Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

Chimes at Midnight (1965, Orson Welles)

Chimes at Midnight opens with Orson Welles and Alan Webb, both aged men in the Medieval Ages, bumbling (probably at least somewhat drunkenly) in for the night; they sit at a fire and gently reminisce about their youth. The scene gives a first look at screenwriter, director, star Welles in all his giantic grandeur as Shakespeare’s Falstaff (either the film’s title is Falstaff or Chimes at Midnight; the film itself isn’t sure, opening with Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight); I’m not sure what preference Welles had). There are a lot of corpulence jokes at Welles’s expense, which is just one of the many rather interesting things going on in the film. And Webb’s distinct too, even though he’s not coming back for a while.

Ralph Richardson narrates the film (after that scene), but adding another layer to it is the source of his narration. He’s narrating from a 1577 history book (so 170 years after the events in the film), but Welles’s script is adapted from Shakespeare’s Henry series, which is even later than that history book. But Welles adds yet another layer to it by playing the history straight but doing it people’s history. Yes, there’s great material stuff for the royals, but it’s really all about the plebs. Those great scenes for the guys playing the kings, princes, and knights, they end up just priming the emphasis on the reality of the age. As a filmmaker, Welles is exceptionally giving to his actors and very confident in their performances. Sure, Welles gives himself the juiciest part—one where he gets to put a target on himself for all sorts of comparisons, not to mention Welles is, amongst other things, a writer and Falstaff is a Brobdingnagian bullshit artist. But a bad one. Like, a lot of the first half of Chimes is watching people get the better of Welles, except while not getting the shit end onscreen, he’s not just making this exceptional film experience, he’s also giving his cast a lot of great material. They’re all potential Judases, basically, and at least one of them already knows he’s a Judas.

No spoilers.

After the titles, Richardson takes over explaining things. John Gielgud is a new king, one who had to fight for the throne. While he worries about maintaining rule, his son, the Prince of Wales (Keith Baxter), is off drinking and whoring, as well as committing occasional robberies, egged on by his best friend, Welles. While Welles, Baxter, and Tony Beckley (Beckley’s the noble friend who low-key hates Welles because Baxter likes Welles more than him) are sometimes literally screwing around, Gielgud’s got to deal with Norman Rodway and Fernando Rey starting a rebellion. It quickly turns into Rodway’s subplot, which is great because Rodway’s fantastic. He’s got this amazing scene with his wife, Marina Vlady. Like, adorable and cute and sexy and from out of nowhere. Just a neat detail in their character relationship. It also goes to establish that people’s history reality; Chimes is going to show private moments of historic, fictionalized characters, but certainly showing them more… potentially bawdy than in the original fictionalization. It gets really good. There are occasional scenes where Welles weaves this amazing narrative flow and then the way he shoots it, cuts it, moving the film through the dialogue… it’s gorgeous.

It’s also often just for laughs.

Welles, Baxter, Beckley? It’s slapstick. Sure, it’s handled with a firm grasp on the film’s reality, but it’s slapstick. There are gags. Welles is very ambitious with his adaptation, he’s exceptionally assured (especially with the filmmaking devices he uses to compensate for the low budget) but never overconfident. There are plenty of things could go wrong—like Baxter, who’s got the film’s most difficult character arc. But it all works. Baxter makes a shift when he needs to make a shift—the first half of the film is about Gielgud’s fight with Rodway and how it’s going to affect actual heir Baxter. The second half is set a few years later, after Baxter has gotten a little more serious and had less Welles in his life. They’re going to get back together though, only Welles is no longer the same fun loving guy he was before. Sure, he’s still constantly drunk, but he’s mopey about his age—hanging out with fellow old fogey Webb—even though young and relative hottie Jeanne Moreau really does seem to adore Welles.

