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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.66:1 Widescreen
  • English PCM Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Audio commentary featuring film scholar James Naremore, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles
  • New interview with actor Keith Baxter
  • New interview with director Orson Welles’s daughter Beatrice Welles, who appeared in the film at age seven
  • New interview with actor and Welles biographer Simon Callow
  • New interview with film historian Joseph McBride, author of What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?
  • Interview with Orson Welles while at work editing the film, from a 1965 episode of The Merv Griffin Show
  • Trailer

Chimes at Midnight

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Orson Welles
1966 | 116 Minutes | Licensor: Mr. Bongo Worldwide Ltd.

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #830
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release Date: August 30, 2016
Review Date: August 30, 2016

Purchase From:
amazon.com  amazon.ca

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SYNOPSIS

The crowning achievement of Orson Welles’s extraordinary film career, Chimes at Midnight was the culmination of the filmmaker’s lifelong obsession with Shakespeare’s ultimate rapscallion, Sir John Falstaff. Usually a comic supporting figure, Falstaff—the loyal, often soused friend of King Henry IV’s wayward son Prince Hal—here becomes the focus: a robustly funny and ultimately tragic screen antihero played by Welles with looming, lumbering grace. Integrating elements from both Henry IV plays as well as Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, Welles created a gritty and unorthodox Shakespeare film, one that he intended, he said, as “a lament . . . for the death of Merrie England.” Poetic, philosophical, and visceral—with a kinetic centerpiece battle sequence that rivals anything else in the director’s body of work—Chimes at Midnight is as monumental as the figure at its heart.


PICTURE

Previously hard to come by in North America, Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight finally gets a high-quality, legit home video release here thanks to the Criterion Collection, presenting the film on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 1080p/24hz presentation is taken from the 2009 restoration of the film, and was transferred in high-definition from the original 35mm negative.

This is my first time seeing the film after trying to track it down early on when I was going through a “Welles” phase back in the 90s (like others, I’m sure, I’d go through phases where I’d try to see as many films by a certain director). It was impossible to find despite the fact a VHS apparently did exist, along with bootlegs. There wasn’t a lot written about the film but I always figured the reason I could never track it down was simply because I lived in a rather rural area, despite a couple of very good video stores that actually stocked “obscure” films (and one of those stores still exists today!) Over the years I discovered it wasn’t just me and it was a hard film to find in general: even the most ardent Welles fans haven’t seen it. Since the dawn of DVD there have been a few DVD releases around the world that I’ve eyed but never bit the bullet on for one reason or another (at first it was simply because I wasn’t region free or couldn’t play back PAL content), the title ending up on that long list of imports I’ll “eventually get.” I’m actually happy I never got around to seeing the film before because, short of seeing an actual screening of this restoration, this is probably the best possible way of viewing it (there is also a Blu-ray release available in the UK that makes use of the same restoration).

The film was shot using a high-contrast film so the contrast will look a bit wonky during the opening, though this is intentional. From this we get fairly bright whites and very bold blacks, which still look fairly deep and inky. The lighting in the film, particularly in castle interiors, is striking and the high-contrast look aids this, illuminating faces to an almost blinding degree. And though maybe the finer nuances of detail get lost in the darker areas of the screen because of this look, details don’t get washed out in the brighter areas since blooming is not an issue. Close-ups of faces are particularly bright but you can make out everything: close-ups of Welles’ Falstaff deliver all of the wrinkles on his face, as well as all of the hairs in that bushy beard of his. The details in the sets and exteriors also pop, and the image, despite some soft shots, remains consistently crisp throughout.

The film is also surprisingly clean. A few minor blemishes remain like dirt and such, and there can be some flicker and a slight pulse at times, but the film looks pretty spotless. The digital presentation itself is fine for the most part. Grain is handled fairly well though I detected some minor noise in a few areas. This is not usual, though and nothing else stood out.

Considering the hell this film has been through what we get here is really quite remarkable. It’s a beautiful looking restoration.

8/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

One of the film’s more infamous shortcomings is its audio, which was criticized by critics at the time (particularly New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther), and still comes up every once in a while in write-ups of the film. Again I hadn’t seen the film prior to this release, but complaints and criticisms (that I have read) had to do with a general poor quality of the audio that was further enhanced by dialogue that was severely out-of-synch with the image, a byproduct of Welles having to dub in dialogue during post-production.

A couple of interviews within the supplements point out that the audio has gone through a vigorous restoration process, with special attention being paid to correcting the synch issues that have always been there, and this work appears to have certainly paid off. There are a handful of moments where the dubbing is obvious but on the whole I can’t say many issues with the synching stood out, at least to a distracting or bothersome degree suggested by various things I have read previously. Unfortunately I still found the audio a bit problematic in other ways. Though generally clean I still found the dialogue hard to hear, voices sounding a bit distorted and muffled; I ended up having to switch the subtitles on at one point because I just couldn’t understand what was being said. I ended up just leaving them on. I can’t compare to previous releases so I can’t say if it sounds better than them, but even if this is a large improvement it’s still not without obvious problems.

5/10

SUPPLEMENTS

Criterion puts together a nicely packed special edition for the film, starting with a new audio commentary by film scholar James Naremore, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles. The track is certainly informative, Naremore giving a rather extensive backstory to the production and aiding us who aren’t so well-versed in Shakespeare by going over the various plays that have been packed into this film to the point of noting where dialogue has been lifted from or how it was rearranged. He does talk about the film’s compositions and editing, paying a special amount of attention to the film’s famous battle sequence and its quick cuts, and also talks about how the character of Falstaff appealed to Welles. It’s a decent enough track and I did enjoy his analysis of the some sequences but it’s still not as insightful as I would have hoped, Naremore occasionally falling victim to simply reiterating what’s on screen anyways.

