Posts Tagged ‘ Orson Welles ’

“Love on my terms …”

Citizen Kane at 75

1. Leland’s recollection (“Not that Charlie was ever brutal, he just did brutal things.”).
Leland (Joseph Cotten): “Hello, Charlie. I didn’t know we were speaking.”
Kane (Orson Welles): “Sure we’re speaking, Jedediah. You’re fired.”

Citizen Kane, which for long periods has been saddled with the title of “greatest film ever made,” had its general American release 75 years ago this past month, on September 5, 1941. (It had premieres in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles the previous May. The interval from then until its general release was filled with threats, legal review, unwillingness of distributors to show the film, etc.) The movie never enjoyed great popular success. It failed to recover its relatively modest cost during its initial run, although a large part of that failure was owing to the determined opposition of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who used his vast media empire to bluster and smear those associated with the project (including director Orson Welles, who was repeatedly called a Communist by Hearst newspapers) and whose associates vaguely threatened reprisal because Hearst himself was the none-too-secret model for the main character.  The major Hollywood studios, which owned the distribution networks at the time, did what Hollywood does best—they cravenly capitulated, restricted distribution, and fearing the worst, acted to avoid bad publicity. (It would not be the first, or even the most spectacular, of Hollywood’s cowardice-induced paralysis. Its actual cravenness to the powerful and rich and even just the conventional helps explain why it so often champions movies about those who stood up to the powerful and rich and the conventional.) Louis B. Mayer of M-G-M, a friend of Hearst, even offered RKO $842,000, well above the production costs, to destroy the negative and all prints.

The Beatification of Citizen Kane

The critical response, in contrast to the tepid box office response, was enthusiastic. In fact it was the unanimous acclaim of the leading newspaper and magazine critics (outside the Hearst empire, of course) that goaded RKO to release the film. Many critics wrote that it was flat-out the best movie they had ever seen. Most pointed to the innovative technical and stylistic aspects of the film. The acting was also considered superior.

2. Boss Jim W. Gettys watches as Kane makes his one campaign promise:

2. Boss Jim W. Gettys watches as Kane makes his one campaign promise: “My first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W. Gettys!”

The enthusiasm of the critics was unable to persuade distributors to risk the wrath of the unethical and megalomaniacal Hearst and his vast empire of yellow journalism outlets. It was not just that the empire could libel with impunity, it also could refuse the distributors’ advertisements in the local papers for their other films. Smear was also a tactic. “Communism,” even before World War II, was an effective way to ruin a reputation, and the Hearst empire more than once accused Welles, who had been actively anti-Fascist in the New York theater, of being a fellow-traveller. When a target tarred with communism, everyone or thing that was associated with it, however indirectly, even (or especially) a small town movie theater, would be tarred as well. Once it decided to exhibit it, RKO threatened to sue the studios if their distributors refused to accept the film. So some paid for it, but didn’t show it. Others only showed it a few times. The movie really had no chance for box-office success, and in Hollywood that is the one criterion that movies are judged by.

So as with all American movies of the time, it descended into oblivion after a short run. At the time there was not the secondary markets for films that exist today (television, art houses, home entertainment, for example). So when a film ended its run, it usually ended its claim on public attention. Ultimately it was French intellectuals who resurrected interest in the film.

Jean-Paul Sartre saw the film in a private showing in the United States in 1945 and reviewed the film in L’Ecran français in August. He allowed that the film “was the work of an intellectual,” but that was hardly complementary to Welles, for Sartre, who after failing to generate interest in a literary underground in occupied Paris, spent his time during the war writing radical pieces that never offended the Nazi censors and after the occupation began espousing the uselessness of intellectualism in art, as something divorced from politics and therefore backward looking. Sartre was promoting art that emphasized the future, and one that had a decidedly political orientation, and Citizen Kane, he felt, was “a story in the past tense” where “everything is dead.” (Welles was not even the worst offender here. Sartre felt that all of Zola’s work portrayed a “false disorder” where everything obeyed the “narrowest kind of determinism.”) Citizen Kane was not the kind of work that would be useful for the French, Sartre concluded, however much it was of interest to the Americans, presumably in the cultural hinterlands.

4. The pivotal meeting between Kane and Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore). Kane:

3. The pivotal meeting between Kane and Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore).
Kane: “What are you laughing at, young lady?” …
Alexander: “You’re funny, Mister. You’ve got dirt on your face.”

