‘Before the advent of Orson Welles, the most important thing in motion picture technique had been the story, the devising, spacing, and arranging of shots into a plot line that moved easily from one thing to another. Welles, more concerned with exhibiting his impudent showmanship and his deep thought about graft, trusts, yellow journalism, love, hate, and the like, fractured his story all along the line, until his film became an endless chain of stop effects.’ – Manny Farber, Cahiers du Cinema, 1952
For Farber, Welles’ ‘thunderous theatrical trickery’, making its first appearance ten years before in 1941’s Citizen Kane (‘exciting, if hammy’), ushered in a new era of portentous studio filmmaking, where ‘the only things that really move are the tricks and symbols designed to make you think, “God, this is sensitive!”’ But the flash of early Welles—indeed of much of Welles from Kane through The Trial (1962)—is gone by the time of his marginal, marginalised 1966 masterpiece Falstaff, Chimes at Midnight.
With tools blunted by dwindling budgets and hurried, ramshackle productions (Emiliano Piedra agreed to produce Falstaff on the condition that Welles direct a version of Treasure Island simultaneously—a promise Welles, of course, shucked), the Welles of Falstaff might come as something of a shock to the system for those whose only meagre contact with the director is Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), or even Touch of Evil (1958).
The film, an amalgam of six works by Shakespeare and Hollinshed, is about as breathless and energetic as they come; early scenes of Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) and a garrulous Falstaff (Welles) gallivanting around their favourite tavern—down dollhouse stairwells, clamouring in and out of tiny beds with young maidens, staging epic comedies with pots and brands—have the invigorating, real-time energy of a pre-code Walsh. Even as the story draws to a sedentary conclusion, Welles’ fluid style, the swooping handheld, horizontal movement of the camera matching flurries of continuous, cut-bridging action, never slows to match it. Even the dubbed soundtrack, dislodged by a scattered production, seems to be continually outpaced by the images and glissading cuts.
While the shabbiness of the film is more than evident, as with all of Welles’ later works it’s difficult to separate it from his greatest triumphs. Seeming to anticipate last year’s popular Russian film Hard to be a God, Falstaff—with its memorable scenes of characters warming themselves over bustling, popping flames, of armoured horses and jolly men trudging through puckered clots of grey dirt—is about the only medieval movie to be intensely concerned with mud, grime, and a ubiquitous brittle cold.
The grubbiness of the film is not so much a facet of its realism as it is a part of an attempt to animate the whole project with lived-in details and a present-tense understanding of a distant past. But Welles, concerned with, as he put it in an interview, “rendering a musical impression”, doesn’t dwell upon these historical constructions as ends in themselves, as in Olivier’s Shakespeare. In Falstaff, this intense, flashy production design factors heavily in many scenes—notably in the duly famous Battle of Shrewsbury sequence, where hundreds of toppled men in armour clamour at each other in the mud beneath their horses.
However, the grimy faces and befouled setting do not seem the cynical calculation of a glib classic of our times like Children of Men (2006), with its characters’ down-turned faces shaded from artificial light, tastefully sullied with grime to catch just the right angle. Instead, this all seems nothing but a pretext for fuelling the energy of the thing. Even in the second half of the film, as the lightness drops away and we’re left with increasingly mannered desolation, Welles’ camera doesn’t let up, keeps its rollicking lateral sweeping, its pinpointing of its subjects’ cascading, unbroken momentum. For it, Falstaff’s about as good a movie as I’ve seen.
Chimes at Midnight is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now.