can’t afford reshoots!”

It is, nevertheless, a magnificent film, one which not only makes Shakespeare accessible in a way seldom achieved by the myriad film adaptations, but which at the same time sacrifices none of the power and elegance of the dialogue, or the nobility of the themes, or the heartbreak: When Falstaff is denied by the newly crowned King Henry V, in one of the most famous, eloquent and moving passages in literature, Welles surpasses everything he had done, or would do, as an actor. Welles would likely add that “Chimes at Midnight” surpasses everything he’d done as a filmmaker. It’s hard to argue.

READ MORE: “The Dramatic Story Behind Satyajit Ray’s 50s Masterpiece ‘The Apu Trilogy'” 

Janus worked for 20 years on this effort. They used a scan from the Filmoteca, made from the original negative, in order to make marked improvements in both corrected color picture and cleaner sound. Digital restoration at Criterion took care of dirt, tears, splices, stains, scratches, and flicker. Still to come in an ongoing collaboration with Filmoteca, the Piedra family and archivists and restorers is the full preservation and 4K restoration of the film, which may take years. 

The limited re-release of “Chimes at Midnight” comes in the midst of a mini-renaissance for Welles, despite “Kane” being knocked from pole position by “Vertigo” on the Sight & Sound list of the greatest films of all time: the drumbeat for a respectable Blu-ray edition of “Chimes” continues to grow; and the campaign to finish Welles’ last film, “The Other Side of the Wind”—abandoned upon his death in 1985—marches on, despite (many) setbacks; and he received the documentary treatment last year with “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles.”  

READ MORE: “Orson Welles’ ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ Producers Move to Plan C” 

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