at the Brattle
IN 1933 Orson Welles wrote and illustrated a volume entitled Everybody's Shakespeare. That title, for all its overtones of Lambist heresy, may still indicate something about what is going on in Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight), the latest and finest of the director's screen adaptations of Shakespearean texts. For Welles, the problem of license versus faithfulness does not exist as such. His Shakespeare films are informed by a single overriding concern: to make the text, both the words and the visual images implicit in them, wholly and completely his own, and thereby to make them ours.
The audience which, if justice or sagacity rule, will pack the Brattle Theatre for the next five nights has been raised and schooled on William Shakespeare. But it shares perhaps too much with the larger audience, the dark army of a hundred million anonymous innocents whom any film must ideally strive to reach. For all of us, Shakespeare is familiar, if only by reputation; for all of us, the plays themselves are comfortably exciting, predictably praiseworthy, sometimes dull, and too often peripheral.
It lies with the greatest directors of stage and film to alter this condition. Their work has about it a quality of uncanny generosity: to see a production like Peter Brook's King Lear or Welles's Falstaff is to accept a curious gift, a tarnished childhood treasure rescued from our own neglect, scoured and polished by the agency of personal vision.
In this sense, Falstaff is everybody's Shakespeare, at once immediately contemporary and intensely Elizabethan. The director's uncanny ability to have it both ways is his audience's gain: Falstaff is both the first successful attempt I know to draw the Falstaff-Hal-Henry IV paternity triangle in terms of psychological realities, and incidentally the first realization I have seen in any medium which plays Elizabethan phallic bawdry for solid laughs, not embarrassed giggles or nods of appreciative recognition. It is, in this respect, an anthology of pleasures, a cinematic Christmas morning.
In editing the three histories (Henry IV I & II, Henry V) on which his film is based, Welles has accomplished a new reading of the texts. By stressing the social intelligence of the three principle characters from the outset, he develops the triangular tension of the situation to its fullest. Falstaff (Welles), the embodiment of personal license, is dying of drink and tertiary syphillis. King Henry (Sir John Gielgud), the embodiment of public duty, is dying of guilt and accumulated strain. Hal (Keith Baxter) is only beginning to live, and must choose not only between true and substitute fathers, but between two opposed life styles. These characters move in this tangled relation with consistency and conscious purpose. Most of all, his Falstaff is aware from the first that he is fighting a hard, even foredoomed battle for his Prince's love. The fat knight's persistence is that of the secret hero, not the apparent buffoon, and his final rejection is tragic rather than pathetic. Welles's performance, consistently underplayed except in Falstaff's scenes of self-parody or self-dramatization, neatly divides the character's surface and substance.
There is no space here to describe more than a few of the iconic images which crowd the film: the old King's breath freezing in the chill sunlight of his vast hall, Hotspur's (Norman Rodway) peripatetic motion caught by a camera tracking in tight close-up, the gross Falstaff beside the cruelly emaciated Justice Shallow (Alan Webb), Doll Tearsheet (Jeanne Moreau) demonstrating how a tender and accomplished whore might satisfy an impossibly fat old patron. The Battle of Shrewsbury is simply the finest, truest, ugliest war footage ever shot and edited for a dramatic movie. Welles fills Falstaff with motifs to create visual unities: the vast castle wall which dominates shot after shot; the oppressive vacuity of Spanish winter; the rhythmic alternation of static shooting and frenetic camera movement, the visual equivalent of the dramatic-thematic alternation of age and youth. These moments, sequences, unities and transitions are the true substance of film, and it is out of them, more than the familiar words, that Welles's reading is constructed.
It is natural to regret that Orson Welles has so much difficulty financing his filmmaking, for his poverty is ours. But it is hard to pity the man who made Falstaff. Film directors pay for control, and control marks every frame of this film: control over settings, performances, shooting, and meanings. Except for the Brattle's shoddy projection, it is hard to imagine this Falstaff better, or different. Still, it is pleasant to think that a few pennies of my $1.25 may eventually find their way into the pocket of Orson Welles. I hear he's saving up for another movie.