Flightplan (2005)

*. Bunny Lake Is Missing . . . on an airplane. Which is one way, and a rather bold one at that, of doubling down on what was a highly improbable premise in the first place. Remarkably, Flightplan is not as crazy as Otto Preminger’s laughable 1965 film, which took Evelyn Piper’s story and made a joke of it. Far-fetched, yes. But it’s not bonkers.
*. This leads me to comment, again, on one of the more mystifying habits of filmmakers on their DVD commentaries. What I’m referring to is the way they sidestep attribution of what are clear influences and precursors. I’ve mentioned this before in my notes on Don’t Breathe and Villains (both updates of Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs), and Quarantine (an English-language remake of Rec). Well, you can see where I’m going with this. Director Robert Schwentke doesn’t mention Bunny Lake Is Missing once during his commentary.
*. He does mention Hitchcock’s name, in passing, but more by way of denying any significant influence. He also doesn’t cite any of Hitch’s movies by name, like The Lady Vanishes (from which they took not only a lot of the plot but the window-writing clue) or Lifeboat (for its single set, albeit supersized here). I don’t know why you wouldn’t acknowledge such obvious influences. Though to be fair, most contemporary reviews avoided them as well.
*. But I guess none of that matters. Flightplan, like any movie, has to make its own way, and it stands or falls on its merits. Critics didn’t care for it, mainly because of the absurdity of the plot, which really is a doozy. But most reviewers singled out Jodie Foster for praise, which I think is well deserved. It’s a complex part, difficult to bring off, and she delivers. Jodie Foster with her game face on is one of the peak experiences in film, and she’s got it on here. This is especially important given that her supporting players are weirdly subdued. Peter Sarsgaard in particular seems ready to fall asleep half the time.
*. The critics were too hard on Flightplan. As a suspense thriller I think it does well enough. It’s not always gripping, the plot really is silly, the reveal of the villains is underplayed, and the Goose Bay coda should have just been skipped. (Schwentke hadn’t thought it necessary but test screenings changed his mind; I think he should have stuck with his gut.) Still, I found this to be an enjoyable sort of B-picture, with everything around Foster adequately turned out. I think the main thing it lacks is a lighter touch. I don’t mean less serious, but more aware of the story’s roots in the trash of the last days of pulp.

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)

*. I read the novel Bunny Lake Is Missing (by Merriam Modell, under the pen name Evelyn Piper) before I saw this movie. That might not have been a good move. I liked the book and the movie only borrows the initial premise from it before going its own way entirely. And when I say it goes its own way I mean it goes crazy.
*. Apparently director Otto Preminger liked the book but wanted a different ending because he thought Pyper’s lacked credibility. Really. This is one of those weird things I hear reported but can’t get my head around. Preminger thought the novel’s ending lacked credibility so he ordered up one that would have made Jimmy Sangster blush to take credit for? I mean the ending of the book is convoluted, but it’s nothing like the madness that screenwriters John and Penelope Mortimer came up with. And that’s John Mortimer of Rumpole fame, by the way. Apparently Dalton Trumbo and Ira Levin both wrote earlier drafts but Preminger didn’t like them either. I’d be curious to see what they looked like.
*. I guess before I go any further I should insert a spoiler alert. Basically this is a gaslighting story, where Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) drops her little girl (nicknamed Bunny) off at daycare and when Bunny goes missing there’s no evidence she (Bunny) ever existed in the first place. People begin to question the mother’s sanity. As a footnote, the same plot was tricked out again for the 2005 Jodie Foster vehicle Flightplan, about which more on another day.

*. New to the movie is the character of Ann’s brother Steven (Keir Dullea). Instead of a fairly simple kidnapping plot Steven has abducted Bunny because . . . well, because he’s a lunatic and he’s jealous of Bunny getting all of Ann’s affections so he wants to kill her (Bunny, that is). Somehow Ann has remained oblivious to the fact that her brother is such a nut job, despite the fact that the two are very close. Meanwhile, a police inspector (Laurence Olivier) is looking into things and a creepy landlord (Noël Coward!) is putting the moves on Ann, all of this going on as The Zombies play Top of the Pops in the background.

