Rare Welles No Longer Unseen: Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story on Criterion
By Tony Williams.
Long awaited by many, following either unavailability or dubious accessibility via duped 16mm copies, unwatchable VHS copies, and bootlegged DVDS, two of Welles’s most accomplished achievements are now available, thanks to the Criterion Collection’s high standard of reproduction. I first saw Chimes at Midnight theatrically in the late 60s as well as a beautiful 35mm print of The Immortal Story at the defunct Manchester Film Theatre. Despite preservation of the exterior architecture similar to Swansea’s preservation of the old Carleton Cinema, the site is now occupied by MacDonald’s. At least, the latter’s former site on 17 Oxford Street is now occupied by Waterstones, a bookstore being preferable to unhealthy junk food. Looking at these two excellent DVD evokes William Wordsworth’s 1805 “Ode to the French Revolution” – “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” I would rephrase Wordsworth’s reference to include both old and young in this new DVD reproduction to say that both can now share in a unique experience. Those “old” enough to have seen pristine copies of the originals can share equally in the pleasure of a younger generation, several of whom have never seen any version at all until now, in viewing high quality restorations of these two significant Welles films long unavailable in general release.
Chimes at Midnight is widely regarded as Welles’s greatest cinematic achievement and this restoration is the best I’ve ever seen, far surpassing my knowledge of a theatrical screening in the past. Often available in poor VHS copies or badly processed DVDs (my own DVD copy being a version with embedded Japanese subtitles to the right of screen), Criterion now has justifiable reason to regard this copy as being the best version available for those unfortunate enough not to have viewed the recent restored 35mm version. As well as those breathtaking battle scenes one now has a distinctive visual reproduction of Henry IV’s castle with fine-toned Nuremberg lighting in addition to accomplished deep focus shots of the Boar’s Tavern interior.
As one of the major Welles scholars whose The Magic World of Orson Welles has achieved its third edition, James Naremore appears a logical choice for this audio-commentary. His descriptions are lucid and concise echoing not only his own publications but those of others, especially Crowl’s “The Long Goodbye: Welles and Falstaff” (Shakespeare Quarterly 31.3 : 369-380) which notes that Hal not only departs from Falstaff five times but also announces his future intentions to him in dialogue rather than soliloquy. Naremore adds to material already present in his book noting the deliberate contrast between the “excremental” world of the Tavern and the more Spartan environment of the Castle that resembles both Thatcher’s Memorial Library and Kane’s Xanadu. Welles uses a more democratic eye-level camera for the former and his characteristic deep focus, low-angle images for the latter. Naremore also describes Hal as “an honest pragmatist who does not feel guilt like his father” nor egotistical like Hotspur. Hal later becomes imprisoned in the Castle like Kane in Xanadu. The critic not only recognizes key Welles cinematic elements operating in the film but also the achievement of Keith Baxter’s performance as Prince Hal who is “an old man in a young man’s body” in contrast to Falstaff’s “young man in an old body,” the latter also representing an “honest version of Henry’s opportunism.” Naremore acutely recognizes Welles’s decision to concentrate on the father-son relationships within his first two Henreid historical plays rather than their political reverberations seeing Chimes at Midnight as a romantic myth paralleling The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) with illusion confronting the harsh world of present reality. He correctly sees the comic figure Falstaff as a man of great wit rather than a clown like Pistol and quotes Empson’s description of Hal’s “parasitic absorption” correctly in terms of the future King Henry V’s destruction of his various “hosts” such as Hotspur, King Henry IV, and Falstaff himself.