Still, any slight shortcomings in the track are made up for in the remaining supplements, which are primarily made up of interviews, starting with one with actor Keith Baxter, who played Prince Hal in both the film and Welles’ earlier stage version. Baxter’s proves to be the most fascinating of the interviews (though to be fair they’re all rather good) since he has first-hand accounts of both the play (which met with poor box office and a poor critical reception as he recalls) and the film’s production (which barely got released). Since he was trained as a stage actor—having gone to school with Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole, and Alan Bates to name a few—the experience of making a film was new to him and a bit difficult, but it was still a wonderful experience especially since he got to work with his idol, John Gielgud. There’s some great anecdotes about Welles that probably aren’t surprising (to get backing for Chimes at Midnight he had to promise to make an adaptation of Treasure Island back-to-back with it, and Baxter recalls here the one shot that he’s aware of Welles actually shooting at the time before shutting down production—the film would be somewhat finished without Welles at the helm in the 70s) and he talks about the one moment of Welles performance that still floors him. At 30-minutes it’s a brisk and enlightening discussion, probably my favourite feature on the release.

Beatrice Welles next pops up for 15-minutes to talk about her father (who she admits spoiled her in terms of life experience) and the film, in which she also appeared as Falstaff’s page despite her reluctance at getting into acting. She shares her not-entirely-fond memories of the shoot but also share her memories of hanging around in her father’s editing room as he put this film together while also describing how her mother was also involved in helping her father with his work. Adding a more personal slant she also talks about her father outside of filmmaking, like her father’s love of bullfighting and the fights he would take her to.

Actor and Welles biographer Simon Callow next gives a rather structured and in-depth history to Chimes at Midnight, which really began when Welles was a teenager at Todd School for Boys, where he worked on a play called “Five Kings” that similarly took a handful of Shakespeare’s plays and worked them into something new. As a bonus (again for those of us not as well versed in Shakespeare’s work) Callow also provides details about the plays that were used for Chimes at Midnight and what elements from each were used where (to a point), even pointing out which “version” of Falstaff Welles stuck with (the Falstaff in the film is apparently closest to the Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1). On top of explaining why Welles was probably so drawn to the character of Falstaff (though admits he personally sees the character a little differently than Welles did) he also talks about Welles’ performance, concentrating on one particular moment that is—not coincidentally—the same moment that so impressed Baxter. Callow’s contribution runs 32-minutes but is never bogged down by the fairly static nature of the piece (it really is him just talking) thanks to his preparedness and vast knowledge not only of Welles and the film, but the also source materials that Welles used in making the film. It’s probably the best primer for those new to the film and unfamiliar with the work that inspired it.

Criterion continues the academic aspect with another interview, this time with Joseph McBride, author of Whatever Happened to Orson Welles? The notes for the feature explain it as McBride talking about Welles’ later career as a whole, though this isn’t entirely true since it really still focuses most of its time on Chimes at Midnight and his possible reasons for doing it (from “lamenting the loss of merrie old England” to dealing with guilt over the death of his father), as well as influences on the film. He also addresses what many would consider the technical flaws of the film (specifically the sound) and the ways Welles would hide the rough edges (though this also plays into his other later work as well). Disappointingly he doesn’t talk a lot about his other later films, only name-dropping a few, though does talk about his later acting roles later on, which he did for the money, really only turning down a couple of roles that he knows of (a Passolini film and Caligula). Still, he does talk about why Welles probably had so much difficulty in not only financing films but actually completing them, summing it up nicely with a Jean Renoir quote, who explained that Welles was “an aristocrat working in a popular medium.” Though I guess he does ultimately give an idea of the difficulties Welles faced over his career, particularly his late career, I guess I was hoping for more insights on his other work and not so heavy a focus on Chimes. Getting past that it’s still another insightful addition to the release.

From the archives Criterion digs up an 11-minute excerpt from a 1965 episode of The Merv Griffin Show, showcasing an interview with Welles while he’s editing the battle scene in Chimes of Midnight. He of course promotes his film and talks about the premise and the scene he’s editing. But they also talk about the Mercury Theater (saying he hopes to work with the group again) and their infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. He admits to thinking it would get a reaction though was taken aback by all the hubbub that came from it. This is a great little find on Criterion’s part, Welles appearing very loose and relaxed, coming off quite funny as well.

The Janus trailer for the release of the new restoration closes off the disc. The large fold-out insert (which features artwork on the one side depicting Hal talking to his father on the battlefield) features a new essay by author Michael Anderegg, who writes admirably about Welles’ take on Shakespeare and the impressive elements of the film, with a special bit of attention to the battle sequence. It’s a nice way to close off the set.

It’s a satisfying bit of material all said and done, though considering the dire straits the film was in all these years I would have loved a restoration demonstration of sorts if just for posterity. Despite that, though, the supplements nicely compliment the film, perfectly covering the genesis of the project and helping those new to the film and/or the material on which it is based.

9/10

CLOSING

After decades of scarcity and limited home video options for North American viewers Criterion does the film justice with this release. It's wonderful to know the film is now more readily accessible to audiences, especially in such a terrific manner. It comes with a very high recommendation.


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