*. Full credit to Olivier and Coward for recognizing the kind of nonsense this was and riding with it. Olivier is low key, which perfectly suits all the silliness going on around him. It’s the kind of part he could play in his sleep, and he looks as though he decided that would be for the best. Coward takes the opposite approach, hamming his part up to the hilt. Both fit in and are wonderful in their roles.

*. Lynley is just adequate as Ann, though given the circumstances that was itself an accomplishment. Dullea is pretty awful. Kubrick would cast him in 2001 based on this movie and I’m wondering what he saw in him here. Someone who could be robotic? The story has it that Coward walked up to him one day and whispered in his ear “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.” Bitchy, and probably a safe bet at the time, but Kubrick saved him from oblivion (if not Black Christmas). In any event, Steven’s meltdown isn’t very convincing. But then, who could have pulled that off?
*. Oh, England. Were you still using oil lamps in the 1960s? My mother collected oil lamps and they were already antiques when she was a kid. Didn’t they have flashlights, or “torches” as they like to say? And what’s this junket stuff? I find from online sources that “junket is a milk-based dessert, made with sweetened milk and rennet, the digestive enzyme that curdles milk. Some older cookery books call the dish curds and whey.” Is this supposed to be a treat? Do people still eat it? Olivier’s Inspector Newhouse thinks it’s yummy. Is it like custard? I want to give it a try but I don’t know where you get it or if it sells here under some other name.
*. According to Dullea, Preminger was no fun to work with. But at least the movie looks nice. The scene of Ann investigating the doll museum is beautiful, as is her escape from the asylum. But these are scenes without any dialogue. They’re meant to be looked at.

*. But it’s not a good movie. Watching Bunny Lake Is Missing is like staring into a room filled with interesting works of art but the lights are all turned off. You keep trying to see something you know must be in there but you can’t make it out. Today it’s a movie with a bit of a cult following, largely due to its credits (I mean the talent, but the credits themselves are arrestingly presented, as always, by Saul Bass) and the general sense of weirdness it has about it. But it really is a tricked-out production running on a Hammer chassis, without any dramatic coherence and an ending so stupid it fails on every level. Maybe the kind of thing everyone should sit through once, just to be aware that it exists. I can’t see any reason for going back to it though.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

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*. Leslie Halliwell (d. 1989): “When Sam Peckinpah made Straw Dogs from a novel called The Siege of Trencher’s Farm he thought it unnecessary to explain to his audience the significance of his new title which, his publicists informed us on request, was taken from an old Chinese proverb. And when Stanley Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange he did not bother to retain the section of the Anthony Burgess novel which explained why it was so called. These almost identical incidents exemplify the kind of arrogance which besets film-makers in the seventies.”
*. And the nineties? I mentioned Halliwell’s observation in my notes on Straw Dogs, but it has an obvious application here too. The title of this film comes from the song “Private Idaho” by a New Wave dance band called The B-52s. You never hear it played in the movie. Even if it had been sampled the results would have had about as much relevance as a Chinese proverb. The lyrics are mostly nonsensical, though you could interpret them as perhaps addressing narcissism and materialism in an indirect way. There’s a lot made of a swimming pool, but there is no swimming pool in Gus Van Sant’s movie.
*. The title then is left up for grabs. Mike is from Idaho. For him it is the site of a strongly dysfunctional origin myth, as well as a state of mind that he never breaks free of. I don’t think we can be any more specific.
*. This may sound like I’m being dismissive, but that’s not how I feel about My Own Private Idaho. I think it’s a decent movie, though one that’s hamstrung by a disjointed script (a yoking together of two ideas Van Sant had been working on for nearly twenty years) and by the presence of Keanu Reeves.
*. It’s not enough to say, as many do, that Reeves “actually isn’t too bad in this movie.” He is very bad. As always.
*. As for the script, the two storylines — Mike and Scott, and Scott and Bob — never come together. The latter is a modernization of Shakespeare’s Henriad (Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V), but the update is taken both too far and not far enough. That is, Van Sant leans on it too much but for no real purpose or effect. The Gad’s Hill robbery, for example, becomes a silly theatrical set piece without making any kind of point. And while William Richert is very good as Bob/Falstaff, there had to be more of him to make his rejection and death more meaningful, or just help make us understand why he’s behaving the way he does.
*. Richard Schickel found the Shakespeare “a desperate imposition on an essentially inert film,” and I wouldn’t disagree with the first part. “Imposition” suggests the sense we have of something being forced onto the material, not arising naturally from it. A less direct pattern of allusion would have worked better.
*. This leads to an overall sense of awkwardness. The people we meet always seem to be performing (the john who dances while Mike cleans, Udo Keir’s Blue Velvet-style floor show, Mike’s brother/father with his “corny,” and phoney, family history lesson, and of course Bob who seems like he’s always walking the boards). No one naturally inhabits their role. Even the slumming Scott never gives the impression that he’s having a good time.
*. The effect is to leave River Phoenix out on a kind of island. He’s the only one at home in his part, and delivers a terrific performance, especially given that the role was originally imagined as something less. He took what little was there and made it bigger. The campfire scene, for example, was apparently his own invention. I think he’s utterly believable as a hustler going nowhere, someone attractive enough to catch the eye of predatory older men but without the charm or intelligence to make any real friends. It’s hard to have a character like that be something other than empty and pathetic, but Phoenix does it.
*. Aside from Phoenix, I don’t care for the movie much. As I say, it’s awkward. The script is both clumsy and obvious, and most of the cast seem uncomfortable. But perhaps polish in such a film would seem out of place.
*. The ending is left ambiguous. Is Mike being rescued by a Good Samaritan, or picked up as road kill by a serial killer? As cynical a guy as I am, I’m optimistic. I think we’ve seen the bad already with the guys stealing Mike’s gear and his shoes, and it’s worth noting that the driver doesn’t thrown Mike in the back seat or the trunk, but puts him up front (not something you’d do with an abductee). But Mike is, once again, only a passenger. You’d like to warn him about where this is heading, but you know there isn’t any point.

