The problem with the concept of the misunderstood genius is that it assumes genius can be understood at all. So don’t even try to draw boundaries around writer, actor, director, and raconteur Orson Welles, being celebrated in a month-long
celebration already in progress at Film Forum. Welles’s career has been overchewed by
legions of critics, theorists, and biographers, but the mystique of his genius remains intact: No matter how many blind men grasp at its elephantine greatness, the best anyone can ever get ahold of is a magnificent ear, or a sturdy, swaggering tail.
Though Citizen Kane is generally cited
as Welles’s greatest film, the man himself claimed the 1965 Chimes at Midnight was his favorite, and of all the movies Welles made, it may offer the most clues to his imposing pachyderm soul. A bold and sensitive melding of text from five of Shakespeare’s plays, Chimes at Midnight traces the friendship — and eventual rift — between young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), heir to the throne of
England, and his roly-poly surrogate father figure, Falstaff (Welles), a ne’er-do-well
layabout given to drinking heavily. The
picture is by turns joyous and mournful,
and features one of the most arresting battle sequences ever put on film, all the more amazing for the fact that Welles shot it — not to mention all of Chimes at Midnight — on a mouse-sized budget in Spain, where he was living at the time. Considering the dinky price tag (and the fact that Welles had to pretend he was shooting a version of Treasure Island in order to collect even those meager funds from his producer), the movie’s craftsmanship overall is remarkable:
Every shot is packed with meaning or purpose; Edmond Richard’s cinematography makes the most of sumptuous art deco shards of light, and highlights the soft fold of royal vestments just so.
The performances are just as regal: An
effortlessly intimidating John Gielgud plays Henry V, Hal’s disapproving dad. Jeanne Moreau appears as the amorous prostitute Doll Tearsheet, and Margaret Rutherford is the bustling Mrs. Quickly — she delivers that famously erotic elegy for her dear Falstaff,
a walking libido of a man, with shivery-exquisite tenderness. But there is no figure greater than Welles’s Falstaff: Both jolly and cranky, by turns bold and cowardly, with a nose abloom with gin blossoms, he’s the story’s essential, tragicomic spirit. The scene in which Hal disowns his old friend is among the most subtly shaded and emotionally complex in all of cinema: As Welles gazes
up at his protégé, now wrapped in a king’s finery, the glow in his eyes says a dozen things at once. Falstaff’s heart is cracking in two, even as he beams with pride at the man his Hal, now Henry, has become. His Falstaff is big and round and full of soul, a giant among men, not to mention elephants.