Friday, August 22, 2014

Orson Welles: Modernist and Elegist

Orson Welles, on the set of Citizen Kane

There has been no one in the entire history of the American theatre quite like Orson Welles. Part prodigy, part carny spieler who rewrote his family history to such an extent over the course of his fabled career that he was largely self-invented, he talked his way onto the stage in his teens and by the mid-1930s had established himself as the most exciting young director in New York. This was at a time when FDR’s Works Progress Association had generated the Federal Theatre Project, the aim of which was to provide work for professional theatre folk and which, due to the convictions of its director, Hattie Flanagan, resided squarely in the left wing. Welles directed an all-black cast in a Haiti-set Macbeth that became popularly known as The Voodoo Macbeth; an up-to-the-minute Fascist Julius Caesar (with himself as Brutus); Marc Blitzstein’s satirical musical The Cradle Will Rock, which, locked out of its playhouse at the last minute, staged an opening night across town – without set, costumes or anything but the most rudimentary, off-the-cuff lighting – that was more dramatic and certainly more memorable than anything in the play itself.

At the same time Welles and his producing partner John Houseman brought live theatre to the air in a series of broadcasts called The Mercury Theatre that included the most famous – and infamous – of all radio programs, the 1938 Halloween dramatization of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. When he moved on to Hollywood, his debut was so eagerly anticipated that RKO Studios invited him to co-write, direct and star in his own project. That was Citizen Kane, released in 1941, when Welles was all of twenty-six years old. His directorial career, which lasted not quite three decades, was blighted by a chronic difficulty to get funding for his ventures – the consequence of a reputation as an unreliable spendthrift that was largely the fabrication of Louella Parsons, the powerful gossip columnist for William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper syndicate, whose boss was displeased with the way Kane had portrayed her boss (in a transparent fictional guise). But that career was also marked by some of the most staggering achievements in American cinema. Both as a director and as an actor Welles was a walking legend for the rest of his life, the definition of the theatrical enfant terrible and ego-driven multi-tasker. (The 1953 musical The Band Wagon, written by Comden and Green and directed by Vincente Minnelli, offers a light-hearted send-up of the Orson Welles of the popular imagination in the person of actor-director Jeffrey Cordova, played by Jack Buchanan.)

The virtual creator of conceptual directing, the first director to fit classic texts to modern settings, a conqueror of one twentieth-century technology (film) after another (radio), the first American filmmaker to make significant stylistic strides in the employment of sound (even though Kane came out fourteen years after the official birth of the talkies), one of the two American directors – the other was William Wyler – to import the deep focus lens that enabled the camera to show foreground, middle ground and background with equal clarity in the same frame, Welles was an embodiment of theatrical modernism. But he was a paradox. All of his best movies, beginning with Kane and ending with Chimes at Midnight, his last full-length dramatic feature, in 1967, in some way represent a conflict about the modern age wherein the boundless energy and hurdling drive of the new struggles with a longing for what it’s irrevocably replaced.

Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons
This idea receives its clearest presentation in Kane and in his second movie, a 1942 adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons. In her essay “Raising Kane” Pauline Kael calls Citizen Kane the most fun of all great American pictures, and the enjoyment derives largely from its playfulness and cheekiness and bravado. Here it is, approaching the end of the first half-century of the medium, and Welles and his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, and his editor, Robert Wise, are trying it out as if they’d just made it up. The visual style borrows from the German Expressionist filmmakers – all that shadow, all those silhouettes, the low-angle shots to underscore the immensity of the Thatcher Library and Kane’s palatial estate, Xanadu (a burlesque of William Randolph Heart’s San Simeon), the high-angle shots to dwarf Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) in her pathetic opera debut – but with a brand-new tool, deep focus, that the German Expressionists didn’t have in their arsenal. Jean Renoir pioneered deep focus in Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game for the purpose of attaining greater screen realism, allowing the viewer’s eye to roam freely through the deepened frame; Welles turned it into an instrument of expressionism, pulling the foreground to achieve an unsettlingly enlarged, distorted look and treating the three planes as pieces of a whole clicking firmly into place to make a definitive visual statement. The best example is Susan’s suicide attempt: the poison, glass and spoon in the foreground, Susan with her labored breathing on her bed in the middle ground, the door on which Kane and the doctor are pounding urgently in the background. As viewers we don’t move through the composition as we do in Renoir’s glimpses of the aristocrats and their servants in the chateau of The Rules of the Game; we’re locked in – there’s only one way to read the image. Plus, coming from radio, Welles extends expressionism – for the first time in movies – to the use of sound: those eerie echoes, especially in the Xanadu sequences, which become even more expressive in the scenes in the Amberson mansion in the next year’s Magnificent Ambersons.