In between these two very different films—it never feels awkwardly assembled either; Welles and company make it feel like a totally natural transition. Anyway, splitting the two time periods is the battle scene. It’s a phenomenal sequence; runs around nine minutes. There’s comedy (Welles is played as a complete joke during the battle, but he’s got a funny sequence before it when he’s “recruiting”), there’s terrible medieval bloodshed, there’s chivalry, there’s tragedy. Welles figures out how to do it “authentic” without a lot of money. It’s a breathtaking battle scene. Chimes has lots of moments, lots of different kinds of them, but this battle sequence is wild.

Great editing from Elena Jaumandreu, Frederick Muller, and Peter Parasheles. Really good black and white photography from Edmond Richard; gorgeous production design from Mariano Erdoiza; Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s music… is perfect for the film. It’s actually one of the film’s bigger risks, but it works out. But just as music… I’ll bet you could write a book about the film’s post-production. Because it’s exceptionally well-assembled. Chimes at Midnight works out. Every bet Welles makes with the film works out.

The biggest bet is Baxter, who’s great. It’s his story, Welles, Gielgud, Beckley, whoever… they’re just all along for the ride. He’s the rightful heir. Who else’s story could it be?

Gielgud’s amazing, Moreau’s good, Rodway, Vlady; Margaret Rutherford’s awesome as Welles’s suffering landlord.

And Welles is great. Really great. He doesn’t give himself a lot of big moments—he gives himself the comedy instead—but when he gets a big moment, wow, does he nail it.

Chimes at Midnight is peerless.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Orson Welles; screenplay by Welles, based on plays by William Shakespeare and a book by Raphael Holinshed; director of photography, Edmond Richard; edited by Elena Jaumandreu, Frederick Muller, and Peter Parasheles; music by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino; production designer, Mariano Erdoiza; produced by Ángel Escolano, Emiliano Piedra, and Harry Saltzman; released by Brepi Films.

Starring Orson Welles (Falstaff), Keith Baxter (Prince Hal), Norman Rodway (Henry Percy), John Gielgud (Henry IV), Tony Beckley (Ned Poins), Alan Webb (Shallow), Margaret Rutherford (Mistress Quickly), Marina Vlady (Kate Percy), Fernando Rey (Worcester), and Jeanne Moreau (Doll Tearsheet); narrated by Ralph Richardson.


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Tower of London (1962, Roger Corman)

Tower of London almost makes it. The film gets through the low budget, which has a static picture of a model Tower of London instead of a picture of the real Tower for establishing shots, obvious backdrops, not great makeup to age or deform its cast, and the occasional reused footage. Director Corman keeps the pace up—the film doesn’t even run eighty minutes and covers two years and at least a half dozen murders. Well, more assassinations than murders. The film’s about Richard III (Vincent Price, who’ll either get a half sentence or a paragraph later, both are suitable) and his mad quest for power. He kills off kin, children, women, and the elderly, most of whom come back to haunt him as ghosts. See, Tower of London isn’t just Vincent Price and Roger Corman doing a historical horror picture together, they’re doing Shakespeare. More specifically, Price is doing Shakespeare, while Corman refuses to give Price that stage. Though probably for budgetary reasons, not to spare the audience.

The film’s best sequence is when handsome, fit, good guy Robert Brown is trying to get the Queen and her two sons to safety. Richard III, historically, in the play, and in this film, wants to kill off his little nephews so he can assume the throne. Brown isn’t going to let that happen. He’s handsome, fit, and good, after all. Unlike Price’s Richard, who’s got a varying-sized hunched back (it doesn’t jump left to right and then back, unfortunately) and an ostensibly withered arm. We never see the arm (Price always has on a glove) but it seems perfectly strong enough to wield a sword. But Price is a warrior, something Brown is not. Though Price being a warrior doesn’t matter because he goes crazy.