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Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936)

*. “Charlie Chan . . . needs no recommendation. The films in which he appears are all genuine detective films as distinct from thrillers, they are always well-made and well-acted.” That’s the novelist Graham Greene in a review of Charlie Chan at the Circus that ran in The Spectator in 1936. Something to keep in mind when considering the split between high and low culture in the first half of the twentieth century.
*. In the featurette included with the DVD release of this movie a pair of film historians (Rush Glick and Courtney Joyner) describe the run of Charlie Chan movies that came out in 1936-37 (Charlie Chan at the Circus, at the Races, at the Opera, and at the Olympics) as when the series “hit full stride,” and that these four indeed were “the best of the Charlie Chans.” It’s not a judgment I’d want to argue with, not because I find myself in full agreement with it but because I think it would be splitting hairs. Were these movies really that different from what came before or after?
*. Still, if you are a Chan fan, like Greene, you’ll probably enjoy this. There’s lots going on, from the introduction of Charlie’s entire family to a raft of suspicious looking circus types. Ten minutes after it was over I couldn’t remember any of the basics, the plot being somewhat tangled, to put it mildly. Despite only being 72 minutes there’s a lot to keep track of. There are threatening letters, forged documents, an insurance policy, a co-owner of the circus who is in financial straits, a shifty snake-handler, a pair of little people trying to keep the show going, a snake deposited in Charlie’s sleeping compartment, a trapeze artist being shot from the sky, a gorilla running loose (twice), and Number One Son chasing after a contortionist and dressing up in drag.
*. The scene in drag has him pushing a pram with a little person (George Brasno) in it who is smoking a cigar. I wonder if that’s where they got the idea for Baby Herman puffing on a fat one in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
*. Yes, this is a movie with a gorilla character in it. The gorilla’s name is Caesar, not to be confused with the chimp leader in the Planet of the Apes franchise. And he looks like most gorillas in movies of the time: like a guy in a gorilla suit. But it’s even worse. Because you suspend your disbelief, going along with the idea that Caesar is indeed a gorilla, but then you find out that sometimes he’s a gorilla and sometimes he actually is a guy in a gorilla suit! And nobody can tell the difference! Which is a hurdle that disbelief can’t be suspended above.
*. It’s familiar ground, to be sure. Things end with the same ruse or trap of luring the villain into revealing himself at the end, a device used in many of the other movies. Odd that the series went back to this same ending so many times, but I guess it works well enough.
*. As for the wisdom of Charlie Chan, the script is now so thick with aphorisms that he seems incapable of communicating in any other way. Most of these are tedious. “Silent witness sometimes speaks loudest.” “One grain of luck sometimes worth more than whole rice field of wisdom.” “Cannot tell where path lead until reach end of road.” “Man who seek trouble never find it far off.” “Question without answer like faraway water — no good for nearby fire.” I can’t say I feel enlightened by any of these. But then, man who seek enlightenment from Charlie Chan movie looking in wrong place.