Kane is full of bravura touches. There’s the three-minute breakfast-table montage that telescopes the disintegration of Kane’s first marriage in a series of pans from Kane to his wife Emily (Ruth Warrick) – a cinematic version of a vaudeville technique, the blackout sketch – and the motif of intrusion, the camera repeatedly breaking in where it’s not supposed to go (through the chain-link fence with the “No Trespassing” sign hooked onto it when we first see Xanadu at the top of the picture; through the skylight of the Atlantic City club where Susan, now a has-been, alcoholic singer, performs). There’s the transformation of a shot of the “love nest” where Kane keeps Susan, initially his mistress and only later his wife, into the headline that signals the exposure of his secret life and the destruction of his fledgling political career, on the front page of a newspaper; Welles zooms out and the paper is flogged to Kane’s best friend, Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten), on the street.

The scenes at Kane’s own newspaper, The New York Daily Inquirer, with their overlapping dialogue and cynical tone and hard-boiled flavor, have a distinctly modern feel, just as they do in His Girl Friday from the same year, and the fact that the script by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles elected to showcase, à clef, the life of a famous (and still living) figure, smacks of youthful daring and indiscretion. Even the structure of the script is a sort of game. It begins with Kane’s death, followed by a newsreel account of his life, and then, as the reporter Thompson (William Alland), who is shot almost exclusively in shadow, interviews the people who knew Kane best, we get a series of flashbacks that form a skewed jigsaw puzzle with a shifting point of view and overlapping chronology. The structure, as Kael points out, comes from Preston Sturges’s script for The Power and the Glory (1933), but Kane’s is trickier, with repeated narrative fragments and one – Emily’s death with Kane’s son in an auto accident – that shows up in the newsreel but is never dramatized. It’s a mystery-story structure: Thompson is trying to discover the significance of the last word Kane uttered, “Rosebud.” But it’s based on a cheat, because, as we see in the film’s opening, no one is actually in the room with Kane when he says it; the butler, Raymond (Paul Stewart), says he heard it but he couldn’t have, and the nurse who places the sheet over Kane’s corpse rushes in after he’s already expired. That’s the filmmakers’ little joke, though I think it has a meaning: though we find out what Thompson never does – that Rosebud is the name printed on Kane’s childhood sled – the movie confirms Thompson’s conclusion, that one word can’t sum up a man’s life. Certainly not a man as enormous and full of contradictions as Charles Foster Kane. The contradictions are inherent in the differences between the way Bernstein, Kane’s editor (Everett Sloane), Jed Leland and Susan Alexander – the three narrators Thompson relies on most heavily to tell Kane’s story – perceive him, as well as in Jed and Susan’s unresolved attitudes toward him.

