Falstaff (aka Chimes at Midnight, as it also known) is an amalgam of two Shakespeare plays (Henry IV Parts One and Two) edited by Welles to bring the character of Sir John Falstaff to the fore. Sir John is one of Prince Hal’s ‘dissolute crew’, a witty but amoral figure of fun who keeps the young wastrel Prince of Wales from the serious business of helping his father rule.
Orson Welles’s obsession with Shakespeare went back a long way. He made film versions of Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952); staged plays many times, including his famous voodoo Macbeth in Harlem in 1936 and Chimes at Midnight, first staged in 1960. Welles even claimed to have played Falstaff in a high school production.
Falstaff was a labour of love. Unsurprisingly Welles felt a great affinity for the character whose ‘means are very slender and waist is great’. A man who lies, embellishes and cheats his way through life. He is a corpulent braggart living on credit or hare-brained money-making schemes, and yet he is well-loved and always entertaining – a great storyteller, exaggerator, witty raconteur and self-delusional optimist. It is as if Welles had been preparing for this role his whole life. If films can really be judged on how personal an expression of their author they are, then Falstaff stands supreme in the Welles canon.
Even the story of how Welles obtained the funding for his project seems like a scheme for a modern day Falstaff. Welles had claimed he could shoot two films at the same time using the same cast, crew, and sets whenever possible. For this BOGOF bargain his Spanish investors would get an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (with Welles as Long John Silver) and Falstaff. However, Welles’s focus was clearly on the Shakespeare film. He went as far as building a set for the Treasure Island tavern with the hope of placating the financiers and even spent a day filming sailing ships. But in the end Welles struggled to complete the one film, partly through illness (Welles was hospitalised with a gall bladder infection) and partly through the difficulties in scheduling the cast. Scenes were shot according to availability with actors playing alongside stand-ins. The film’s slightly odd montage sequences of close-ups and reaction shots are due to the fact that the cast were rarely on set together.
The finished film is a messy affair with many technical flaws that can be rather disconcerting. There are continuity errors throughout and the post-synced dialogue never quite matches the movement of the lips. Much, if not all, of the dialogue seems to have been recorded this way. Welles, in typical fashion, overdubbed some of non-English speaking actors himself. Another flaw is Welles’s trademark sonorous voice that here renders Shakespeare’s lines somewhat unclear. Fortunately Keith Baxter (Hal) and especially John Gielgud (King Henry) give the lines the clarity and rhythm they deserve.
Despite all this there is much to admire in Falstaff. The Welles style developed in Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil is still much in evidence. Chiaroscuro lighting is again used to great effect as is composition in depth and those dramatic low camera angles. The Battle of Shrewsbury is a wonderful set-piece and perhaps the film’s highlight. It is a fast moving montage sequence with the camera in close with the swinging swords, the falling bodies and the mud. The camera seems more involved in the fight than the cowardly Falstaff, who hides among the bushes or plays dead.
In Shakespeare’s plays, Falstaff largely provides comic relief although with greater depth of character than a Bottom or Malvolio. However, Welles’s performance is somewhat lacking in humour (he was never known for his ability as a comedian) and his rumbling voice adds gravitas to the role. With the focus away from Prince Hal’s growth towards kingship and skewed towards Falstaff, the narrative is one of decline and fall. Welles has created for Shakespeare another tragedy, ending in heartbreak and death.
Watch the trailer: