Orson Welles once said that if any one of his films would qualify him for entry into heaven it would probably be Falstaff (also known as Chimes At Midnight.) As credentials for salvation go, Falstaff
is probably as impeccable as any — it's one of the greatest movies
ever made, so great that it almost seems to inhabit a new medium all its own.
Visually it's a torrent of dense, lyrical, consistently
images — an explosion of plastic invention unequaled since the days
of silent cinema. But it's a talkie, and its words are not just
any words — they're the words of Shakespeare. It's not too much
to say that Welles' images, with their musical rhythms of movement
within individual shots and from shot to shot, constitute a co-equal
element with Shakespeare's poetry. Image and word fly, dance,
crack, soar and sing together. There has never been anything
quite like it.
The soundtrack has technical flaws, however, which make it hard to
appreciate the full scope of Welles' achievement. The production
was beset with severe financial problems — almost all the dialogue had
to be dubbed, and Welles had to supervise the re-recording at a
distance. The line readings are uniformly superb but the sync is
not always perfect and the “room tone” surrounding the dubbed voices is
inconsistent and often disorienting.
I don't know if the original sound elements still exist — if they do,
modern digital technology could certainly be applied to correct the
flaws, though it would probably cost a small fortune.
As things stand, one needs to accept a slight disconnect between
and dialogue — which is no more than saying that the Parthenon
has sustained a bit of damage through the years. One makes
The film is not available on DVD in this country. There is a
barely acceptable all-region Brazilian edition in NTSC format which can be had online, but it's
not optimized for a widescreen monitor and the transfer of both sound
and picture is mediocre. Still, if you've seen the film on a big
screen, the Brazilian DVD can evoke the experience well enough.
I saw Falstaff at the Paris
Theater in New York in the summer of my 17th year. During the
battle scene my hair stood on end — I think I probably trembled with
excitement. I know what cinema is, I thought to myself — the
secret of it is here, in this film. It was more a gut feeling
than a practical or intellectual insight, but the moment has inspired
all my thinking about movies ever since. A hundred years from now
people will still be studying Falstaff in an effort to apprehend the craft and mystery of movies.