Orson Welles’s Forgotten Masterpiece

By Malcolm Jomes for the Daily Beast, 2 January 2016

Critics turned up their noses in 1966 at Chimes at Midnight, Welles’s film about Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Now it’s being re-released and you can see what you missed.

Even today, Orson Welles has a troubled reputation. There are still those who will argue that he peaked with Citizen Kane and never fulfilled his promise. Frankly, and this is no knock on Kane, but I find that preposterous. How can a man who made The Magnificent AmbersonsTouch of Evil, and The Lady From Shanghai—three of the greatest films ever made—be said to have not fulfilled his promise? But even so, it is a complicated track record. There are the films butchered by the studios, including Ambersons and, until recently, Touch of Evil. There are films, such as The Trial and The Immortal Story, that are rarely seen, and others, such as It’s All True, that were never finished. And then there is Chimes at Midnight, Welles’s movie about Shakespeare’s Falstaff, which has almost never been seen at all, by anyone, since its initial release in 1966.

Panned when it opened in the U.S., quickly removed from circulation, and thereafter tied up in disputes over ownership, it has rarely been available on tape or DVD—unless, like me, you were lucky enough to own a pirated copy. For any Welles fan, it has always been a sort of Holy Grail, not least because it was Welles’s favorite of his films, the one of which he said, “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up. I think it’s because it is, to me, the least flawed… I succeeded more completely, in my view, with that than with anything else.”

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