TNR Film Classics: ‘Falstaff’ (1967)

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FILM JUNE 24, 1967

TNR Film Classics: ‘Falstaff’ (1967)

What makes movies a great popular art form is that certain artists can, at moments in their lives, reach out and unify the audience—educated and uneducated—in a shared response. The tragedy in the history of movies is that those who have this capacity are usually prevented from doing so. The mass audience gets its big empty movies full of meaningless action; the arthouse audience gets its studies of small action and large inaction loaded with meaning.

Almost everyone who cares about movies knows that Orson Welles is such an artist. Even audiences who don’t know that Welles is a great director sense his largeness of talent from his presence as an actor. Audiences are alert to him, as they often were to John Barrymore, and later to Charles Laughton, as they sometimes are to Bette Davis, as they almost always are to Brando—actors too big for their roles, who play the clown, and not always in comedy but in roles that for an artist of intelligence can only be comedy. Like Brando, Welles is always being attacked for not having fulfilled his prodigious promise; but who has ever beaten the mass-culture fly-by-night system of economics for long? What else could Welles do with his roles in Black Magic or Prince of Foxes or The Black Rose or Trent’s Last Case but play them as comedy? Could one take such work seriously? The mediocre directors and the cynical hacks got money when he couldn’t. His ironic playing is all that one remembers from those movies anyway; like Brando, he has the greatness to make effrontery a communicated shared experience—which lesser artists had better not attempt. It takes large latent talent to tell the audience that you know that what you’re doing isn’t worth doing and still do it better than anyone else in the movie.

 

WAITING FOR A train in Grand Central Station recently, I was standing next to a group of Negroes. To everything that they talked about, one of them—a young girl—said, “There ain’t no way”; and it fit perfectly each time.

Orson Welles’ Falstaff came and went so fast there was hardly time to tell people about it, but it should be back (it should be around forever) and it should be seen. It’s blighted by economics and it will never reach the audience Welles might have and should have reached, because there just ain’t no way. So many people—and with such complacent satisfaction, almost, one would say, delight—talk of how Welles has disappointed them, as if he had wilfully thrown away his talent through that “lack of discipline” which is always brought in to explain failure. There is a widespread notion that a man who accomplishes a great deal is thus a “genius” who should be able to cut through all obstacles; and if he can’t (and who can?), what he does is far beneath what he should have done to be worth consideration. On the contrary, I think that the more gifted and imaginative a director, the greater the obstacles. It is the less imaginative director who has always flourished in the business world of movies—the “adaptable,” reliable fellow who is more concerned to get the movie done than to do it his way, who, indeed, after a while has no way of his own, who is as anonymous as the director of Prince of Foxes. And the more determined a man is to do it his way or a new way, the more likelihood that this man (quickly labeled a “troublemaker” or “a difficult person” or “self-destructive” or “a man who makes problems for himself”—standard Hollywoodese for an artist and, of course, always true at some level, and the greater the artist, the more true it’s likely to become) won’t get the support he needs to complete the work his way. In the atmosphere of anxiety surrounding him, the producers may decide to “save” the project by removing him or adding or subtracting from his work, or finally dumping the film without publicity or press screenings, consigning it to the lower half of double bills. All these things have happened to Welles (Citizen Kane was not big enough at the box-office and it caused trouble; he was not allowed to finish his next picture, The Magnificent Ambersons.) Treatment of this sort, which usually marks the end of great movie careers, was for Welles the beginning. Most of these things have happened to men as pacific as Jean Renoir, whom few would accuse of being “undisciplined.” (Renoir turned to writing a novel, his first, last year when he could not raise money to make a movie, though the budget he required was less than half that allotted to movies made to be premiered on television.) And they are still happening to men in Hollywood like Sam Peckinpah. Such men are always blamed for the eventual failure of whatever remains of their work, while men who try for less have the successes (and are forgiven their routine failures because they didn’t attempt anything the producers didn’t understand). Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar was considered a success and Orson Welles’ Othello a failure. The daring of doing Shakespeare at all was enough for Mankiewicz and his producer, John Houseman, who was to be ritualistically referred to as “the distinguished producer John Houseman” because of this film—not from his early theatre work with Orson Welles—much as George Schaefer is referred to as “the distinguished director” from his specialty of embalming old war horses for television. Mankiewicz’s luck held good on Julius Caesar: it’s perfectly suited to the small screen, where it recently appeared, while Welles’ Othello—with its disastrous, imperfectly synchronized sound track—isn’t even intelligible. How could it be? A movie shot over a period of four years with Welles dashing off periodically to act in movies like The Black Rose to earn the money to continue; and then, his cast scattered, trying to make a sound track reading half the roles himself (not only Roderigo, but if my ear is to be trusted, parts of Iago, too), selecting long shots and shots with the actors’ backs to the camera to conceal the sound problem. This, of course, looked like “affectation.” And his splendid, flawed production—visually and emotionally a near-masterpiece—was a “failure.” Earlier, working on a Republic Pictures budget (for Republic Pictures), Welles had shot his barbaric Macbeth—marred most by his own performance—in 23 days because “no one would give me any money for a further day’s shooting.” In the early fifties, Welles, as an actor, was in top flamboyant form; in roles like his Lord Mountdrago in Three Cases of Murder nobody seemed to enjoy the sheer physical delight of acting as much as he. Still very young, he played like a great ham of the old school—which was marvelous to watch in his Father Mapple in Moby Dick and in The Roots of Heaven. This lesser talent that he could live on was a corollary to his great talent. It was a demonstration of his love of (and prowess in) traditional theatre—like the way Vittorio De Sica (also an actor from adolescence) could go from being the romantic singing star of Italian musical comedy to make Shoeshine and then back again (he, too, to raise money for his own films) to playing in an ornate style, Gina’s lawyer or Sophia’s papa, a whole Barzini gallery of glory-ridden, mustachioed Italians. But Welles was beginning to turn into America’s favorite grotesque. Like Barrymore and Laughton and Brando, he seemed to be developing an obsession with false noses, false faces. He had once, at least, played a role in his own face—Harry Lime in The Third Man, a role he had written for himself; by the sixties he was encased in makeup and his own fat—like a huge operatic version of W. C. Fields. Audiences laughed when he appeared on the screen. He didn’t need to choose the role of Falstaff: it chose him.

WHEN WELLES WENT to Europe, he lost his single greatest asset as a movie director: his sound. (He had already lost the company that talked together, the Mercury players he had brought to Hollywood—Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, et al.—who were now working separately.) Welles had first skyrocketed to public attention on radio, and what he had brought to movies that was distinctively new was the radio sound—with an innovative use of overlapping dialogue—which was used for trick shock purposes, almost playfully, in Citizen Kane. But by the time of The Magnificent Ambersons he was using this technique for something deeper (the family bickering was startling in its almost surreal accuracy; the sound was of arguments overheard from childhood, with so many overtones they were almost mythic). Welles himself had a voice that seemed to carry its own echo chamber; somehow, in becoming the whiz kid of vocal effects, in simulating so many deep, impersonal voices, he had emptied his own voice of emotion, and when he spoke his credit at the end of The Ambersons, audiences laughed at the hollow voice (and perhaps at the comic justice of the spoken credit). Ironically, sound—the area of his greatest mastery—became his worst problem as he began to work with actors who didn’t speak English and actors who did but weren’t around when he needed them (for the post synching which is standard in Europe because the actors don’t speak the same language, and is becoming standard here, too, because it saves shooting-time), Welles compensated by developing greater visual virtuosity.