Pierrot le Fou (1965)

*. Pauline Kael: “It gets to you.” Or else it doesn’t. It hasn’t gotten to me yet. I’ve gone back to some of Jean-Luc Godard’s work recently and developed a greater appreciation for it (and I’ve always liked films like Alphaville and Weekend, at least when I’m in the mood), but Pierrot le Fou still leaves me cold.
*. I’ve never been sure what Godard’s point is here, and (as usual) his own disingenuous and contradictory explanations for what he’s up to are no help at all. There are lots of nouvelle vague stunts but they all seem like empty distractions to me. And I’m not even sure what it was I was being distracted from.
*. There are critics who will tell you what the point is. Which makes me wonder if the point was to enlist the critics. In his Criterion essay on the film Richard Brody refers to Jean-Paul Belmondo as “a handsome, vigorous leading man.” Vigorous maybe, but Belmondo was one ugly fellow. His pairing with stars like Jean Seberg and (here) Anna Karina is a beauty-and-the-beast French specialty. I always thought that was something behind the pairing of Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci (who were married at the time) in Irreversible. Cassel was vigorous too, but not handsome. As David Lee Roth once said, most music critics like Elvis Costello’s music because most music critics look like Elvis Costello. So perhaps Belmondo was Godard’s way of playing film scribes.
*. Within the movie itself we get a cameo by Samuel Fuller at a cocktail party, who tells us that what movies are all about is “in one word: emotion.” An odd invocation of purpose, I would have thought, for a film like this. But in the interview with Karina included with the Criterion DVD she talks of how there’s “a lot of sentiment, there’s a lot of emotions in every scene.” I don’t see any of this, but Brody’s essay suggests I may be looking in the wrong place: “Rather than have actors act out emotions on-screen, Godard wanted to find a way to signify emotion and thus to arouse it in the viewer — so that emotion would go from the filmmaker to the viewer not analogically but in concentrated, sublimated form, by means of style.”
*. I’ve tried, but I have to say I find this explanation by Brody to be even more mystifying than his calling Belmondo handsome. Emotion is not expressed by the actors. I got that. Ferdinand really is a fool, so stuck in his own head that he can’t even see Marianne as a muse, and Marianne is clearly just toying with him. Where the style represents a sublimated emotion, however, escapes me. I didn’t have any emotional response to Pierrot le Fou at all.
*. So what’s it about then? I come back to this because the story is disposable. Godard was writing the script as he went along, and called it “a completely unconscious film.” I couldn’t really follow what was happening. So what does this parade of images and music mean?
*. David Thomson, another sympathetic, even admiring, critic has his own theory. He sees Ferdinand and Marianne as representing the division between words and feeling, which “is not just a weather system for the couple, it’s the storm in Godard’s own head between being a writer or a filmmaker.” Alas, I can’t say I’m feeling much of that either.
*. Thomson also calls this “the last great romantic movie.” This echoes Godard’s own assertion that he wanted “to tell the story of the last romantic couple.” As I’ve said, I don’t see how this applies to Ferdinand and Marianne, neither of whom seem to be in love. And in so far as there’s a masculine-feminine binary being developed I don’t think it’s very illuminating either (as well as being a long way from progressive). Men read Joyce and women read fashion magazines. Welcome to the Age of Ass. And a pop-art movie by a guy who rejected the central tenant of pop — that it’s about liking things — by showing how much he despises all of modern life and culture. Weekend was more honest in its nihilism.
*. I don’t want to pile on the critics here, but Godard really has been a critical darling, and very nearly only a critical darling, throughout his career. In the 2012 Sight & Sound poll Pierrot le Fou ranked as the 42nd-greatest film ever made as chosen by the critics (it actually tied with five other films in that spot). I don’t get it. I don’t find it interesting to think about or even to look at, as devoid of emotion as it is of thought. That may sound like a real put-down, but the thing is I don’t hate Pierrot le Fou. I just don’t think there’s anything to it at all.

