Some rate Orson Welles' 1965 Shakespeare compression/adaptation Chimes At Midnight as a) the greatest Shakespeare film ever, or at least close, and/or b) one of Welles' greatest cinematic achievements period. You want testimonials? Chimes is the subject of one of Pauline Kael's most rhapsodic critical swoons, one written not for The New Yorker but The New Republic. Here is one of my favorite passages from the long piece: "He [Welles] has directed a sequence, the battle of Shrewsbury, which is unlike anything he has ever done, indeed, unlike any battle ever done on screen before. It ranks with the best of Griffith, John Ford, Eisenstein, Kurosawa—that is, with the best ever done." Go read it, it's in both For Keeps and the recent Library of America selection of her work. Ron Rosenbaum, author of The Shakespeare Wars, therein calls Chimes an "amazing and, to me, so-far-bottomless [...] film fusion of the Henry IV plays."
Yes: the film is not even two hours long, but it feels like an entire world, an inexhaustible environment of artistic and emotional richness And I've only ever seen the damn thing on television. And in largely not very good versions. One hears not infrequently of screenings of "restored" versions and whatnot. But so far, no doubt at least in part because of legal questions pertaining to both the film's actual producers and the rights of verious individuals and parties claiming to have a claim in the Welles estate, a completely confidence-inspiring steward of the work has yet to emerge.
So Welles enthusiasts—although I should dare say that the category "Welles enthusiast" should encompass the entirety of cinema enthusiasts, but I imagine that "the Internet" or some creation of it might contradict me on that point—who desire to enjoy Chimes At Midnight, also called Falstaff, on video have had to rely on what might be considered bootlegs. But can an object that is for all intents and purposes an orphan actually be bootlegged? It's a question that I, a person who tends to eschew bootlegs for personal ethical reasons that I won't bore you with, don't get much joy out of grappling with. In the case of Chimes, though, I want it in my life, I want it in my library, and I want to be able to enjoy it once or twice a year at least, because it's not just great Shakespeare, a great Shakespeare adaptation, etc.; it's a genuinely magical film, as spellbinding and strange and funny and poignant and inventive as any damne thing Welles attached his name to. As a result of this desire, I now have three DVDs of the movie at my right hand at the moment. We begin with bad news, and end with pretty good news.
1) Campanadas a medianoche, Suevia Films, circa 2007.
My then-Premiere colleague Andy Webster paid through the nose for a copy of this Spain-issued Region B PAL disc back in the day when researching a Welles DVD Filmography for the magazine. These days, you can get a used copy for anywhere between fifty bucks and...what's this? Two hundred bucks? Yup. I wouldn't go for it now, particularly as I can't expense it, and neither should you. The transfer preserves the film's 1.66 aspect ratio...albeit within a 4:3 box that is not enhanced for widescreen displays. The transfer also looks interlaced as opposed to progressive, and while largely clean, is very gray and largely dull. Detail is shaky, unremarkable. The sound is advertised as Dolby Stereo and is reasonably clear. As with his prior The Trial, Mr. Arkadin, and other films, Welles made this with no direct sound, and often the actors speaking on screen are not who we hear on the soundtrack (Marina Vlady and Fernando Rey are pertinent examples). Contemporary technology could have helped Welles' DIY approach yield smoother results but, you know. —C-
2) Chimes At Midnight, Nostalgia Family Video, version copyrighted 2008.
Bargain hunters (I see a used copy floating around for about twenty-five bucks at Amazon right now; new versions pop up now and again for even less) and those who are senselessly deprived of region-free players will see the value of this version, but it's no great shakes. At all. Again, a 1.66 picture in an unenhanced 4:3 box, and what's worse, when not viewing in zoom mode, there's a wavering blue horizontal line in the lower right corner of the 4:3 box (not visible in the screen capture above). The materials seem a trifle newer than those used for the Suevia version, but again, they are gray, gray, gray. The look is often more like that of a well-preserved '50s kinetoscope than that of a film. The sound is clear. Docked a notch from the Suevia for the blue line. —D+
3) Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight), Films Sans Frontieres, 2011
This strange label with its odd practices: sometimes going region-free, as befits its name...and sometimes not. This is an all-region disc in theory but as it's in the PAL broadcast format you need an all-region player to watch it. I'm sure glad I do. For one thing, this is the first disc version I've seen that is enhanced for widescreen displays. While I don't have the tools to make a precise determination, I discern that the image presented is close to 1.66 if not exactly there; maybe a hair or so wider than it ought be. Not entirely sure, as I said. But what's really crucial is that the image itself is worthy of nearly filling a whole display. The black-and-white is very definite, and gorgeous; there's a magnificent boost of clarity and detail and very little, if any at all, visible digital artifacts: no obvious edge-enhancement or noise reduction. But again, a great deal of detail. Check out the dialogue between Keith Baxter's Prince Hal and John Gielgud's Henry IV about 37 minutes in; the abysses of black that frame the characters in the chilly isolation of the castle throne room. Magnificent.
The versions of this film available on the U.S. Amazon site are rather confusingly categorized, and hence you can't necessarly be sure what you're getting. I never bought the Brazilian issue of this disc, nor the British disc from a few years back that is now fetching almost three hundred dollars on the site as I write this. To be assured of getting THIS version, I'd suggest ordering it directly from French Amazon, where it'll set you back about twelve Euros plus shipping. All I can tell you is while it's not an official or sanctioned restoration, it's the most consistently enjoyable presentation of the film I've seen, period. Until there's a Blu-ray (and I think the materials used here could support one) from some firm as well-regarded as Criterion and/or Masters of Cinema, this should be considered the home version of record. —A-
UPDATE: Damn. All the while I was working on this, and the much-bruited (by the company itself) Mr. Bongo version—a "definaitive [sic], restored version," yet—comes out in Britain, under my nose. (See the comment by Robert Sweeney below.) I shall seek it out and report on it as soon as possible. If it's a patch on the Films Sans Frontieres version, it should be very special indeed. We'll see, and report.