 

YEATS SAID “RHETORIC is heard, poetry overheard,” and though I don’t agree, I think I see what he means, and I think this assumption is involved in much of the rejection of a talent like Welles’. His work is often referred to as flashy and spectacular as if this also meant cheap and counterfeit, Welles is unabashedly theatrical in a period when much of the educated audience thinks theatrical flair vulgar, artistry intellectually respectable only when subtle, hidden. Welles has the approach of a popular artist: he glories in both verbal and visual rhetoric. He uses film theatrically—not stagily, but with theatrical bravado. He makes a show of the mechanics of film. He doesn’t—if I may be forgiven the pun—hide his tracks. Movies gave him the world for a stage, and his is not the art that conceals art, but the showman’s delight in the flourishes with which he pulls the rabbit from the hat. (This is why he was the wrong director for The Trial, where the poetry needed to be overheard.) I think that many people who enjoy those flourishes, who really love them—as I do—are so fearfully educated that they feel they must put them down. It’s as if people said, he’s a mountebank, an actor showing off. But there’s life in that kind of display: it’s part of an earlier theatrical tradition that Welles carries over into film, it’s what the theatre has lost, and it’s what brought people to the movies.

Welles might have done for American talkies what D. W. Griffith did for the silent film. But when he lost his sound and his original, verbal wit, he seemed to lose his brashness, his youth, and some of his vitality. And he lost his American-ness; in Europe he had to learn a different, more exclusively visual language of film. An enfant-terrible defeated, ages fast. At 51, Welles seems already the grand old master of film, because, of course, everybody knows that he’ll never get in the position to do what he might have done. Governments and foundations will prattle on about excellence and American film companies will rush to sign up Englishmen and Europeans who have had a hit, hoping to snare that magic money-making gift. And tired transplanted Europeans will go on making big, lousy American movies, getting financed because they once had a hit and maybe the magic will come back. And Welles—the one great creative force in American films in our time, the man who might have redeemed our movies from the general contempt in which they are (and for the most part, rightly) held—is, ironically, an expatriate director whose work thus reaches only the art-house audience. And he has been so crippled by the problems of working as he does, he’s lucky to reach that. The distributors of Falstaff tested it out of town before risking Bosley Crowther’s displeasure in New York.

 

YOU MAY WANT to walk out during the first twenty minutes of Falstaff. Although the words on the sound track are intelligible, the sound doesn’t match the images. We hear the voices as if the speakers were close, but on the screen the figures may be a half mile away or turned from us at some angle that doesn’t jibe with the voice. In the middle of a sentence an actor may walk away from us while the voice goes on. Often, for a second, we can’t be sure who is supposed to be talking. And the cutting is maddening, designed as it is for camouflage—to keep us from seeing faces closely or from registering that mouths which should be open and moving are closed. Long shots and Shakespearean dialogue are a crazy mix. It’s especially jarring because the casting is superb and the performance beautiful. It’s not hard to take Shakespeare adapted and transformed by other cultures—like Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, a Macbeth almost as much related to Welles’ as to Shakespeare’s—but the words of Shakespeare slightly out of synch! This is as intolerable as those old prints of Henry V that the miserly distributors circulate—chewed up by generations of projection machines, crucial syllables lost in the splices. The editing rhythm of Falstaff is at war with the rhythm and comprehension of the language. Welles, avoiding the naturalistic use of the outdoors in which Shakespeare’s dialogue sounds more stagey than on stage, has photographically stylized the Spanish locations, creating a theatrically darkened, slightly unrealistic world of angles and low beams and silhouettes. But when this photographic style is shattered by the cuts necessary to conceal the dialogue problems, the camera angles seem unnecessarily exaggerated and pretentious. But then despite everything—the angles, the doubles in long shots, the editing that distracts us when we need to concentrate on the dialogue—the movie begins to be great. The readings in Falstaff are great even if they don’t always go with the images—which are often great, too.

Welles has brought together the pieces of Falstaff that Shakespeare had strewn over the two parts of Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor, with cuttings from Henry V and Richard II, and fastened them into place with narration from Holinshed’s Chronicles (read by Ralph Richardson). Those of us who resisted our schoolteachers’ best efforts to make us appreciate the comic genius of Shakespeare’s fools and buffoons will not be surprised that Welles wasn’t able to make Falstaff very funny: he’s a great conception of a character, but the charades and practical jokes seem meant to be funnier than they are. This movie does, however, provide the best Shakespearean comic moment I can recall: garrulous Falstaff sitting with Shallow (Alan Webb) and Silence (Walter Chiari), rolling his eyes in irritation and impatience at Silence’s stammer. But Welles’ Falstaff isn’t essentially comic; W. C. Fields’ Micawber wasn’t either: these actors, so funny when they’re playing with their own personae in roles too small for them, are not so funny when they’re trying to measure up. The carousing and roistering in the tavern doesn’t seem like such great fun either, though Welles and the cast work very hard to convince us it is. Oddly, we never really see the friendship of Prince Hal—played extraordinarily well by Keith Baxter—and Falstaff; the lighter side in Henry IV, Part I is lost–probably well lost, though we must take it for granted in the film. What we see are the premonitions of the end—Hal taking part in games that have gone stale for him, preparing himself for his final rejection of his adopted father Falstaff in order to tum into a worthy successor of his father, the king. And we see what this does to Falstaff, the braggart with the heart of a child who expects to be forgiven everything, even what he knows to be unforgivable—his taking the credit away from Hal for the combat with Hotspur (Norman Rodway). Falstaff lacks judgment—which kings must have.

John Gielgud’s Henry IV is the perfect contrast to Welles; Gielgud has never been so monkishly perfect in a movie. Welles could only get him for two weeks of the shooting and the makeshift of some of his scenes is obvious, but his performance gives the film the austerity it needs for the conflict in Hal to be dramatized. Gielgud’s king is so refined—a skeleton too dignified for any flesh to cling to it, inhabited by a voice so modulated it is an exquisite spiritual whine. Merrie England? Falstaff at least provides a carcass to mourn over.

Welles as an actor had always been betrayed by his voice. It was too much and it was inexpressive; there was no warmth in it, no sense of a life lived. It was just an instrument that he played, and it seemed to be the key to something shallow and unfelt even in his best performances, and most fraudulent when he tried to make it tender. I remember that once, in King Lear on television, he hit a phrase and I thought his voice was emotionally right; it had beauty—and what a change it made in his acting! In Falstaff Welles seems to have grown into his voice; he’s not too young for it anymore, and he’s certainly big enough. And his emotions don’t seem fake anymore; he’s grown into them, too. He has the eyes for the role. Though his Falstaff is short on comedy, it’s very rich, very full.

He has directed a sequence—the battle of Shrewsbury—which is totally 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. How can one sequence in this movie be so good? It has no dialogue and so he isn’t handicapped: for the only time in the movie he can edit, not to cover gaps and defects but as an artist. The compositions suggest Uccello and the chilling ironic music is a death knell for all men in battle. The soldiers, plastered by the mud they fall in, are already monuments. It’s the most brutally somber battle ever filmed. It does justice to Hotspur’s great “O, Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth.”

Welles has filled the cast with box office stars. Margaret Rutherford, Jeanne Moreau, Marina Vlady are all in it (though the girl I like best was little Beatrice Welles as the pageboy). And Falstaff is the most popular crowd-pleasing character in the work of the most enduringly popular writer who ever lived. Yet, because of technical defects due to poverty, Welles’ finest Shakespearean production to date—another near-masterpiece, and this time so very close—cannot reach a large public. There ain’t no way.

This article originally ran in the June 24, 1967 issue of the magazine.

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posted in: film, bette davis, charles laughton, falstaff, george schaefer, harry lime, jean renoir, john barrymore, john houseman, joseph l. mankiewicz, orson welles, prince, sam peckinpah, macbeth, the black rose to

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