Naremore’s term “excremental” cited above relates to Bakhtin’s work on the carnival that Rabelais and his World explores while his references to the “grotesque” in Welles derive from his Film Quarterly 60.1 Fall 2006 article “Stanley Kubrick and the Aesthetics of the Grotesque” (4-16) developed later in his 2007 book On Kubrick. However, it should be noted that the concept of the cinematic grotesque as well as citation to the work of Wolfgang Kayser appeared three years earlier in the first edition of The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead (Wallflower Press : 196-197) so Naremore was not the first to recognize this. However, the most glaring error occurs in 103: 43 of the audio-commentary when Naremore not only describes the newly crowned Henry V’s rejection of Falstaff as occurring in Shakespeare’s Henry V but also mentions that Falstaff himself reappears in that later play. Here Naremore distinguishes himself as the first Welles Shakespearean scholar who does not know his Shakespeare since the rejection scene occurs at the end of Henry IV, Pt. 2, scene V. A quick perusal of Chimes at Midnight ed. Bridget Gellert Lyons, Rutgers University Press, 1988: 239-248, would have prevented this error occurring on the audio-commentary. Also Falstaff does not appear in Henry V having died off stage, as Henry V Act II.scene 3 makes clear. Was Naremore thinking of George Robey’s silent cameo appearance in the Laurence Olivier version of Henry V (1944) here? At any rate, this glaring error needs correction either by Naremore himself in a new edition or a new audio commentary by Welles theatrical scholar Richard France. France has acted in two films of George A. Romero who has emphasized the influence of Welles on his films rather than Alfred Hitchcock. Finally, although Naremore compares the “longueur” in the second part of Chimes at Midnight with the second part of The Magnificent Ambersons, he misses why this occurs. First, the latter parts of both films involve decline. While we do not have Welles’s original version of The Magnificent Ambersons to see how this strategy occurs, we do have Chimes at Midnight where there are clear links in the screenplay between the weariness of King Henry IV expressed marvelously by John Gielgud in his “Uneasy Lies the Head that wears a Crown” soliloquy, a dissolve to Prince Hal in close-up uttering the line “I am exceeding weary” and the following sequence in the Tavern where Falstaff recognizes the onset of his rapid physical decline. This change of mood is an essential strategy within the film.
The following interview with Keith Baxter is the most touching of all. Like Norman Eshley in The Immortal Story he clearly revered the time he worked with Welles on the theatrical version of Chimes at Midnight and its cinematic successor. Although a contemporary of Alan Bates, Albert Finney, and Peter O’Toole in drama school, his career had not advanced as far as his illustrious peers. However, with Welles, he obtained the role of a lifetime and will always be indelibly associated with this great film. Despite the 1960 Belfast stage production receiving critical assault, Welles retained his interest in this project and Baxter became the only original cast member to appear in the film version. Baxter delivers an intelligent interpretation of his role seeing Welles’s intention to turn the film into “a love story of a boy torn between two fathers”, one whom he reveres but who has blood on his hands, and the other he cannot revere. Persuading financiers that he intended to make a film version of Treasure Island in the leading role of Long John Silver supported by Baxter and Gielgud, Welles soon turned it into his own cherished project with the Admiral Benbow Inn of R.L. Stevenson changed into Shakespeare’s Boar’s Head Tavern. Baxter also mentions that while Gielgud spoke his lines in iambic pentameter poetry, Welles, by contrast, spoke in prose.
Beatrice Welles remembers this time of working with her father very fondly. She was one of the many non-actors cast by Welles in this film for their physical features. It is interesting that, although Welles dismisses Eisenstein’s influence as opposed to D.W. Griffith in the documentary feature on Criterion’s Immortal Story DVD, such influences clearly exist in his films in terms of the use of typage characterizing not only his choice of extras but also the Italian comedian Walter Chiari in the role of Master Silence who utters very few words and is cast for his facial comic grotesque appearance. Similarly, in his commentary on the battlefield scene, Naremore mentions the role of Eisenstein’s rhythmic montage as influencing Welles’s editorial decisions there.
Simon Callow once played Falstaff to Keith Baxter’s Henry IV in a 1998 stage version of Henry IV, Parts One and Two and is a great admirer of Chimes of Midnight as his One Man Band (2015), the third volume of his Welles biographical project, reveals. He astutely sees the film as being autumnal in its emphasis on death, decay and loss, and thus having a definite melancholic tendency.
Joseph McBride first saw the theatrical version of Chimes at Midnight in less congenial circumstances than I did, amidst an audience of University of Chicago students, film buffs, and winos who certainly appreciated the humor! He identifies Welles as a cinematic actor-manager, a guerilla artist even in his theatrical days, and an experimentalist at heart. McBride applauds Welles’s performance of Falstaff as someone displaying inwardness, tenderness, and vulnerability especially in that touching final scene where a father recognizes that his boy has now become a man. Significantly both Callow and McBride explicitly articulate similar feelings to myself in recognizing the poignancy present in this final “last goodbye” in the film.