But “Rosebud” can’t be discounted either. Welles may have dismissed it later on as “dollar-book Freud,” but Kane’s sense of having lost something precious when he acquired his wealth, through a mine deeded to his mother (Agnes Moorehead) by one of her boarders, and was sent away from his Colorado home to the east and the guardianship of the banker Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris) is a theme of Kane’s story that provides the core of feeling running underneath it. (She sends him away to guarantee him a better life, far from his gruff, uneducated, probably drunken and certainly brutal father.) The night Charles Kane meets Susan, he tells her he’s on a sentimental journey to sort through his dead mother’s things, which have recently been sent back to him from Colorado, though we see no evidence that he and Mrs. Kane had much, if any, contact in the intervening years. So his romanticized vision of Susan and her dreadful singing – she plays piano and sings for him that first night – is suffused with his sentimentality over his vanished childhood. When she finally walks out on him, he throws a fit, smashing up their bedroom; what eventually drains the energy out of his tantrum is his spotting a snow globe on one of the shelves that stirs a childhood memory (“Rosebud”), just as it does again moments before he dies. He never tosses away those souvenirs from the Colorado cabin he hasn’t seen since he was a little boy; they’re sitting in the miles of storage rooms in the bowels of Xanadu, along with the statues he bought in Europe on his honeymoon with Emily and never even took out of their crates. A desperate nostalgia hovers over Citizen Kane, which Bernstein – the only person in his life after his mother who loves him without reservation – implicitly understands, even though he can’t enlighten Thompson about the meaning of “Rosebud.” It’s Bernstein who relates the story about the beautiful girl he saw on a ferry when he was a young man, never even spoke to but has remembered every day of his life; it’s Bernstein who sums Kane up as “a man who lost everything he ever had.”

I’d argue that even the visual style of Citizen Kane reflects a longing for the past in the midst of a boisterous embrace of the modernist present. Think of the famous opening scene. The marks of expressionism are all here – the exaggerated black-and-white contrast, the odd angles, the shot from the point of view of a broken snow globe (!) – but they aren’t the only elements in the scene. We’d be equally accurate to call this a piece of high Romanticism, a Gothic with its fairy-tale castle, its exotic menagerie, its strange light of undetectable origin outside the cross-hatched windows, the glass-imprisoned snow reminiscent of something from a Hans Christian Andersen tale. We get it again in the Thatcher Library, where Welles shoots the old-fashioned curlicued writing in close-up – though the zone of light cutting diagonally across the screen is straight out of photographs of expressionistic stage productions of the twenties and thirties – and in the Xanadu scenes. And considering that Welles did so much to advance the medium of film, isn’t it strange that his acting style is so resolutely old-school? Welles was working in New York during the same era when another leftist theatrical organization, the Group Theatre, was ushering Stanislavskian acting into the culture, but his acting belongs to the legacy of the nineteenth-century matinee idol (like Eugene O’Neill’s famous father James) – the unmistakable voice, with its mid-Atlantic “r”s and sonorous ring, the star entrances, the amused smile acknowledging his larger-than-life presence. And he favored actors whose technical expertise made them pop out on camera, like Cotten and Sloane and Agnes Moorehead, whose work in The Magnificent Ambersons would be my choice for the greatest supporting performance in any American movie.

Tarkington penned The Magnificent Ambersons in 1918, not long after the era it captures. The movie is a faithful transcription of it, and a masterpiece – notwithstanding the unhappy fact that RKO cut and evidently destroyed more than a quarter of it behind Welles’s back while he was out shooting another picture. (Almost all of the excised footage from Fritz Lang’s great silent epic Metropolis has been found and restored, last year Eastman House in Rochester rescued Welles’s long-lost, pre-Hollywood short Too Much Johnson, but no one has ever turned up the missing forty minutes of Ambersons.) The film begins with an idealized vision of a small Indiana town in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, rendered in a montage accompanied by a voice-over commentary by Welles that tells us, “In those days they had time for everything,” and implies that the most dramatic changes were in the area of fashion. The tone of the narration is affectionate, humorously ironic, and rueful, and the comic scene in which young Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) makes a fool of himself while serenading Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) by drunkenly stepping through his bass fiddle bespeaks the traditions of romance in this more leisurely, more gracious time. (So does the way the Ambersons’ manservant refuses Eugene entrance when he comes around with flowers and candy to apologize for his unseemly behavior: “Miss Amberson ain’t at home to you, Mr. Morgan.”) This introduction, which covers Isabel’s marriage to retiring, plain-spoken Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway) and the childhood of their ruinously spoiled son George (played, as a young man, by Tim Holt), advances quickly to the early years of the twentieth century, when “the magnificence of the Ambersons,” begun in 1873, starts to wane. It disappears quickly, done in by the bustling, crude, grimy new century, the emblem of which is the automobile, against which Welles (who also wrote the screenplay) posits several more poetic symbols of the age it displaces.

