Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff)

I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Shakespeare. He was full of interesting ideas and his plays contain “timeless” themes that show up in film even today, but he always comes across as so … uhh … stuffy. Even Robert De Niro’s friends refer to him as Bob or Bobby (the better to prove to everyone that they are friends with him) but does anyone talk about Billy Shakespeare? I didn’t think so.

Let me be honest for a moment, while Shakespeare Is quite capable of being sharp witted, poignant and surprisingly invigorating the means in which he delivers these messages can be hampered by his flowery prose. Now I understand that for purists this is the only way to enjoy Shakespeare, but I fully admit that I typically prefer adaptations that focus on the themes and story lines of his work, but not the phonetic ballyhoo that would otherwise accompany it. Even more directly put, why would one watch King Lear when you can watch Ran instead? Or read A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is beckoning me to open it instead? For me Shakespeare has simply always been more enjoyable when used as a building material, rather then as a finished product.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but respect for his body of work. The sheer wealth of resources and influence he has provided any number of art forms is proof enough for me of his complete and utter genius and I am by no means implying that I am writing off his achievements. But I do think that due to my initial introduction to Shakespeare, and to the additional fact that some of the most unique and powerful adaptations of his work have occurred during my lifetime, had a great hand in shaping the particular way that I appreciate his works. You see the man who afforded me my initial introduction to Shakespeare was the great David Addison from the classic 80′s television show Moonlighting.

You see on the list of iconic male characters that I admired as I was growing up, David Addison was easily in the top 5. (Ed note – Number one on the list was Dr. Jonathan Chase, the Manimal. Oh man, did that guy rule!) He was sarcastic and funny, and didn’t take any guff from anyone. On top of that, he solved crimes. But while Moonlighting has aged relatively poorly it doesn’t change the fact that the show was willing to take surprisingly bold risks when it broke away from the standard formula of detective shows on television, perhaps the most famous example being “Atomic Shakespeare”, an episode devoted entirely to a variation of The Taming of the Shrew.

“Atomic Shakespeare” was notable for a few reasons. It never was explained just why the writers chose to focus an entire episode on this well known Shakespeare play, nor why they decided to shift a present day detective show back in time to coincide with the time when it was meant to be staged. It also happened to be a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the play, that has gone on to become quite popular with both Shakespeare devotees and fans of Moonlighting. But the real coup was that the entire episode was designed so that people wouldn’t merely think it was Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd playing the roles of Petruchio and Kate, but rather David Addison and Maddie Hayes. It was a stunningly layered bit of meta for an American television show, even from one which routinely toyed with conventions and broke the 4th wall, and one that hasn’t been matched since.

So while that particular episode of Moonlighting was a fairly depiction of the play, it provided enough of a twist that I developed an interest not in Shakespeare, but how people can use his ideas and create something truly new and unique. So when I had the chance to watch Chimes at Midnight I was less then thrilled at the idea of a straight adaptation of several Shakespeare plays. But I was excited at the idea of weaving multiple plays together to create a new narrative. And with Orson Welles at the helm, I knew I was in for a treat.

Chimes at Midnight is commonly regarded as Orson Welles last masterpiece and it doesn’t take long to see why. The film, even with the relatively poor transfer on the import DVD that I watched, is stunning to look at. It is rare that a scene goes by in which a fantastic shot does not appear. Filled with Welles’ trademark style of the heavy use of deep focus and multiple low angle shots, the film is an absolute joy to watch. The camera shifts and turns with ease, continually adjusting the frame to whatever Welles feels is important to the scene, and the impressive use of lighting results in a a stand out image of a forest early on in the film. Welles may not use these techniques as often as he does in Citizen Kane, but he is clearly attempting to redefine the look of a Shakespeare film with each passing frame.

The clear highlight of Welles’ visual mastery is the not quite legendary Battle of Shrewesbury. Edited at a frenzied pace it is a powerful scene that ratchets up tension with each passing second. It is quite clear that it has influenced other battle scenes in other films, with the most notable example being Braveheart. But the clear brilliance of the scene is not from the barely contained anarchy of the battle, but from Welles’ portrayal of the infamous knight Falstaff as he quickly moves from tree to tree to keep himself safe from harm. The humor is such a stark contrast to the violent battlefield, that one can scarcely contain themselves from bursting out laughing in merriment.

Another commonly stated praise of the film is Welles’ ability to take material from multiple plays by Shakespeare, and craft a fairly linear and clear narrative that centers around the remarkable character that is Falstaff. Rather then leaving a relative Shakespeare novice like myself grasping at straws at what is going on, Welles has created a relatively straight forward story that is fairly easy to keep up with, even with the rather cumbersome dialogue. It’s not perfect by any means, but that he is able to meld so many sources into a clever and original story without compromising any of Shakespeare’s original dialogue is a feat unto itself.

But for all the marvelous camera work and the impressive story telling, the clear reason to watch Chimes at Midnight is Welles’ grandiose performance as Falstaff; the portly, vainglorious, and ultimately timid and lovable oaf of a knight. Welles clearly relishes the role, as he delivers his lines with a twinkle in his eye that is infectious to both the audience and to the entire cast. Falstaff should be a character that is easy to hate, yet both Shakespeare and Welles show again and again that Falstaff is a character that is impossible not to love because of his many obvious faults. He may be selfish and a drunkard, but he cares deeply for those who spend time is his company.

I must say I enjoyed Chimes at Midnight even more then I anticipated. With its stunning beauty, and fine acting I quickly lost whatever pretensions I held about the ponderous dialogue. The film breezes through at a surprisingly quick pace, and offers laughs as well as thrills for its audience making Shakespeare fun, entertaining, and more importantly, alluring. Perhaps its time I give ‘ol Billy another try.