“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.
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.
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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.”