First there’s the grand old Amberson mansion, a cavernous Gothic marvel, like Kane’s Xanadu. Then there’s the ball Isabel throws there in her son’s honor when he returns home from his Ivy League college for the holidays, “the last of the great, long-remembered dances that everybody talked about,” where Welles, once again, mixes romanticism and expressionism: his idiosyncratic use of deep focus is everywhere, and in one remarkable image, at the end of the sequence, he uses expressionism – silhouetted figures bidding farewell at the door – to create a nineteenth-century cameo effect. Gene Morgan, now a widower, has moved back to the town with his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), and they appear at the ball. In this film it’s Morgan who ushers in the new age; he’s an inventor of automobiles. And I think he comes very close to representing Welles himself, because he’s also an old-fashioned romantic who’s conflicted about the very future he’s helping to bring about. When Isabel’s brother Jack (Ray Collins), seeing Gene escort her onto the dance floor, enthuses, “Old times certainly are starting all over again,” Gene contradicts him: “Old times? Not a bit! There aren’t any old times. When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead! There aren’t any times but new times” – and he leads her in a new-fangled turkey trot. But we also see them share a waltz. A little later in the film, after Wilbur dies and Eugene begins quietly to court his old love, George, who dislikes him, makes a point of insulting his trade: “[A]utomobiles are a useless nuisance. They’ll never amount to anything but a nuisance and they had no business to be invented.” Eugene gives this curious reply:
I’m not sure George is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization. It may be that they won’t add to the beauty of the world or the life of men’s souls – I’m not sure. But automobiles have come, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They’re going to alter war, and they’re going to alter peace. And I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles. And it may be that George is right. It may be that in – ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with George that automobiles had no business to be invented.
The last of the romantic emblems of the departing age – the Amberson age – is the sleigh ride that George invites Lucy on while her father takes the others – Isabel, Jack and Wilbur’s spinster sister Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), who is hopelessly in love with Eugene – on a ride in one of his new horseless carriages. Welles begins this scene with a magical image of the sleigh reflected in the puddle, with the tinkling of sleigh bells on the soundtrack, in contrast to the chugging and farting of the car, which clogs the air with smoke. When George and Lucy fall out of the sleigh, they tumble onto a snow bank (as soft as a feather bed, Gene observes) and into a kiss – and Gene is charmed. Welles is reminding us that when the world loses all of this – when the horseless carriage takes over – romance, in some measure, dies too. He ends the scene with the runaway horse and sleigh spiraled off in an iris shot. He deliberately chooses the most démodé editing option, invented by D.W. Griffith in the silent movie period and rarely, if ever, seen since the advent of talkies. His casting choices are similarly evocative: as Major Amberson, Isabel and Jack’s elderly father, Richard Bennett, a matinee idol of the stage (and patriarch of an acting family), who looks as if he’d stepped out of a Remington painting; as Isabel Amberson, the silent star Dolores Costello, with her air of effortless nobility and her ante-bellum delicacy and her wide, sad eyes. When Jack praises the major’s heart of gold, the major replies that “this old town” seems to be rolling right over that heart, and when we glimpse him for the last time he’s practically a ghost, muttering to himself, removed from the world around him. Bennett’s antiquated style underlines his remoteness.