When the movie was shown in Paris in July 1946, however, French critics, not carrying the cultural baggage of Sartre, saw the film as revolutionary. Roger Leenhardt, who was an important film critic and who had argued that sound technology provided the means by which works of genuine realism could be made, hailed Citizen Kane as a work of genius. Bazin, Leenhardt’s protege, expanded on this observation in an essay tracing the history of cinema from its beginning to the emergence of post-war Italian neo-realism. In this history Bazin found Citizen Kane as its most important inflection point. Bazin believed that the cinematic convention of camera work which had developed in D.W. Griffith’s time had calcified a decade into the sound era. Shot editing had allowed the director to focus the audience’s attention on particular aspects of a scene. This may have been essential in pre-sound days (where cards could hardly support all of the audience cues) but by the late 1930s it had become a lazy convention that obstructed, rather than aided, a realistic version of events. Bazin explained it this way in “An Aesthetic of Reality”:

“Classical editing, derived from Griffith, separated reality into successive shots which were just a series of either logical or subjective points of view of an event. A man locked in a cell is waiting for the arrival of his executioner. His anguished eyes are on the door. At the moment the executioner is about to enter we can be quite sure that the director will cut to a close shot of the door handle as it slowly turns. This close-up is justified psychologically by the victim’s concentration on the symbol of his extreme distress. It is this ordering of the shots, this conventional analysis of the reality continuum, that truly goes to make up cinematographic language of the period.”

Bazin wrote that Welles in Citizen Kane broke with this tradition by restoring “to cinematographic illusion a fundamental quality of reality—its continuity.” He did this by several means but principally by a static shot with a wider angle than was traditional and deep focus allowing the audience to see from the back of the visual set to the foreground in equal definition. This also had a number of collateral consequences, such as allowing the viewer freedom to survey the entire scene and requiring the actors to act more naturally rather than confining them to close-up speaking and reaction shots.

These features were expanded upon and detailed in the 1950s in pieces by Bazin and his followers in the journal he founded, Cahiers du cinéma, the French vehicle that gave cinema, for the first time,  a claim to intellectual and cultural importance. The Cahiers writers had their own programme, related mostly to criticisms of the then current state of French film, and Kane provided what seemed to be a point for point counter-example for the failings of French cinema. But above all, Bazin argued that the director was, or should be, truly the auteur of the film, much as a novel was the author’s work. Kane happened to nicely prove this point because Orson Welles, had been able, as a result of his string of successes and resulting publicity in New York theater and national radio, to negotiate with the RKO a contract that gave him complete control over the film, an unheard of liberty (and one that made long-time studio functionaries so jealous that they laid in wait to pounce on what they hoped would be Welles’s failure to deliver). Moreover, Welles’s theatrical background gave him experience in every aspect of stagecraft that a film required, from costumes to make-up to sets to lighting to script editing, and so forth. And he used all of his experience, combined with the impetuosity of youth and that of the brilliant associates he collaborated with, in his first film.

4. After the defeat. Kane: “Toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows.”

Much of the match between Welles’s instinct and Bazin’s prescription for the New Wave, came simply from Welles’s theater background. For example, a great deal of the problem of staging a play is to have the characters project into the audience (usually by facing it). Bazin objected to the cliché of cutting from one full-face close-up to the other when two characters were talking. Welles, who never liked the close-up shot to begin with, simply staged the movie as he would stage a play, often with both characters facing the audience (see, e.g., #1 , #3, #4, #14, #19). Ceilings, Bazin’s indicium of the restraints on human activity as well as further visual evidence that the characters were inhabiting a realistic environment, simply were the natural result of the “frog’s eye view” (as Marlena Dietrich put it much later), a signature of Welles’s cinematography from then on—and similar to the way audience members in the orchestra saw a play (seee.g., #4, #15, #16). And that special “trick” that Welles’s and cinematographer Gregg Toland worked so hard to achieve (and did so spectacularly)—deep focus—was theatrical rather than typically cinematographic. Plays are static shots in which characters moved from front to back as well as side to side and therefore were inherently more three-dimensional than the flat screen had become. The convention that had grown so stale in film, the facial close-up, was of course unknown in theater and something that Welles only sparingly used in his film career, and was another instance where Bazin’s objections lined up with Welles’s instinctive practices.

There was some resistance to Bazin’s sweeping assessment of Citizen Kane, mostly by those who pointed out that certain stylistic innovations had been used, or at least prefigured, by others, such as films with scenes having greater than normal depth of field and those employing non-chronological narrative. While he was able to distinguish such counter-examples, his point, Bazin said, was larger than the invention of particular visual or stylistic points; rather, it was that the particular use of them together formed a narrative style, which so differed from convention that it created a new cinematic language:

“The novelty of language, cinematic or otherwise, must be understood from the point of view of style, not from the point of view of vocabulary or syntax. … [E]ven if Welles did not invent the cinematic devices employed in Citizen Kane, one should nevertheless credit him with the invention of their meaning. His way of ‘writing’ is undoubtedly his own. I don’t mean the mere architecture of the story, although the ordering of the film’s scenes is worthy of our consideration. In this sense the connection between Citizen Kane and the novels of  Dos Passos is obvious. … The substitution for the classical story of a kind of jigsaw puzzle, whose pieces are provided by the memories of a series of witnesses, can hardly be traced to The Power and  the Glory (1933) or even Marie-Martine (1943).”

