Was there ever a better match between artist and character than Orson Welles and John Falstaff? Both of them portly men of good humor, who delighted in life and friendship, beloved by those around them even when their prodding goes too far, boisterous and charming and ever engaging in trickery and falsehoods. It’s almost as though Welles formed his personality based on Falstaff. This would make his on-screen work in Chimes at Midnight a sort of performance-within-a-performance, or perhaps a literalization of his projected real-life persona. More likely is that Welles was the man Welles was always going to be, and that he saw in Falstaff a kindred spirit of unlikely familiarity. It’s easy to look at many Welles films and see the magnum opus in each, to find it each one a complete statement of artistic intent. Chimes at Midnight, though, feels more personal than most. This is Wellesfinding drama in himself.
I don’t want to be too literal in my analysis here. The relationship between Falstaff and Hal has been likened to the relationship between Welles and Hollywood — each of the formers once a darling of the latters, both were cruelly rejected after a fashion. I find this a little too pat, personally speaking. I don’t feel comfortable ascribing to Welles such an obvious metaphor. Still, one sees in Falstaff’s gleeful thievery Welles’ excitement at managing to fund his own work, a prospect which was tremendously difficult for almost his entire career. Even Chimes at Midnight itself paused production while Welles went in search of more funding. One imagines Welles chatting up investors with the same chortling, back-slapping amiableness as Falstaff does with everyone in the tavern, making himself irresistible as a cunning way of staying alive.
Welles just seems so at home in this role. He was one of the greatest screen actors of all time, but he never seemed more natural than he does here. Even speaking such elaborate and flowery Shakespeare dialogue, you get the sense that this is what he’s like all the time. It’s fun to compare it to his ostensibly more “real” performance in F for Fake. They feel cut from the same cloth. You can see the same sly smile on his face throughout both films. You get the same sense that you’re in the hands of a master trickster, but one who only wants to see you have a good time. Welles plays Falstaff as he played himself, and as by all accounts he was off-screen.
And of course, do I even need to say that his direction is outstanding? It seems redundant when discussing a Welles film. I was awestruck by those hazy shafts of light pouring into the castle, how they seemed to suggest Falstaff himself penetrating Hal’s doubts. Or how about the incredible battle scene, which sees Welles take on a rare sequence of melee action as though he was born to do it. The shots of dying men slopping around in the mud are unsettlingly grim. It shades Falstaff’s antics during the battle with a bit more uncertainty. We delight in his goofery, yes, but should we in the face of so much carnage and despair?
I adored Chimes at Midnight. It’s such a typically Wellesian entry in his filmography. Putting aside his phenomenal direction and the obvious greatness of the Shakespeare source, it’s just nice to watch Welles be himself for a couple hours. I get the same thing out of it that I get from F for Fake. It’s as simple as that I love watching Orson Welles, whether he’s on screen or behind the camera. He’s one of cinema history’s most enjoyable presences.