Thoughts on Falstaff and Orson Welles

I love Orson Welles for his largeness in all senses-the extravagance that cost him his career also left us a handful of energetic, bizarre, baroque theatrical masterpieces that display his acting and film making skills and present his fascinating humanity warts and all. Several parts genius and some parts charlatan he was irrepressible and irresistible, Falstaff reincarnated in a range of unlikely 20th century guises (and finally Falstaff himself in his own film); a man of the theatre, he slipped effortlessly into film and with Citizen Kane brought a new intellectualism and realism to the essentially visceral and melodramatic American cinema. The movies would have been the poorer without Xanadu, Rosebud, depth of field and the first-if not the best-of Welles’ ruminations on the uses and abuses of power and power mongers. In the age of Rupert Murdoch’s global empire, the rise and influence of Hearst’s newspaper kingdom is if anything as relevant now as it was in 1941. Welles’ manipulation of narrative structure and viewpoint and control of image motif remains powerful to modern audiences and Kane would be a towering achievement from a mature artist at the height of their powers let alone a jumped-up upstart of a mere 25 years.

Welles was always presumptuous. He has since proved a man of many parts-actor, conjuror, raconteur, writer/director extraordinaire, master of cinematic and theatrical mise-en-scene and legerdemain. He might well have been a Renaissance artist in a previous life; as a conversationalist alone he is his own greatest creation- witness the volume of recorded interviews with people like Peter Bogdanovich where his sense of mischief is given full play and his teeming anecdotal/narrative gifts weave their enchanting spell. He was a mesmerising, charming, witty talk show guest and could have made a career out of television appearances had he submitted more to quick fixes for his financial problems. But Welles remained the maverick, globe-trotting and jet-setting to drum up patronage and cash to finish his long list of truncated projects and works in progress.

Welles had a deep affinity for that other brilliant theatre luminary William Shakespeare and although his film versions of Othello somewhat (in its various versions) and especially Macbeth are marred by obvious production difficulties and budgetary limitations-the recurring leitmotifs of Welles’ blighted career trajectory-he finally came up with Chimes at Midnight, arguably the most successful attempt to bring the spirit of the Bard to celluloid. This beautiful elegy for Merrie England is several parts high spirits and several parts melancholy. A compendium of various Shakesperian texts, The Merry Wives of Windsor and both parts of Henry IV among them, along with Holinshed’s Chronicles, Welles’ Falstaff film gives him the part he was born to play (or at least literally grew into). Falstaff in this expressive incarnation becomes  a swaggering human mountain full of the spirit of play, a kind of Loki writ large, egging young Prince Hal to sow his oats in grand style across his future kingdom knowing well that the brevity of a  youthful prince’s spring will soon be overtaken by the long winter of a king’s destiny. The tragedy for Falstaff is that while Prince Hal may share the “chimes at midnight” with the riff-raff, King Henry V may not. The King’s rejection of Falstaff as King inspires some of the most melancholy moments ever committed to film.  Falstaff’s swift decline and demise is deeply impactful due to Welles’ rueful but humane and philosophical acceptance of the way things are. Welles’ idol John Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance roots for Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), all that’s symbolised in the cactus rose and “printing the legend” rather than the reality of the traditional West so often celebrated by that great Irish-American film/poet. Similarly, Welles’ heart and soul is with Merrie England and everything embodied in the friendship between Falstaff and Hal and the “times that they have seen”.

The tavern scenes are therefore full of very funny slapstick which Welles clearly relishes. Rarely has he let his hair down and his sense of humour to flow so naturally into the fabric of one of his films. The darker  hints of mortality and the precariousness of patronage are always lurking in the background and the film is essentially  another of Welles’ perceptive and penetrating studies of power, but never before have the surfaces of a Welles film been so enjoyable as in the sequences of carousing and highway robbery. Falstaff plays to the hilt his version of the Lord of Misrule, kettle on head holding forth to his “subjects”(cronies) in an unforgettable vignette.

The medieval battle scenes on the other hand  bring together the light and dark poles of this extraordinary work; visual gags of Falstaff trying to mount a horse and running through the mayhem like a beheaded peacock are followed by a stylised combat sequence that captures all the barbaric atrocity and terrible beauty of pre-modern technological warfare.

The performances are dominated by the almost surreally outsize figure of Welles (even upstaging the landscape) but they are uniformly excellent. Keith Baxter brings to life Prince Hal’s uneasy combination of virility and reflectiveness; John Gielgud in a telling cameo shows us just how “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”; Jeanne Moreau’s world-weary Doll Tearsheet carries conviction and poignancy and body language to match; surprisingly Margaret Rutherford’s Mistress Quickly almost steals the film in her “cold as any stone” set-piece. I’m so used to Rutherford as a slightly dotty old mammoth that the melancholy atmospherics conjured up in her speech and performance took me by surprise and left an enormous lump in my throat. I’m quite as blown away by what Welles has done with this impressive ensemble cast as I am with his predictably brilliant mise-en-scene.

My other favourite Welles film is The Magnificent Ambersons. This emasculated masterpiece (RKO cut it by about 40 minutes and tacked on a ridiculous ending shot by Robert Wise) is impressive even in its butchered state. Along with Chimes at Midnight it’s the most emotionally involving of his films. I deeply admire Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil but I love Ambersons. Impeccably reconstructing its turn of the century period, the film immediately adopts an affectionately ambivalent tone as it catalogues changing fashions and the fortunes of the proud Amberson family (through whose deterioration some major turning points in the social and economic fabric of twentieth century American life are observed). The Amberson mansion is dominated by the self-important snobbery of Tim Holt (surprisingly carrying the pivotal role of the spoiled scion) but Welles imbues Georgie’s carryings on  with a degree of tolerance and compassion as the quality of his life flails under the onslaughts of the brave new industrial times, epitomised by Eugene Morgan’s (Joseph Cotten’s) motor car. Welles is partly nostalgic for the strengths of the pre-industrial era (the strong sense of community and more leisurely pace of life) while gently exposing its shortcomings.

As a piece of cinema, it carries consistently superb performances from its costumed cast who are shot in long, aesthetically beautiful takes that make the most out of the awesome (in size and grandeur) central set (the mansion itself); its visual economy takes your breath away-the death of Minafer Senior, for example, is conveyed in a single  terse, brief image and the whole town is exposed in one long tracking shot as lovers Tim Holt and Anne Baxter break up their relationship. The entire cast wrings the emotions dry. Agnes Moorehead’s shrillness is countered by scenes exposing her loneliness and vulnerability as she gets swallowed up in the shadows of the intimidating domestic set; Joseph Cotten’s gentle Eugene is never allowed to consummate his romantic longings for the exquisitely frail Isobel Amberson (Dolores Costello) through the interventions of mother-fixated George (Tim Holt); and Holt himself, in the film’s most unsympathetic role, finally receives his “comeuppance” in unbearably bleak surroundings, his exalted status having been reduced to an historical footnote .

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