The last DVD feature is Welles’s appearance at an editing table working on the battle scene in a segment from a 1965 Merv Griffin Show. He has obviously been filmed separately from the studio and faintly conceals his deep irritation when asked the usual questions about the War of the Worlds 1938 broadcast and Citizen Kane (1941). These are all in the past for him and he is clearly eager to move on to what would become his greatest achievement. However, for Welles, any medium is fair game for word to get out about what he is doing and he always attempted to rise above the triviality of the entertainment formula to show what he believed was significant for him and those in the audience who would recognize it.
When turning to The Immortal Story, I may be guilty of the type of nostalgia exhibited by Eugene Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) of yearning for a Golden Age in the past that was not “necessarily so” in the words of Sporting Life’s number from Porgy and Bess. When I first saw The Immortal Story long ago in Manchester, I was impressed by the beautiful color cinematography of Willy Kurant and how this expressed the painterly aspect that many films attempt. This is not to disparage Criterion’s superb restoration especially after seeing so many hideous VHS prints and average DVD bootlegs that fall short of the original theatrical print I viewed many decades ago. But, like Welles’s dissatisfaction over finally reaching the Holy Grail of any definitive version, the 35mm print remains in my mind today. However, accidents of color grading and print reproduction often fall short of the director’s original vision and I don’t want to fall into the argument that 35mm in a theatrical venue is the only way of seeing and indulge in a “Rosebud” scenario. What I would say here is that Criterion have again performed a great service in reproducing this film near to the version Welles completed. Definitive versions are often impossible anyway.
Like Chimes at Midnight, this Criterion reproduction is superb in many ways and well worth the price of purchase. It contains both the English and French versions, the latter shorter by eight minutes but containing a few extra scenes and reframing not in the English version. Post-dubbed as were virtually all Welles films in the post-war era, Philippe Noiret voices Mr. Clay while distinguished stage actor Roger Coggio voices his own role. Although Coggio was bilingual like Jeanne Moreau, who voices both versions, Welles selected Warren Mitchell to dub Levinsky in the English version. Although eternally associated with Alf Garnett in the BBC TV series Till Death do us Part (1965-1975) transformed into the bland American version All in the Family (1971-1979). Mitchell was a very versatile actor in his heyday and Welles’s choice of dubbing may be equivalent to similar decisions involved in Mr. Arkadin (1955) where he uses Billie Whitelaw for Paola Mori and Othello (1951) where Gudrun Ure voices Suzanne Cloutier’s Desdemona. Welles was very familiar with British talent and it is a shame that the choice of Mitchell is not covered here. At any rate, it was one of his creative decisions that derive from his radio days influencing the choice. Adrian Martin’s accessible and helpful audio-commentary explores several important elements utilized in the film’s structure such as its minimalistic design, chamber cinema protracted dialogue that the television format would offer (The Immortal Story was originally designed for French television), the challenging aspects of narration in a work utilizing “a story that belongs to nobody”, and its aesthetic borrowings such as the baroque set design and expressive color used in the opening night sequence in Mr. Clay’s mansion that evoke von Sternberg and the rapid cutting involving the Chinese servants preparing the meal that recall Eisenstein. Unable to employ Joseph Cotton for the role of Levinsky and Lavagnino for the musical score, Welles again resorted to creative alternatives. In the realm of music he utilized the pre-recorded work of Erik Satie whose minimalist tones added to the structure of this film.
Martin has provided an informative commentary to this work describing it as belonging to the great color experimental films of the 60s such as The Red Desert (1964), Made in USA (1966), and Juliet of the Spirits (1965) as well as possibly influencing Alain Resnais’s Wild Grass (2009) but he never explores how The Immortal Story descends from those innovative Mercury Radio Theatre productions Welles pioneered in the 1930s. This aspect represents an unexcavated mine, a description that Martin evoked in his pioneering article on the future director’s radio work that first appeared in www.sensesofcinema.com and may now be available again on this critic’s Web Site. Hopefully, one day former www.wellesnet.com webmaster Jeff Wilson will find the time to complete his very promising research on the radio work of Orson Welles. The choice of Isaak Dinesen’s novella format as well as the innovative decisions in terms of casting, dubbing, and music are significant elements that needs further study here.