But the escape sequence. There are a few times in Tower of London when everything comes together and the escape sequence is the best example of it. Corman’s pacing, the sturdy professional performances from Brown, Sarah Selby, Joan Freeman, and Richard Hale (they all seem to be able to pretend they’re doing Shakespeare, not Tower of London), Archie R. Dalzell’s excellent black and white photography (it’s not moody but it’s outstanding), and, I don’t know, the added value of children in danger. The escape sequence is really good. You wish the movie could somehow end with it, even before you find out how the movie’s actually going to end.

Because Tower’s greatest strength is everyone but Price. Price gives a hammy, drooly performance, limping and wrenching his back to and fro, full of energy. His monologues are enthusiastically whiny. His character is a combination of a jackass and an idiot. The only people stupider in Tower of London than Price are the entire rest of the cast because he’s always killing people and never getting even suspected of it. When the rest of the cast finally gets to just act like they know Price is killing people left and right, Tower enters into its best phase—the escape sequence is in this portion. But getting to watch the actors opposite Price when he’s cavorting? Their professionalism, if not better (Joan Camden is actually good as Price’s wife, who Lady Macbeths him, and Michael Pate is kind of awesome as Price’s chief stooge), makes Tower interesting to watch.

Unfortunately the finale—and blame Shakespeare—gets rid of the supporting players and is instead just Price hamming it up in an absurd suit of armor—the costuming is probably inaccurate but is at least not absurd for most of the film, but Price’s king outfits are hilarious. There’s one where he wears the crown over his silly hat and then his armor has a visibly cheap crown incorporated into the helmet, which also has a big floofy feather. He should win the battle when everyone else starts laughing and he can take them out. He also doesn’t have much of a hunch in the armor, which is annoying since Price’s looked goofy the whole movie because he’s wearing such a big hunch, who knows how he might’ve played without it to leverage. Price somehow isn’t overtly theatrical, but borrows devices from such a performance and applies them badly to whatever he’s doing.

But, yeah, the end. No one else around to react to Price, just him blathering… Tower falls just when it needs to stay strong. It’s too bad, though probably inevitable.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Roger Corman; screenplay by Leo Gordon, F. Amos Powell, and Robert E. Kent, based on a story by Gordon and Powell and plays by William Shakespeare; director of photography, Archie R. Dalzell; edited by Ronald Sinclair; music by Michael Andersen; produced by Gene Corman; released by United Artists.

Starring Vincent Price (Richard of Gloucester), Michael Pate (Sir Ratcliffe), Joan Freeman (Lady Margaret), Robert Brown (Sir Justin), Bruce Gordon (Earl of Buckingham), Joan Camden (Anne), Richard Hale (Tyrus), Sandra Knight (Mistress Shore), Charles Macaulay (George, Duke of Clarence), Justice Watson (Edward IV), Sarah Selby (Queen Elizabeth).


Henry V (1989, Kenneth Branagh)

Director (and adapter) Branagh splits Henry V into three sections. They aren’t equal, they don’t match the act changes (usually); Branagh lets photographer Kenneth MacMillan open up the film to (outdoor) light while Patrick Doyle’s score becomes essential. The first outside, daylight sequence–Branagh (as Henry) gives his troops a rousing speech–defines the rest of the film. Even when it gets dark and violent in the subsequent, breathtaking battle sequence, there’s still a lot of light. That light carries over into the finale, which is light comedy featuring Branagh bantering with his betrothed-to-be Emma Thompson.

The problem with that finale is it requires Branagh’s Henry to be a likable character in a way Branagh’s never been concerned about. He’s a king, not a bashful suitor. It’s an odd conclusion, with Thompson not speaking English and coming off like a possession to be had. With Branagh’s strange comedic handling, the whole thing is off.

Until Derek Jacobi, as the modern day chorus, guiding the audience through the film, gets in the last word, Henry is almost in trouble. Not a lot, but more than one would expect given how Branagh goes from being expert to sloppy in one scene.

Branagh’s excellent. Brian Blessed, Ian Holm, Michael Maloney, Christopher Ravenscroft, all astounding. Branagh gets these beautiful performances in long, usually close-up takes. And gives a great one of his own with the same treatment.