Charles Foster Kane tries to live like a monarch out of a bygone age (the name of his estate, Xanadu, is an allusion to Romantic poetry, Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan”); he builds an opera house to showcase his wife. And yet he continually fails in his efforts to make people do what he wants – they don’t vote him into office as the governor of New York, they don’t like Susan’s dreadful singing, and Susan herself walks out on him, despite his pleas for her to stay. And though he’s a sort of tyrant, the movie shows compassion for his disappointments; even Susan, at the end of her interview with Thompson, admits she feels sorry for him. George Minafer, too, acts like some eighteenth-century lord of the manor, and he’s harder to like than Kane – and yet Welles spares him, too, a measure of pity, because the twentieth century crushes him. Squiring Lucy around the dance floor, George speaks scornfully of men who work for a living and miss out on life; his aim is to be a yachtsman. When Lucy says that her father is an inventor of automobiles, he laughs at the idea that people are ever going to spend their lives on their backs with grease on their faces. It is, of course, a class prejudice; George is repelled by the physical demands of the automobile and by the unattractiveness of caring for it. When Lucy retorts that her father is a great man, he answers, “Well, let us hope so. I hope so, I’m sure,” and his aristocratic condescension is stunning. However, we can’t expect George to intuit the significance of the automobile because he’s stuck back in the age it’s bringing an end to; young as he is, he’s a dinosaur – like his mother and his aunt, who show up at Eugene’s factory for a tour wearing floor-length dresses, while Lucy wears a sensible ankle-length modern skirt.

Anne Baxter and Joseph Cotten in The Magnificent Ambersons
George doesn’t think much of Eugene from the outset, and when he insults Gene’s business at dinner, he’s so convinced of his own class superiority that even though he’s courting Eugene’s daughter, it doesn’t occur to him that he has to show respect for the older man. But when lonely, pathetic Fanny, manipulating her nephew for her own foolish ends, suggests that the whole town is chattering about her mother and Eugene, that they’ve never stopped loving each other, George becomes enraged. Insulated as he is, he hasn’t picked up the hint that Gene has been wooing Isabel now that she, too, is widowed. He’s revolted by the thought that his mother should lower herself; “But you’re an Amberson,” he protests. And of course his fury has a more primal source: he also says, “But you’re my mother,” which makes him sound a little like Hamlet, shocked that at her age Gertrude’s blood can still be aroused. And George can’t tolerate the idea that his mother should be the object of gossip; he goes around trying to get the neighbors to stop talking about her, as if he were a feudal lord imposing his wishes on the tenants. But he’s about a century too late for this kind of behavior, and they kick him summarily out of their parlors. He’s more successful at shoving a wedge between his mother and her suitor. Isabel has dedicated her life to her son; she babies him and always puts him first. So when Eugene arrives at the front door of the Amberson mansion to take her out for a drive and George slams the door in his face – an unfortunate echo of his rejection in earlier days, though this time he hasn’t earned it – and he writes to her, gently imploring her to override her son’s objections and choose her own happiness, she can’t do it. She gives him up, though on her deathbed – she fades fast soon after – once she is reassured that Georgie has had something to eat and hasn’t caught a cold, we see the girlish hope in her eyes when she asks him if Gene has been to see her and murmurs, “I’d like to have seen him, just once.”

Yet Welles portrays George ultimately as a tragic figure, and his private tragedy reflects the tragedy of progress. At the beginning of the movie, a chorus of townspeople observes this hellion running wild about the town, acting like a bully, cursing out his elders, and they wag their fingers and take oaths that one day he’ll get his “comeuppance.” He’s Peck’s bad boy and the notion of him getting his comeuppance is comic. But by the end of the movie, he’s lost everything: both his parents, his grandfather, the woman he loves, and his fortune – it turns out that Wilbur and Fanny put all their savings into a headlight company that went bust, and in his doddering final days, after his daughter’s death, Major Amberson can’t remember where the deed to the house is or even whose name it’s in. George and Fanny move to a boarding-house and he has to find work at a chemical company to support them. We see him walk to the old house for the last time, in the shadow of the town that has grown past the Amberson era into a modern (and distinctly ugly) industrial present. There’s a Dickensian element in this turn of events – only when he’s been brought so low can George truly come of age, sink to his knees and pray forgiveness of his dead mother for standing in the way of her romantic happiness. But what happens to him is more bitter and melancholy than instructive. “George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance,” the voice-over informs us. “He got it three times filled and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him.” Forgotten by the town where he’d been raised to believe himself a lord – that’s the saddest part. The physical component of his downfall – ironically, he’s run down by an automobile and winds up in the hospital with both legs broken – is somehow less awful.