5. Kane brins back a President's niece as the staff of the Inquirer watches through a window.

5. Kane brings back a President’s niece as the staff of the Inquirer watches through a window.

The last sentence was a response to Sartre who claimed the narrative structure derived from those two movies, the later of which, Sartre failed to note, was released two years after Citizen Kane. The earlier movie, The Power and the Glory, written by Preston Sturges, was noted by both Sartre and Borges (see below) as a possible influence on the structure of the Welles’s movie. Bazin showed how the non-chronological nature of Sturges’s screenplay functioned in a way unlike Citizen Kane. Nevertheless, Pauline Kael, in her later attempted take down of Orson Welles, followed Sartre and Borges in claiming the structure of Citizen Kane to be borrowed from it. She based her argument only on recollection, however, since a print of the film had been lost until after her essay (discussed below) was published.

When Citizen Kane had a limited revival run in 1956, Andrew Sarris was writing for Film Culture. Sarris had not long before spent a year in Paris where he became associated with Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, both of whom had deeply imbibed Bazin and contributed to the Cahiers du cinéma agenda.  Within four years he became film critic for the Village Voice, where he would become America’s foremost critic and from which he espoused the film theory of the Cahiers du cinéma crowd. But in 1956 Sarris wrote an influential reappraisal of Citizen Kane, this time the focus was on the narrative structure and “meaning,” not its technical innovations.

6. Thompson at Thatcher Library. The formal, implacable rules of the institutionalized history of the great and powerful obscure rather than reveal genuine motivations.

6. Thompson watches the ritual at Thatcher Library. The formal, implacable rules of the institutionalized history of the wealthy and powerful are designed to obscure rather than reveal genuine motivations and justify wealth and power.

Sarris saw Citizen Kane, not as a collection of self-referential techniques nor as a film that subordinated content to style, but rather as a work that has “inner consistency of theme, structure, and technique.” He viewed the theme as the progressive hollowing out of Kane’s inner life and the narrative means of the Rosebud detective story:

“Within the maze of its own aesthetic, Kane develops two interesting themes: the debasement of the private personality of the public figure, and the crushing weight of materialism. Taken together, these two themes comprise the bitter irony of an American success story that ends in futile nostalgia, loneliness, and death. The fact that the personal theme is developed verbally while the materialistic theme is developed visually creates a distinctive stylistic counterpoint. Against this counterpoint, the themes unfold within the structure of a mystery story.”

The themes are embedded in the overall structure of the film. The movie begins with the “intense reality of the fence” (the objective world) and then moves into the “fantastic unreality of the castle” (the world that Kane had constructed for himself). At the end, the camera performs the reverse operation: “[T]he mystic pretension of the castle dissolves into the mundane substance of the fence. Matter has come full circle from its original quality to the grotesque baroque of its excess.”

“As each flashback unfolds, the visual scenario of Citizen Kane orchestrates the dialogue. A universe of ceilings dwarfs Kane’s personal stature. He becomes the prisoner of his possession, the ornament of his furnishings, the fiscal instrument of his collections. His booming voice is muffled by walls, carpets, furniture, hallways, stairs, and vast recesses of useless space.”

The distinctive camera work of the film is not simply a matter of style, nor even just a means of enhancing the realism of the scenes. It is a metaphorical illustration of the theme. Story and style worked together to comprise a work of art.

This summing up became the accepted critical consensus. And for a decade it became commonplace to consider Citizen Kane the most influential, if not the “best,” film of all time.

The Kael-ing of Citizen Kane


7. To Thatcher (George Coulouris) the Inquirer was an outrage. And for Kane, his populism was perhaps merely a weapon for his unresolved Oedipal rage.