Mars Attacks! (1996)

*. When I was looking up information and background on Mars Attacks! I was amazed to find that there were some people who liked this movie when it came out. I didn’t see it on its release, but I’d always heard it was terrible.
*. Well, it is terrible. Given the budget and the talent involved I’d call it spectacularly bad. But it did get some decent reviews. Not raves, but positive enough to qualify as middling. It didn’t deserve that much.
*. Given that it was inspired by a series of trading cards that came out in the 1960s (to which a kind of narrative had been attached) is there much point in complaining about how flimsy the story is? Basically Martians attack. With ray guns. We don’t know why. We don’t know why so many people, including the American president, continue to believe that they come in peace even after they started vaporizing everyone. It’s just stupid.
*. As an aside, in 2012, which was the fiftieth anniversary of the trading cards, Topps came out with a commemorative book with high-quality scans as well as a lot of other related artwork. I recommend the book whole-heartedly. Card 22, “Burning cattle,” helps explain the opening scene here. Nothing in the film does.
*. The all-star cast recalls the celebrity-studded disaster flicks of the ’70s. Every star has their own little story, many of them having no bearing on the main story whatsoever. Jack Nicholson has two roles, one as the president and the other as a Las Vegas casino owner. I have no idea why they bothered with the second. But then I don’t know why they bothered with a lot of these characters. Danny DeVito plays a “Rude Gambler.” He doesn’t even have a name.
*. Once you’ve seen all the stars, and the Martians (highlighted by Lisa Marie as a nitrogen gum-chewing, beehived honey trap), there’s nothing else to be interested in. Director Tim Burton, given far too much liberty to indulge himself, can only spark interest with flippant excess. Much of it is just grotesque though, like Sarah Jessica Parker’s head stuck on a little dog’s body, or poor Rod Steiger being miniaturized and then stepped on.
*. I was going to write more on this but I don’t want to. It’s am embarrassment for everyone involved. The aliens look neat but that’s it. The effects are sup-par, the story slop, and there isn’t a single funny line or interesting idea in the whole damn movie. Costing a hundred times as much, it’s less intelligent and entertaining than the grade-Z SF of the ’60s it was supposedly an homage to. By coincidence it came out the same year as Independence Day, which took the same old idea and played it straight, with equally forgettable results. Just how bad were the ’90s for movies anyway? I think they were pretty bad.
*. Kenneth Turan: “not as much fun as it should be.” Or, as I’d put it: no fun at all.

Relic (2020)

