Charles Foster Kane casts a long shadow over the filmography of Orson Welles. Posterity has turned Citizen Kane into a heavyweight contender for the title of Best Film Of All Time Forever, and so that (inarguably brilliant) film’s legacy has promoted a narrative of Welles as the boy genius who spent his whole career trying in vain to recapture the magic of his groundbreaking debut. Though critics and the viewing public would never fully embrace him as they did in the wake of Citizen Kane, in actuality, Welles continued quietly delivering masterpieces to whoever would watch them in the years that followed. The filmmaker promptly turned around another stone-cold triumph about 10 months post-Kane with the family drama The Magnificent Ambersons, though presiding studio RKO made mincemeat out of Welles’ cut, overwriting the uncompromisingly bleak conclusion with its own happy ending. A pair of pitch-black films noir (The Stranger and The Lady From Shanghai) and Shakespeare adaptations (Othello and Macbeth) later, he moved on to minor works Mr. Arkadin and The Trial, wedging yet another masterpiece between them in the form of the audacious noir mystery Touch of Evil.
Which brings us to the year 1965 and the criminally under-appreciated Chimes At Midnight, the gorgeous restoration of which has now begun to circulate through arthouse theaters across major cities. Deserving of every iota of respect still paid to Kane, Welles’ patchwork fan-edit of the Bard’s historical plays contains some of the master’s most ambitious stylistic gambits, as well as guarded yet recognizably personal ruminations on the bonds and betrayals between fathers and their sons. Long overdue for some new exposure, Chimes is a major work from American cinema’s most major talent.
Chimes‘ slow slide into obscurity is due in no small part to the difficulty modern viewers have had in actually finding the film. The surviving relatives of Welles, as well as producers Harry Saltzman, Emiliano Piedra, and Ángel Escolano, have all made individual bids for the copyright to Chimes, rendering a home-video release all but impossible. Aging copies of two different VHS releases still float around underground movie-trading black markets (read: eBay) and the odd print might screen at a festival, but the sweeping restoration from Janus Films and the Criterion Collection has made this rarity available to a wider audience than ever before. The spiffed-up print will hit theaters in major markets through January, though Criterion President Peter Becker has yet to confirm any plans for a home-video treatment of this precious artifact.
A lifelong student of the Bard’s great works, Welles patched the script for Chimes together from swatches of Richard II, Parts I and II of Henry IV, Henry V, and a little dash of The Merry Wives Of Windsor, the organizing element being the rotund rabble rouser Sir John Falstaff. A bloated, apple-cheeked Welles laid claim to both sides of the camera by taking the role of Falstaff for himself, in the most glaring suggestion of personal attachment to the material. The film wends through the various plays while tracking the relationship between wastrel Falstaff and his young ward, the unsure Prince Hal, torn between his own shortcomings and the pressures from his father Henry IV to be the king that England needs. The delicate oscillations from pride to disappointment exchanged between Hal and both his father and Falstaff could be a wounded acknowledgement from Welles of his own slide into obscurity, should he consider himself an avatar for the washed-up Falstaff, eventually cast off by his closest allies. Or perhaps Welles saw his own father, another liquor-soaked womanizer, in the charismatic but feckless Falstaff. Speculate as current-day viewers might, it’s apparent that the mature, measured emotionality in the film came from a place of passion for Welles.
Even beyond its context as a turning point for the United States’ pre-eminent film artist, one scene in particular maps out decades of Hollywood history to follow. Midway through the film, the armies of Henry IV and his nemesis Hotspur meet at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and Welles captures the scope of the conflict’s violence with then-unprecedented terrible awe. As howling knights hurl themselves at one another in flagrant disregard for their well-being, Welles’ camera whips back and forth like a stunned observer frantically trying to take it all in. The hectic motion crammed into every frame, coming both from the war-crazy combatants and the camera itself, communicates the brutality that higher-budgeted pictures would show through bloodletting or grit-caked close-ups. Welles hangs back in wide shots, extending his eye to convey the sheer enormity of the scene — the warriors farthest away barely resemble humans, reduced to streaks of shadow darting through a grey haze. Readers so inclined may derive some lofty statement on the indignity of war from that visual, but what’s clearer is the far-spanning impact this bravura sequence had on war filmmaking in the decades that came after. A cinematic paternity test would reveal Chimes’ closest descendant to be the harrowing shootouts in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Anyone with the guts to attempt a full-on battle sequence in their Shakespeare adaptation owes a debt of gratitude to the Shrewsbury sequence, whether that’s Justin Kurzel adding layer after layer of high-definition grime for his recent Macbeth or Kenneth Branagh, who studied Chimes like a holy text while mounting his reverent, epic Henry V.
Welles has gone down in history as Hollywood’s first bona fide auteur, an artist of such clear and fully-formed vision that he bent the studios to his will in the process of crafting his grand pessimist’s statement on American nature. But it was the work that succeeded Citizen Kane that really set the standard for so many great filmmakers to follow; it is the lot of the visionary to spend his career pursuing his more esoteric interests to ever-shrinking audiences. Chimes represents not only the culmination of Welles’ lifelong obsession with the great men of Shakespearean legend, but of a career filled with visual daring constantly one-upping itself. Welles never made a bad film, only unpopular ones, and Falstaff’s tapestry didn’t exactly hold a broad appeal for audiences warming up to the rebellion of the New Hollywood that seized power in the late ’60s and ’70s. But viewed through a modern lens, Welles’ elaborate artistry and tangled emotions transcend trends, achieving true timelessness. Though at the time, Welles could feel himself being gradually edged out of the industry he called home, the man who gobbles up the frame in Chimes At Midnight is immortal.