The battle scene is an amazing intersection of artifice and reality.

Real good stuff.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; screenplay by Branagh, based on the play by William Shakespeare; director of photography, Kenneth MacMillian; edited by Michael Bradsell; music by Patrick Doyle; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by Bruce Sharman; released by Curzon Film Distributors.

Starring Kenneth Branagh (King Henry V), Brian Blessed (Duke Thomas Beaufort of Exeter), Paul Gregory (Westmoreland), Nicholas Ferguson (Earl Richard Beauchamp of Warwick), James Larkin (Duke John of Bedford), Simon Shepherd (Duke Humphrey of Gloucester), Charles Kay (Archbishop of Canterbury), Alec McCowen (Bishop of Ely), Fabian Cartwright (Earl Richard of Cambridge), Stephen Simms (Lord Henry Scroop), Jay Villiers (Sir Thomas Grey), James Simmons (Duke Edward of York), Christopher Ravenscroft (Montjoy), Paul Scofield (King Charles VI of France), Michael Maloney (Louis the Dauphin), Emma Thompson (Princess Katherine de Valois), Geraldine McEwan (Alice), Harold Innocent (Duke Philippe of Burgundy), Edward Jewesbury (Sir Thomas Erpingham), Danny Webb (Gower), Ian Holm (Captain Fluellen), John Sessions (Macmorris), Jimmy Yuill (Jamy), Judi Dench (Mistress Nell Quickly), Robert Stephens (Auncient Pistol), Richard Briers (Lieutenant Bardolph), Geoffrey Hutchings (Corporal Nym), Christian Bale (Robin the Luggage-Boy), Michael Williams (Williams), Shaun Prendergast (Bates), Patrick Doyle (Court) and Robbie Coltrane (Sir John Falstaff). Derek Jacobi as Chorus.


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O (2001, Tim Blake Nelson)

The actor playing Josh Hartnett’s mother (and Martin Sheen’s wife) doesn’t get a credit in O. She doesn’t have any lines, doesn’t really make any noise, just looks down at the dinner table during a scene. But she’s a perfect example of how Nelson paints subtlety and sadness into the film’s canvas. She’s mentioned once more later, in this very deliberate scene showcasing Sheen’s emotional abuse of Hartnett. O has a lot of teenagers–in a boarding school–acting adult, but this scene with Hartnett and Sheen (Sheen barely has a visual presence and Hartnett has only one line), reveals these “grown-up” teenagers as the children.

While second-billed, Hartnett is the film’s protagonist. The point of Othello, as a character, is how uninteresting he is when compared to Iago. That observation should not discount Mekhi Phifer’s performance as the Othello analog, however. Phifer’s transformation into a jealous lover is all played onscreen in O… Hartnett’s just a psychopath who finally gets to express himself. Othello has to be a tragedy; even when Phifer lashes out, he maintains sympathy. Some of it works because Hartnett’s a great villain, but most is because of Nelson’s careful direction.

Julia Stiles, as Desdemona, doesn’t have the range Hartnett and Phifer do, but she’s quite good. Her death scene’s extraordinary.

Also essential, in a small role, is Rain Phoenix.

Nelson, cinematographer Russell Lee Fine and composer Jeff Danna create an amazing film. Nelson puts the responsibility for its success on Hartnett; Hartnett excels.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson; screenplay by Brad Kaaya, based on a play by William Shakespeare; director of photography, Russell Lee Fine; edited by Kate Sanford; music by Jeff Danna; production designer, Dina Goldman; produced by Daniel Fried, Eric Gitter and Anthony Rhulen; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Josh Hartnett (Hugo Goulding), Mekhi Phifer (Odin James), Julia Stiles (Desi Brable), Andrew Keegan (Michael Cassio), Rain Phoenix (Emily), Elden Henson (Roger Calhoun), Martin Sheen (Coach Duke Goulding) and John Heard (Dean Bob Brable).


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