Yale has been featuring a wide variety of Shakespeare-related events this spring, and Thursday the Whitney Humanities Center is screening a masterpiece: Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, adapted from the five Shakespeare plays that feature Sir John Falstaff, and starring Welles in perhaps his greatest role as the fat knight.
Welles is often a hammy actor. His other attempts at Shakespeare plays — Macbeth and Othello — never really find the heart of the part. That's not the case here. There's a great scene for Welles late in the film when Hal, now King Henry V, denounces his old crony Falstaff. And Falstaff's face, as he hears this imperious youth cast him off, registers first surprise and shock, then pride in his dear boy whom he would love to embrace and win over, then finally a slack realization that all his hopes have died.
Welles also directed the film, and, after Citizen Kane, I'd vote it his best accomplishment. The lighting and cinematography are particularly spectacular. Camera setups are a delight of Welles': long-shots, close-ups, point-of-view shots, shots composed within arches, with figures in close, middle, and far distance in a single shot, and of course those famous low-level shots that cause characters to loom larger-than-life. The crown's split-second point-of-view shot when King Henry puts it on the pillow beside him is the "grace note" sort of thing that Welles likes to risk doing.
The lighting gives the film the look of Netherlandish paintings, awash in chiaroscuro — even the robbery scene takes place in a dappled forest with visible beams of light. And there are plenty of telling close-ups of Falstaff's face, lit so that we see his expressions as the text of the film.
Editing is the syntax of movies, and some might say that Welles' editing is too flamboyant, that, like syntax, editing shouldn't distract from the scene or from the point being made, but Welles has other ideas. His editing makes us not simply follow a scene, but follow the shots of a scene. The battle sequence is stunning because it doesn't simply "record" the battle, it comments on it, and it inhabits it, and it observes it, and, with the quick cuts to Falstaff in armor looking like a little wind-up toy, it also ironizes it.
All these elements make Chimes a cinematic triumph. But the film also features some great moments for Shakespearean speeches. Sir John Gielgud is on hand to deliver the "uneasy sleeps the head that wears the crown" soliloquy, shot so that his eyes are mostly in shadow and his mouth, speaking the despairing speech, is in bright illumination, letting us concentrate on the words. And Falstaff's famous speech about honor, delivered in middle shot while he and Hal stand side-by-side on the field of battle and clouds move in swiftly changing shapes behind them, is a masterful marrying of image and speech.
Yale Film Studies Professor Dudley Andrew will introduce the film and lead a short post-screening discussion.
Chimes at Midnight
Thursday, April 5, 7 p.m., the Whitney Humanities Center at 53 Wall St., New Haven
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