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Rob Edelman: Chimes At Midnight And Orson Welles

Back in September, I reported the following in my film commentary: “Whenever I’m in London-- and that is as often as possible-- one of my favorite haunts is BFI Southbank, formerly known as the National Film Theatre. One of the highlights of my most recent trip was attending a screening of Orson Welles’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, also known as FALSTAFF, which dates from 1966. Before the screening, Simon Callow, actor/director/Welles scholar extraordinaire, was on hand to discuss Welles’ career in the theater. Callow did not so much lecture as perform, and it was a special treat to listen to this witty, articulate man and soak in his vast knowledge of Orson Welles. And in addition, Keith Baxter, one of the surviving cast members, was there to introduce the film and take post-screening questions and answers.”

Here is some good news for the New Year. A new restoration of CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT will be screening at Manhattan’s Film Forum during the first twelve days in January. And here is a question to ponder: While some have cited CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT as Welles’ masterpiece, is this really his greatest film? Well, of course not. It is for good reason that CITIZEN KANE, Welles’ legendary debut feature, remains near or at the top of any film historian’s list of the all-time-great films. Plus, there is much to be said for some of Welles’ other films, particularly TOUCH OF EVIL and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS-- and boy, would I love to see his original cut of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, rather than the edited-down version that was released to theaters.

Now if one knew nothing about CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, one might conclude that the film exudes a Shakespearean sensibility. This is understandable, as the film is an adaptation of several Shakespearean plays. Welles himself stars as Falstaff, and the core of the story centers on the complexities of the father-son relationship between Falstaff and Prince Hal-- that’s the Keith Baxter character-- and the pressure on the prince to choose between his devotion to Falstaff and his allegiance to his real father, King Henry IV, played by John Gielgud.

But the key here is Falstaff, and Orson Welles’ fascination with this character. As he explained to Peter Bogdanovich, he viewed Falstaff as “one of the only great characters in all dramatic literature who is essentially good.... But his good is basic, like bread, like wine. He’s just shining with love; he asks for so little, and in the end, of course, he gets nothing.” 

Also, if you examine Welles’ depiction of a time and a place, you can see how CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT works as an ode to an England of yore, of centuries’ past, even if that England never really existed. But the view that we somehow can embrace the idea of a Merry Olde England is, as Welles explained, “an affirmation of the human spirit.” And he added: “That the imagination of man is capable of creating the myth of a more open, more generous time is not a sign of our folly. Every country has its ‘Merrie England,’ a season of innocence, a dew-bright morning of the world. Shakespeare sings of that lost Maytime in many of his plays, and Falstaff-- that pot-ridden old rogue-- is its perfect embodiment.”

This is the time of the year in which the old year’s top films are seen and celebrated. And we can wonder: Which ones will win Oscar nominations? Which ones will walk off with Academy Awards? Still, seeing and savoring a long-unseen 50-year-old classic like CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT is a special New Year’s treat.

(NOTE: The CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT restoration also will be screened in Albany’s Madison Theater on Thursday evening, January 21st.)

Rob Edelman as written several books on film, television, and baseball, and was a longtime Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide. He teaches film history at the University at Albany.

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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