Pauline Kael rose to fame (and obtained her job at the New Yorker) for being a contrarian. She championed Bonnie and Clyde while critic at middlebrow McCall’s. The magazine would not print her review. She was eventually let go because she condemned every big budget movie Hollywood produced. Her point of view was somewhat contradictory. She equated popularity with trash (and she condemned popular movies), but claimed that movies arose from trash (and disliked movies that strayed too far from their origins): “Movies took their impetus not from the desiccated, imitation European high culture, but from the peep show, the Wild West show, the music hall, the comic strip—from what was coarse and common.” And nothing represented “desiccated, imitation European high culture” more than the auteur approach to film and its American representative, Andrew Sarris, who would become her nemesis. She was therefore an odd choice to write the introduction to Citizen Kane (the movie lauded by “desiccated, imitation European high culture”) when Bantam Books decided to publish the movie’s shooting script (and other production notes). But in hindsight it was entirely predictable that she would use the opportunity to attempt to take down Welles, who was the big game of hunters like herself of “auteur theory,” an approach she entirely rejected (at least then).

The essay she produced, entitled “Raising Kane,” was the longest extended work of her career. It appeared in two successive issues of the New Yorker in February 1971 before it was later that year published in The Citizen Kane Book by Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Little, Brown. Kael’s goal was to show that Welles was not solely (or principally?) responsible for the movie. Since nearly everyone responsible for major aspects of the movie had publicly attested to Welles’s guiding hand in each department, she was left with only one area to attack Welles—the screenplay.

Welles took only co-writing credit together with long-time Hollywood screenwriter (and recent Welles collaborator) Herman J. Mankiewicz. At the time Welles had engaged him to produce a draft of the story they agreed on, Mankiewicz was nearly an outcast in Hollywood owing to his alcoholism and unpredictable behavior. Welles had previously used him to create radioscripts from popular books for the weekly national radio program, The Campbell Playhouse, that Welles and John Houseman produced for CBS Radio. When Welles arrived in Hollywood with his new RKO contract, he had the idea of filming a version of Heart of Darkness shot by a camera recording events from the narrator’s eye view (a story that he adapted for screen himself). When that concept proved prohibitively expensive, he began casting about for a new project. He discussed the matter with Mankiewicz, and after some time they came up with the idea of creating an original screenplay based on a mogul in the likeness of William Randolph Hearst. Mankiewicz was full of gossip about Hearst and even knew him slightly, having attended parties given by Marion Davies, the actress who Hearst had set up in California to be away from his New York wife’s prying eyes. (Davies would become the model for Susan Alexander in the movie.) Welles agreed to hire Mankiewicz to come up with the first draft, but first, wary of Mankiewicz’s notorious binge drinking, Welles set him up in a sanctuary outside of Los Angeles and engaged his long-time producer John Houseman to ensure Mankiewicz worked rather than drink. From there Mankiewicz produced a first draft, with some help from Houseman, that they sent to Welles. Other drafts were generated from the comments and personal visits from Welles and eventually a script was produced. The shooting script included in The Citizen Kane Book was the final written draft, approved by RKO, but even it differs drastically in some places from what appeared on screen. Nevertheless, Mankiewicz probably saw his work as the last (and undoubtedly best) item in his legacy and began claiming that Welles had little, if any, input. When the screen writing was the only Oscar (out of nine nominations) won by Citizen Kane (Hollywood in the end had its revenge on Orson Welles, the boy wonder; he never won another Oscar), Mankiewicz publicly claimed the he only, and not Welles, deserved all the credit and that the writing was what carried the movie.

Relying solely on reports of comments by Mankiewicz (who had been dead for two decades at the time) and information from his living allies, and not calling Welles (or most of those involved in the production) at all, Kael used the occasion of her supposed appreciation of Citizen Kane to make the case that Welles had no responsibility for the script of the movie except, perhaps, for occasional superficial “consultations” with Mankiewicz. The essay is not a model of persuasive writing. It begins with a long detour into the history of the “coarse and common” of American film history, especially the “flapper” and “zany” comedies of the silent and early sound era. She details Mankiewicz’s roles in many of those movies and then attempts to show how those movies led into the “girl reporter” movies like Front Page. Mankiewicz had nothing to do with Front Page, but Ben Hecht did, and he was a friend of Mankiewicz and also a newspaperman from New York before coming to Hollywood, just like Mankiewicz, so she weaves it into her thread. She describes the “girl reporter” movies that followed, showed their similarity to earlier comedies and argued that these were predecessors to Citizen Kane. Since Citizen Kane had not even a superficial resemblance to these comedies, other than it also involved journalism (but no girl eporter), she makes the assertion, evidently to persuade those who never saw the film or were planning to, that Welles’s film derived from the “commercial comedy tradition” —and is “practically a collection of blackout sketches … ,” the form that Mankiewicz had specialized in. It was a bizarre form of analysis, but her “direct” evidence that Welles had no responsibility for the script was even worse. Kael’s argument depended for direct evidence on industry gossip solely from those who had axes to grind against Welles (a large enough group), failed to elicit testimony from Welles or anyone in the know who was not openly hostile to him and ignored Welles’s life-long history of effectively re-writing novels, stories and even plays for his own scripts for plays, radio programs and later movies. (I have shown how Welles “re-wrote” even his sainted Shakespeare, by condensing, re-arranging scenes and distributing dialogue among different characters, all without changing any word, but substantially refitting the story. See Shakespeare, Freud, Machiavelli and Welles: The “Prince Hal Problem.” With less hallowed writers Welles simply rewrote the story.) Just the next year he converted Booth Tarkington’s novel into perhaps his best scripted movie, The Magnificent Ambersons, without any additional help. And Mr. Arkadian was based on a novel he wrote and converted into a screen play (again without assistance).