*. Comparisons between Relic and The Babadook were made immediately, and for obvious reasons. But not so much because they were both written and directed by Australian women in their feature debuts, expanding on previous short films — Monster in the case of The Babadook, Creswick in the case of Relic (which gives some idea, by the way, of how long it takes a good idea to gestate, and how much time in development it takes for a feature to come about.)
*. Instead, I’d say the most obvious comparison is thematic. In both films the monsters are real, in so far as they are projections of emotional states. In The Babadook the monster is a single mother afraid of the impact she’s having on her kid. In Relic it’s now the adult child who is anxious over her failures, this time to properly care for her mother, who is slipping into dementia while living in a ginormous house out in the middle of nowhere that can only be arrived at by overhead car shot. Why is she living here alone? Because this is a horror movie. Or at least is dressed that way.
*. The allegory here isn’t subtle. Edna, the mother, is turning into something alien. In visual terms a monster. At the end she will be peeled of her mortal coil and enter a second childhood, now a newborn, no longer a mom but a shrunken mummy. And the granddaughter will realize that this is the same duty she will be pressed into, perhaps sooner than she expects, with her mother.
*. As I said in my notes on The Visit, old people are scary.  They’ve been a source of discomfort since time immemorial You never know what they’re going to say or do, and their bodies are often frightening and/or disgusting. Horror movies have long played this up, and they go to the well again here with Edna’s incontinence and bruising. But Natalie Erika James doesn’t leave it at that. The real horror isn’t what’s happening to Edna but what it’s doing to Kay.
*. This is one of those movies where there was a huge gap between critical and audience scores. Why? In part because critics are more impressed by message movies as it gives them something to write about. The paying crowd don’t like messages much at all, even ones, like this, that are nearly universal in their impact. And the fact is that while James does the scary stuff reasonably well, much of the horror seems divorced from the real point of the movie. I mean, what was up with Sam scrambling around in the walls of the house, seemingly trapped in another dimension? And why, when Kay sees something strange underneath Edna’s bed, does she get up and leave without investigating further?
*. Perhaps it’s just me, but I thought James missed an easy trick in not playing up the horror of the nursing home that Kay visits. Wouldn’t that be a scarier place than the haunted house? It must be a home full of angry ghosts.
*. I don’t like the now interminable stretch of production company icons that precede the titles in today’s movies any more than you, but the Gozie AGBO one really is impressive. Hats off to those guys.
*. I’m also not a big fan of critical clichés, and the DVD box comes with this one on the cover: Relic “turns the haunted house story on its head.” Reviewers are always saying this. And they don’t even give the reviewer’s name this time, just the website. Which turned out to be weird since the review of Relic on RogerEbert.com by Sheila O’Malley, which is actually quite perceptive, doesn’t say this. At least I didn’t see it. I guess it turns up somewhere else on the site. Or maybe it was just floating in the ether.
*. But leaving the author of the review aside, does Relic turn the haunted house genre on its head? Assuming that means it reverses expectations or conventions in some way I don’t think it does. It’s a good twist on the old story, but no more transgressive than The Haunting.
*. Solid performances, though Robyn Nevin as Edna didn’t carry enough of a sense of threat. Shot much too dark throughout, which made the scenes that play on darkness less effective since they don’t contrast with anything else in the picture. Not to mention the fact that it’s hard to see anything.
*. OK, maybe it’s one that’s more for the critics, or just the adults in the room. This isn’t The Conjuring. But it works, and even manages to end on a note of real pathos. It’s not a slow burn so much as a no burn, but that’s by design. The point isn’t horror but healing.

Creswick (2017)

*. A decent horror short, probably of most interest because it was the basis for writer-director Natalie Erika James’s subsequent feature debut Relic (2020). But it’s an interesting enough movie in its own right.
*. The basic idea is that a woman visiting her father discovers that he is slipping into dementia. The old family home is “haunted” in a way that is all the more disturbing for feeling so domestic. The father knows something is not quite right. He is also turning into something strange: something scary and, at first blush, monstrous.
*. The main difference between this film and Relic is that the father’s dementia takes a weirdly expressive form. He’s a carpenter and has a commission to make chairs in his shop. What the daughter discovers, however, is that the chairs are becoming stranger.
*. What I found interesting about this is that the chairs are quite creative, like insect skeletons or the kind of furniture David Cronenberg might have dreamt up. I’d far rather buy one of them and keep it just as a conversation piece than have one of his normal chairs that seem to just be made to a standard pattern. I’ve had friends who turned out chairs like that. Nice, but nothing special. Those dementia chairs, however, are works of art.
*. There is a link that’s often made between madness and art, though I’ve never heard of dementia expressing itself in this way. The mother in Relic works on her own crafts (handmade candles), but they aren’t as visually arresting, or as important to the story as the chairs are here.
*. Most short films tend to come with a punchline, and often I wonder if they’re worth expanding on. The short and feature-length versions of Lights Out offer a good example. I like Relic, but watching Creswick made me think about whether James really added that much that was essential. In retrospect, much of it seems like standard horror padding. That said, even in ten minutes here there’s more to think about than in most full-length films. It may just be an impression, but while we have plenty of (overly) complicated plots these days, our movies seem to be about less and less.