Also available is a 1968 documentary Portrait Orson Welles, co-directed by Francois Reichenbach and Frederic Rossif, that captures Welles at that point of time. Featuring interview segments with Jeanne Moreau clad in an appealing Mary Quant 60s “dolly bird” dress resembling a close-cropped version of Jean Shrimpton, it opens with a thundering laugh from Orson and closes in similar fashion. Many have spoken of Welles’s huge laugh and examples occur in the celebrated 1982 BBC 2 Arena documentary but the choice of framing filmed when Welles was having difficulties with projects evokes that later celebrated line in F for Fake (1973) when he reflects on the impermanent nature of authorship in the Chartres Cathedral sequence. With death being the only final reality “one must still keep singing”. Welles’s equivalent to the heroic stalwart figure of a Joseph Conrad sea captain at the helm facing a Typhoon is laughter. He will still keep on “singing” and creating to the very end.
Other features involve English TV actor Norman Eshley speaking about his early involvement with Welles, the consideration shown to him on set by Jeanne Moreau, and that lost opportunity for further collaboration that Welles offered. The fifteen minute interview with cinematographer Willy Kurant speaks not only about Welles selecting him to replace Walter Wottitz to provide a different type of color lighting, but also the collaboration they engaged in while filming. Kurant speaks of Welles’s expert knowledge of different lenses and the employment of a hand-held camera to follow Coggio and Moreau in one scene merely because of the absence of rail tracks. Welles obviously appreciated the rapidity of Kurant as opposed to the more methodical approach of Wottitz and the much earlier one with Stanley Cortez on The Magnificent Ambersons. Framing was very rigorous and Welles came up with the idea of lighting Coggio’s face as he reads a book to Mr. Clay by having aluminum concealed inside the book so that it will reflect from a light hanging above the set. As the last professional cinematographer Welles worked with, Kurant ends the interview by explaining the choice of visual style. Welles deliberately avoided using his characteristic experimental techniques since he did not want The Immortal Story to be rejected by French television. Another refutation of the legend of “crazy Welles” wanting to do his own thing!
As an extra, the twenty-five minute interview with Welles scholar Francois Thomas is reason enough to purchase this DVD in addition to its exceptional quality reproduction. Co-author of Orson Welles at Work (2008), Thomas provides a significant mine of information including a revelation of Welles’s unique use of sound that echoes both his Mercury Radio Theatre productions as well as his fully-realized films. The sound of a solitary cricket occurs outside Mr. Clay’s house. When Virginie (Moreau) and Paul (Norman Eshley) achieve the “climax” (yes, the pun is intentional) of Mr. Clay’s scripted “immortal story” the merging sound of two crickets occurs on the soundtrack. Naturally Welles could not film something explicit for French television but his innovative use of sound in this scene suggests that Welles was not entirely a puritan where such matters were cinematically concerned and that he may have already outpaced his supposed future teacher Oja Kodar in being able to know how explicitly depict a sex scene in a car in one of the scenes in the still unreleased The Other Side of the Wind. Thomas also notes Welles’s departure in using pre-recorded music for this film but could it also not be possible that he and Stanley Kubrick had similar creative ideas in mind here especially with the latter replacing Alex North and using pre-recorded music for the soundtrack of 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968)? The Immortal Story was shot in 1966 but not shown on French television until the latter part of 1968. Thomas also points out that Welles really edited the film, a comment in line with Welles’s observation in the accompanying documentary on the importance of editing for any director, John Ford being the key example. The completed work had a poor reception in the UK and USA but not in Italy due to the lip synchronization issue that also occurred in Othello in a country whose audiences were used to this supposed technical failure.
Both DVDs are magisterial in nature, a great tribute to the artistry of Orson Welles revealing the originals in the way they should be seen and indispensable to any serious audience interested in cinematic achievement, as opposed to certain slapdash journalistic reviewers who defile the creative nature of film both in print and the internet. Chimes of Midnight has liner notes by Michael Anderegg, author of Orson Welles, Shakespeare and Popular Culture (1999), while Jonathan Rosenbaum “Divas and Dandies” provides stimulating insights on Welles and Dinesen. As in life, Welles is aptly served by certain collaborators but as he says in This is Orson Welles, the director is always at the center of the process.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor at Film international. His latest book is James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield).