Saturday, November 21, 2009

Playing Out The Plays

Yeah, I know, pull my finger
There live not three good men unhanged in England; and one of them is fat, and grows old.

As an actor, I have a passing acquaintance with Sir John Falstaff, having played the rogue in a disastrous production of The Merry Wives of Windsor O so long ago. In the same regard, I have a passing acquaintance with The Bard, through said Shakespeare production. I do, however, have a deep knowledge of the work of Orson Welles, a filmmaker I admire.

As most people who know me know, I'm kind of slow on the uptake when it comes to discovering Classic Cinema. However, after finally viewing Chimes at Midnight, aka Falstaff, I now hunger for more of Mr. Welles's Shakespeare adaptions.

As some of you know, this is a pastiche that Wells assembled (based on a stage play he stitched together entitled Five Kings), combining scenes from Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor and a few other bits of Willie's plays to create the Life and Times of Sir John Falstaff.
-->In a word, the film is glorious. From Gielgud's King, coldly rebuffing Worchester, Hotspur and Northumberland and lamenting over his wayward son to Hal and Jack Falstaff's hilarious tavern reenactment of Henry's court to the smoke and blood of the Battle of Shrewsbury (a sequence that has got to be one of the greatest battle scenes put on film, influencing other movies from Monty Python and The Holy Grail to Braveheart), Welles presents us with a pitch-perfect recreation of a Shakespearian world, majesty and bawdiness intact.The performances are also first-rate. John Gielgud's Henry IV hits the right balance of arrogance, coldness, melancholy and fatherly concern. Keith Baxter as Hal also hits the right notes of hedonism and abandon while showing us what goes on in the back of his mind. Norman Rodway as Hal's opposite number Hotspur is the embodiment of outrage and action. Margaret Rutherford's Mistress Quickly is a great foil to Falstaff, alternately haranguing and lamenting the Fat Knight. Doll Tearsheet, as played by Jeanne Moreau, gives a performance of lust and tenderness. Other roles, from Poins to Bardolph, play off each other, Sir John and Hal like pinballs, always coming back center to Jack and Hal.

As for Welles himself, what can I say? I agree with some critics out there who say that Sir John is his penultimate role. He occupies the expansive skin of the great Sack of Guts so perfectly he seems to always have exsited in that world. If Welles hadn't committed any other performance to film, his Jack Falstaff would still rise head, shoulders and belly over all all other portrayals of the character, nay, any other portrayal of any Shakespearean character.

As for the film, it moves. In the castle, quick editing and deep focus keep the pace and tension going. Other places the camera and characters are always in motion, swirling around each other, yet never losing their (and our) bearings. As with Welles pictures of this period, it was shot in Europe (here Spain) and was pieced together over a period of years (and the schedules of the actors - both Margaret Rutherford and Jeanne Moreau had to get their scenes in over a period of one week each). Yes, it's a Welles Patch Job with his usual smoke and mirrors but I'll take a Welles Patch Job over any two dozen major films, classic or contemporary. Yes, he could be indecisive when putting it together, but the man knew how to edit in his head and he wasn't afraid to change things in the editing room, even if it meant redubbing actors with his own voice or roughly matching two different location shots in the same scene. Yet it works. It's the kind of audacity a Trantino or Del Toro wished they had.

If you want to see Shakespeare on film, this is the one to start with. Unfortunately, for my brethren in the U.S. of A, that means (as of this writing) either ordering the Spanish disc from Amazon or (heaven forbid) not finding a torrent and downloading it (wink wink), as the film is tied up in copyright in America (if ever a film needed a Criterion release it would be this one). However you do it, if you like The Bard or Welles (or are just curious to see a great film), you owe it to yourself to see this one. It's a great ride.

[EDIT - 2016] Criterion has now released this magnificent film on DVD and Blu-ray.  Amazon has it, so go get it!