Chimes at Midnight (1966)

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*. Only a crazed editor believes in a pure text of anything, much less Shakespeare. And once in production things tend to get even looser. So while this film is a creative mash-up of several plays (but mostly Henry IV Parts 1 and 2) I think it’s as authentically Shakespeare as anything else out there — true in spirit if not always to the words on the page.
*. It’s not that far removed from Shakespeare either. Some people decry how many liberties Welles took, but I thought he followed the plays pretty closely. His most striking changes don’t involve re-writing lines so much as re-interpreting them.
*. The clearest example of this is in his handling of soliloquies. Falstaff has none, and there are no secrets between he and Hal. Even his breath gives him away when Hal finds his body on the battlefield. He knows, at least on some level, what’s coming at the end, and I think this relates to the wonderful expression he has on his face after he’s been rejected, where he seems almost proud of Hal for what he’s done.

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*. Sticking with this point for just a moment, I wonder if we’re supposed to think that Falstaff knows that Hal and Poins are in the loft listening to his pillow talk with Doll Tearsheet. I think most people assume that he doesn’t, but I get the impression he does. He’s looking straight up, for one thing, and we know that other people saw them up there right away.
*. Overall then I found this a defensible interpretation of the play, though in one spot it struck me as wrong. I thought it highly unlikely that Falstaff would openly confess to a royal official that he’d misused the king’s press damnably.

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*. It seems like almost everyone who has written on this film has said something about how Welles was born to play Falstaff. Roger Ebert: “not only because of the physical similarity but because of the rich voice, sonorous and amused, and the shared life experience. Both men lived long and too well, were at odds with the powers at court and were constantly in debt. . . . There was not something Falstaffian about Welles, there was everything. As a young man he conquered all that came before him (at Shrewsbury a knight meekly surrenders to the old man, awed by his leftover reputation). Welles grew fat and in debt, took jobs unworthy of him, was trailed by sycophants and leeches, yet was loved by good women and honored by those who could see him clearly.”
*. In building such an argument it’s also usually pointed out that Welles first played Falstaff at prep school at the age of 15, so even if it wasn’t a role he was born to play it was at the very least one that he had been practicing for most of his life.
*. I’m not sure how much I’d want to lean on the identification though. I also think it’s worth remembering that if Welles was Falstaff then I think he also makes Falstaff Welles. What this means is making him into a man out of his time, a favourite figure in Welles’s oeuvre, from George Amberson to Quinlan. I don’t really see that in Shakespeare, where Falstaff is more just old than old-fashioned.

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*. In any event, it’s a brilliant performance. Welles both sounds and looks the part. By this time he was getting big, but he wore padding here and he absolutely fills the screen. In armour he looks like a metal dirigible, or frantic charity kettle. Today we would suspect that twinkle in his eyes was digitally added post-production. And as for his reading of the lines, I found it remarkable how he muttered so many of them and yet was always perfectly intelligible. That’s an art.
*. Jeanne Moreau got second billing. For what? I guess because she was a star, and a friend of Welles. She’s hardly on screen. What’s worse, her part, Doll Tearsheet, has little function, and I didn’t really buy Moreau in the role. She’s the only character that I found miscast.

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*. Visually, it’s a treat from start to finish. Of course all the familiar elements are there, like the incredible use of depth and height. Welles had the tavern set built to strict specifications, and the way he manages its long perspectives, underlined by all those beams and rafters, is a marvel. In the castle scenes height is more accentuated, with skyscraper verticals (also developed out of doors with the towering gibbets and erect spears).

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*. But there are also other, less familiar strokes. Welles, much like Hitchcock, always thought of himself as an experimenter, and liked to take risks. Except he knew cinema so well, in his bones, that they were hardly risks.

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*. Take the justifiably famous battle scenes. These are brilliant, in particular for the way they render the emotion and chaos. A key decision was to speed up the action in places by cutting frames. I think if most of us had thought of such an idea we would have quickly rejected it for the comic effect that would result, with the movement accelerated so it looked like a comedy from the silent era playing too fast. It should have been ridiculous. But Welles just knew it would work, and it does, creating a perfect subjective experience of time.

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*. In sum, I think it’s a great film, and great Shakespeare. Despite this, it was not great box office and I don’t think would have been even if it had been given proper distribution. There may be a lesson in there about commerce and art. Shakespeare and Welles were both artists of towering genius, and both had the common or popular touch. But they couldn’t make great trash. It may be that there’s not only a limited audience for the good stuff, but a low tolerance for it as well.

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