Orson Welles’s FALSTAFF: One of the Greatest Movies Ever Made
On the day when Hollywood gives out it's esteemed Academy Awards, I came across an ad for Falstaff that quotes all the excellent reviews it received when it opened in March of 1967. Of course, the most important review for an art house movie at that time, was the verdict from The New York Times. Unfortunately, The Times was one of the few bad reviews Falstaff received.
What is clearly absurd, however, is how Falstaff could receive no Academy Award nominations in 1967, especially against such lightweight films as Doctor Dolittle and Thoroughly Modern Millie, which both received multiple nominations!
Today, of course, many film writers regard Falstaff as Orson Welles's best film, and I agree completely. Logically, that means Falstaff is also among the best movies ever made, since it certainly surpasses the brilliance of Citizen Kane.
So below, I've included the rave reviews that were quoted in the picture's original ad campaign, which sadly couldn't overcome that single bad review it got in The New York Times.
"FALSTAFF IS PHENOMENON ENOUGH WITH ITS BEAUTIFUL, ORIGINAL, BIZARRE, IDIOSYNCRATIC, CHARMINGLY COCKEYED BUT INFALLIBLY INTERESTING notions of how it might have been if Shakespeare had had the wisdom to devote an entire chronicle to Falstaff. EXQUISITELY SUBTLE!"
—Joseph Morgenstern, Newsweek
'WELLES DOES JUSTICE TO HIS OWN GENIUS AND THAT OF SHAKESPEARE! ONE COULD NOT ASK MORE OF 'FALSTAFF'! Welles' 'Falstaff' is a Rabelaisian behemoth, amusing, outrageous, imaginative and lusty! The casting is excellent! His directorial genius is evident in every scene!"
—Judith Crist, World Journal Tribune
THIS IS ORSON WELLES'S BEST FILM SINCE 'CITIZEN KANE'! The movie reaches full stride in the long battle scene—SURELY ONE OF THE GREAT BATTLE SEQUENCES ON FILM!"
—Robert Kotiowitz, Harper's Magazine
'WELLES IS AN AUTHENTIC MASTER OF THE GRAND MANNER IN GESTURE AND IN SOUND—HE OVERWHELMS YOU! A ROUGH AND READY, BIG AND BOUNCY SHAKESPEARE COMPILATION OF FALSTAFF. POETIC ELOQUENCE!"
—Archer Winsten, N. Y. Post
"BRILLIANT CINEMATIC RE-VIGORATION OF SHAKESPEARE'S HENRY PLAYS! VISUAL POETRY-LYRIC, COMIC, EPIC!"
"THE MAN OF GENIUS ORSON WELLES HAS PERFORMED TWO OR THREE ASTONISHING FEATS AT ONCE! It was up to Welles to make several Falstaffs into one and this Falstaff amounts to a new work in the Shakespeare canon. Mr. Welles plays Sir John with a relish and force and tenderness that make his Falstaff ours!"
—Brendan Gill, The New Yorker
WELLES FINEST SHAKESPEARIAN PRODUCTION TO DATE—ANOTHER NEAR MASTERPIECE... Welles has directed a sequence, the battle of Shrewsbury, which is unlike anything he has ever done. Indeed unlike any battle ever done on the screen before. It ranks with the best of Griffith, John Ford, Eisenstein, Kurosawa—THAT IS WITH THE BEST EVER DONE!
—Pauline Kael, The New Republic
And here is the complete review from The New York Times:
Screen: Orson Welles is Falstaff in Uneven Film: Cannes Movie Arrives at Little Carnegie
By Bosley Crowther - March 20, 1967
Nothing has happened to Orson Welles's "Chimes at Midnight" since I saw it last spring at the Cannes Film Festival to cause me to alter my opinion of it.
Although they have changed the title to "Falstaff" (which some people called it at Cannes) and are said to have tried to do something to make the dialogue track less fuzzy and incomprehensible than it was, it is still a confusing patchwork of scenes and characters mainly, from Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2," designed to give major exposure to Jack Falstaff, performed by Mr. Welles. And it is still every bit as difficult as I found it then to comprehend what several of the actors are saying, especially Mr. Welles.
This difficulty of understanding Mr. Welles's basso profundo speech, which he seems to direct toward his innards instead of out through his lips, makes it all the more difficult to catch the drift of this great, bearded, untidy man who waddles and cocks his hairy eyebrows and generally bluffs his way through the film.
Is this Falstaff a truly jovial person? Does he have a genuine wit and a tavern-companion's grand affection for the fun-loving scapegoat, Prince Hal? Has he, deep down, a spirit of rebellion against stuffy authority? Or is he merely what he looks like—a dissolute bumbling, street-corner Santa Claus?
Evidently Mr. Welles's reading of Falstaff ranges between a farcical concept of him and a mawkish, sentimental attitude. He makes the old pot-bellied rascal an armor-plated buffoon in the midst of a wild and brutal Battle of Shrewsbury, in which Prince Hal slays the brave Henry (Hotspur) Percy (for which Falstaff claims credit, of course).
He makes him a sort of Jackie Gleason getting off one of his homilies when he gives the great apostrophe to Honor, much of which I simply couldn't understand. And he chokes up like a soap-opera grandma when he is suddenly banished by the new Henry V, giving out with the cruel "I-know-thee-not-old-man" speech. Mr. Welles runs the gamut, as they say.
But his is still an inarticulate Flastaff. It is a big, squashy, tatterdemalion show, and it has no business intruding so brashly in the serious Shakespearean affairs of the Lancasters, the Percies and the Mortimers, which Mr. Welles does get to from time to time in this freely selected composite of scenes from Shakespeare, as it were.
When he does — when he breaks away from Falstaff and his puffy-faced lowlife friends such as Margaret Rutherford as Hostess Quickly, Michael Aldridge as Pistol, Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet and several others who are stuffed costumes more than characters — he gets to some rather solemn snatches of Shakespearean speeches and scenes.
John Gielgud gives out with several as the conscience-burdened Henry IV, and Keith Baxter does more than nicely with the chameleon moods and speeches of Prince Hal. While his character is more that of a cut-up — a juvenile scamp — in the early scenes with Old Jack, he makes an impressive princeling in his later confrontations with his old man. Norman Rodway's Henry Percy is also impressively strong — that is, the few times we see him. And Alan Webb's Justice Shallow is a cute old crock.
The picture, a Spanish-Swiss production, was shot in Spain, so the scenery, especially that around the walled city of Avila, has a noticeable Spanish tone. Mr. Welles's black-and-white cameras are very busy most of the time, rushing around and sweeping in for mammoth close-ups. This accentuates the patchwork effect.
Mr. Welles had always wanted to play Falstaff. Now he's had his chance. Those who are interested may see him at the Little Carnegie.
FALSTAFF ("Chimes at Midnight"); adapted by Orson Welles from William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts I and II; directed by Mr. Welles; produced by Emiliano Piedra and Angel Escolano; presented by Harry Saltzman and released by Peppercorn-Wormser, Inc. Film Enterprises. At the Little Carnegie Theater, 57th Street east of Seventh Avenue. Running time: 115 minutes.