Welles’s biographer, Simon Callow, traces the nostalgia in Ambersons to Welles’s feelings about his own childhood home, Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Grand Detour, Illinois, where he vacationed as a boy and which he remembered as “a completely anachronistic, old-fashioned, early-Tarkington, rural kind of life. It was one of those lost worlds, one of those Edens that you get thrown out of.” Callow makes the connection to a passage in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where Nick Carraway recalls his own home town: “That’s my Middle West – not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly leaves thrown by lighted windows in the snow.” Every one of those images appears in some form in The Magnificent Ambersons. The train station scene, which comes near the end of the picture, is worth quoting. In it, Jack Amberson, taking his leave of his nephew, remembers:
Once I stood where we’re standing now, to say good-bye to a pretty girl – only it was in the old station before this was built – we called it the “depot.” We knew we wouldn’t see each other again for almost a year. I thought I couldn’t live through it . . . Don’t even know where she lives now, or if she is living. If she ever thinks of me she probably imagines I’m still dancing in the ballroom of the Amberson Mansion. She probably thinks of the Mansion as still beautiful – still the finest house in town. Ah, life and money both behave like – loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks.
Among other things, you can probably hear a link to Bernstein’s speech in Kane about the girl on the ferry.
Nostalgia and regret and a trace of fellow-feeling for a character who fills, in most ways, the position of the villain carry into Welles’s 1958 film noir Touch of Evil. Hank Quinlan (brilliantly played by Welles), the sheriff of a small town on the Mexican border, is cocky, overbearing and self-delighted as well as greasy and obscenely fleshy; he’s also racist, corrupt and a bully who’s not above roughing up a suspect. Eventually, in extremis, he becomes a killer, strangling a local gangster (Akim Tamiroff) and attempting to frame the wife (Janet Leigh) of a Mexican drug enforcement agent (Charlton Heston) who threatens to expose him for planting evidence in murder cases. The kicker is that, monstrous as Quinlan is, his famous instincts for picking the killer turn out to be reliable: the young Mexican he’s sure planted the bomb that eliminated his white girl friend’s wealthy and disapproving father is, in fact, guilty. But it’s not Hank’s gift at detection – he is, to quote Welles’s screenplay, a good detective but a lousy cop – that draws the movie’s sympathy; it’s what he’s lost – his wife (the victim of a long-ago unsolved murder), his youth, his past. Tana (Marlene Dietrich), the gypsy fortune teller who runs her business on the Mexican side, with her chili and player piano, represents that past; her house, with its Tiffany lamp and quaint mementoes on the shelves, stirs up old memories for him. Before he gave up liquor, he used to hole up there with a case of whiskey; now, when he shows up on her doorstep after many years, he’s so bloated that she doesn’t even recognize him. Eventually, he falls off the wagon and seeks refuge with her once more. “What’s my fortune?” he demands. “Come on, read my fortune for me.” She replies, “You haven’t got any . . . Your future is all used up.” When he dies, she’s the only one left to eulogize him: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” The movie is speedy and flamboyant, with jazzy editing rhythms and a vaudeville-show cast, including Zsa Zsa Gabor as a nightclub owner, Joseph Cotten as a drawling coroner, Dennis Weaver as an excitable motel clerk and Mercedes McCambridge as a punk lesbian – but the finale is mournful.

