Wednesday, December 26, 2018

#679: Chimes at Midnight

Directed by: ORSON WELLES
1965, TSPDT Rank #157

Shakespeare has always been a popular wellspring of cinematic source material for film adaptations, but the resulting films have tended to fall into two categories: those that attempt to be faithful to Shakespeare's language and theatrical style (i.e. the films of Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh), and those that attempt to update their general themes and narrative structure into a contemporary style (i.e. Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet). But Orson Welles' Shakespeare adaptations fall into an entirely different category - and this is especially true when it comes to Chimes at Midnight.

First, it should be noted that, since this is an Orson Welles film, the cinematic technique on display in Chimes at Midnight is breathtaking and full of unpolished mastery. But despite being from an era of social upheaval and the death of the old Hollywood, the film seems to exist in a time and place all its own. The cinematography is in striking black and white, full of depth and beguiling visual patterns. The world of old England is portrayed with more imagination and realistic detail than most of the Shakespeare purists have been able to manage. A dream of Welles' since childhood, this combination of multiple Shakespeare plays (all featuring the rogue drunkard Sir John Falstaff) exists in a world that had lived in his mind for decades - making it feel more vibrant and believable than the most closely studied of traditional adaptations.

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Welles' love for Shakespeare's language is plainly evident in Chimes at Midnight as well. Preserving the poetry and rhythm of Shakespeare, along with lifting much of the language verbatim from the original plays, clearly took precedence over any concern about the audience's ability to easily follow the film. Watching Chimes at Midnight requires an attention to the language on multiple levels - which is no mean feat when faced with the overwhelming visual power of Welles' imagery. This makes the Criterion edition of the film a must-have, allowing for multiple viewings to absorb both the rich visuals and the poetic language.

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Welles also preserved the narrative structure of a Shakespeare play, despite using pieces of five different plays to construct it. Of particular note is the incredibly visceral battle scene that comes exactly halfway through the film - just as the climax of a Shakespeare play would traditionally come in the third of five acts. Likewise, the film's most potent emotional moment is saved for the final act, leaving the viewer with a profound feeling of melancholy and bittersweet loss. Welles worked on numerous projects after Chimes at Midnight, despite only a few of them being released in his lifetime, but this monumental project feels like the perfect swan song regardless. The technical imperfections that resulted from its low-budget production in Spain might keep it from being Welles' magnum opus (Citizen Kane will always remained the rightful recipient of that title), but it's the defining work of his later years, as well as one which brought his career full circle - back to the Shakespearean aspirations of his youth.

Chimes at Midnight is available here on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD:

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