*. 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.
*. 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.
*. 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.
*. 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.
*. 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).
*. 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.
*. 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.
*. 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.