Welles ended up pretty bloated himself, but in 1958 he had to don prosthetics and a fat suit to play Hank Quinlan. His outré make-up in a number of his movies – as the aging Kane, for instance, or the bearded, swarthy Othello – is part of his nineteenth-century theatricality (just as Lon Chaney’s was in silent and early talkies); so are his Irish accent in The Lady from Shanghai and his Scottish one in his mostly unfortunate 1948 film of Macbeth. (Only an idiosyncratic showman of Welles’s temperament would come up with the idea of having everyone in Macbeth speak in a Scottish brogue. The idea is a fiasco.) And his three cut-and-paste screen versions of Shakespeare are part of that legacy, too, remnants of a time when actor-managers felt free to rewrite classic texts. These movies somehow bridge that tradition and the very modernist notion of resetting a text to illuminate it in a fresh way. I wouldn’t make a case for Welles’s Macbeth, shot on a cheap Republic Pictures western soundstage, but both his 1952 Othello and Chimes at Midnight, his 1967 cutting of the Henry IV plays (with interpolations from Richard II and Henry V), are inspired. Their technical flaws, the result of financial troubles that delayed the completion of editing for so long that members of his cast could no longer be recalled for post-synching, are unimportant. Anyway, the fact that he had to dub for some of the missing actors, like Robert Coote’s Roderigo in some scenes in Othello, resonates with his eccentric showmanship; I have a recording of an old radio version of Dinner at Eight he did in the forties where he plays not only the crafty, uneducated magnate but also the alcoholic has-been actor.

Orson Welles as Falstaff, in Chimes at Midnight
The title Chimes at Midnight indicates what Welles is interested in with the Henry IV plays. He opens with a scene from Part II where Falstaff (Welles) and Justice Shallow (Alan Webb) reminisce about their youth, pondering old age and death, and Shallow reminds his friend, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Sir John.” Welles sets the encounter on a snowy winter’s day, and its placement casts a mood of melancholy over the film. Shakespeare’s two-part history is first and foremost a coming-of-age play about Hal, the crown prince of England (played in the movie by Keith Baxter), who ascends to the throne at the end of Part II after his father, Henry IV (John Gielgud), dies; Welles moves Falstaff, Hal’s other father figure, the tutor of his dissolute youth, into the center of the picture. Time is a theme of Shakespeare’s text: at the beginning, when Hal wakes his overfed, wine-pickled friend and Falstaff asks what “o’clock” it is, Hal asks jocularly what difference the answer could possibly make to a man who leads so useless and disordered a life. Then, in soliloquy, Hal promises that he plans to put this holiday existence aside and return to the court, surprising his father and the others who have given up on him: “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill / Redeeming time when men think least I will.” Welles shifts the focus to endings, to time running out. He does it partly by making the Battle of Shrewsbury the centerpiece of the film. This is where Hal proves his mettle by defeating Hotspur (Norman Rodway), who might otherwise have usurped the throne, in single combat; in Chimes at Midnight, it’s a savage, gruesome affair, shot largely in close-up, and the sequence is about the death of men in war. But mostly he does it by juxtaposing Hal’s taking up the crown and the promise of a new regime with the fading out of Falstaff and his generation – Shallow, the amiable innkeeper Mistress Quickly (Margaret Rutherford) – though Welles, was actually only fifty-two when the movie came out (closer to fifty when he began to shoot it).

“I am old, I am old,” Falstaff bemoans in bed with the whore Doll Tearsheet (Jeanne Moreau). Hal, peeping down at them with his friend Poins (Tony Beckley), has just made a joke about desire outliving performance, but though this is a comic scene, a note of sadness creeps in. Welles intercuts the reconciliation between Hal and his father, which ends with the king’s death, with a reprise of the “chimes at midnight” conversation with Shallow. The scene where Hal’s two worlds – the tavern world and the court world – collide when Falstaff, inappropriate as always, interrupts the coronation to call out to “my Jove, my king, my heart,” and the new king publicly rejects him, is shattering, mostly because of Welles’s performance. (It is, I think, his greatest.) And he ends the film with Falstaff’s death and Mistress Quickly’s eulogy, imported from the beginning of Henry V, which Rutherford reads poignantly, without marking the little jokes in the text. Falstaff’s friends reminisce about him, and as the voice-over narration – excerpted from Holinshed’s Chronicles and read by Ralph Richardson – takes over, extolling the virtues of King Henry V’s reign, we’re left thinking, “Yes, a great king, but he killed Falstaff’s heart.” This movie, my own favorite of all the screen adaptations of Shakespeare, is the last of Orson Welles’s elegies.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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