Raymond's recollection: Emerging from Susan's room, now broke up, holding the globe, Kane first mouths

8. Raymond’s recollection: Emerging from Susan’s room, now broken up, holding the globe, Kane first mouths “Rosebud,” as the Butler (Paul Stewart) watches.

When she finally reached the point of “analyzing” the film, Kael simply produced a list of the things she liked and the things she didn’t, the laziest form of any kind of criticism. Oddly, the things she didn’t like tended to be attributable to the script, so if Welles had nothing to do with it, he escaped her worst volleys. But even in listing her gripes, she makes superficial and often flatly wrong assertions. I will give one example only because one occasionally hears it repeated by those who dislike the film. Kael was the source of the complaint, that one often reads in “fan” critiques of the movie these days, that no one was in the bed chamber to hear Kane utter “Rosebud,” and therefore the entire movie is based on a gaffe—the search for his “last words” that no one could have heard. She doesn’t elaborate, but I suppose she came to this belief because after Kane utters the remark and drops the globe, we see only a single nurse opening the door and entering the room to draw a sheet over Kane’s head. But there is nothing to show (such as a pan of the room) that no one else was in the room before she entered. In fact, the movie itself contradicts Kael’s assertion. Near the end of the movie, the butler Raymond (Paul Stewart) tells the reporter of the two times he heard the term. After we see Kane emerge from the room he has destroyed, picking up the globe and mouthing “Rosebud” at the entrance where Raymond stands, the scene returns to Thompson questioning Raymond:

Thompson: I see, and that’s what you about Rosebud?

Raymond: Yes. I heard him say it that other time too.

The “other time” is in Kane’s room, as he lay dying. Raymond was, therefore, waiting with him as he slept. As one would expect, someone that close to death, especially a wealthy man who could afford it, would have attendants around the clock (as Susan Alexander did, on doctor’s orders, after her suicide attempt). But if there were any question about what Raymond meant (did Kael think that Raymond was referring to a third time Kane said it?—but of course her review was based on a decades old memory), the shooting script, which Kael’s essay was supposed to be introducing, makes clear, what Raymond meant:

Thompson: And that’s what you know about Rosebud?

Raymond: That’s more than anyone knows. I tell you, he was a little gone in the head—the last couple of years anyway—but I knew how to handle him. That Rosebud—I heard him say it that other time too. He just said Rosebud, then he dropped that glass ball and it broke on the floor. He didn’t say anything after that, so I knew he was dead. He said all kinds of things that didn’t mean anything. [The Citizen Kane Book, p. 286.]

Evidently Kael specialized in barbs, not close reading of a film’s text, something entirely at odds with The New Yorker‘s reputation.

The essay would substantially damage Kael’s own reputation. The negative response was so overwhelming that her supporters advised her not to reply, hoping that it would be forgotten. (The Age of Movies, the Library of America’s anthology of her work, does not include it, even though it is her most remembered work.) Sarris, of course, responded, as well as other critics and a host of actors and production personnel. Kael’s piece was so littered with factual misstatements that it is hard to ascribe it solely to carelessness. The most effective critique, however, was Peter Bogdanovich’s in Esquire, which met the charges point by point, assailed her good faith, but most devastating for Kael’s reputation contained the disclosure that she had misappropriated the research of U.C.L.A. scholar Howard Suber, who gave it to her under her representation that his essay would be published along with hers in the book. Instead, she incorporated his work into hers without attribution. Kael it turns out had fewer ethical restraints than the Inquirer newsmen portrayed in Citizen Kane.

9. Leland and Bernstein discuss the nature of selling out, while a dancing Kane is reflected in the window between them.

9. Leland and Bernstein discuss the nature of selling out (the new reporters or maybe even Kane himself), while a dancing Kane is reflected in the window between them.

Finally, the main thesis of her essay was decisively put to rest by Robert L. Carringer, who studied the seven completed drafts of the script before the shooting script. The first draft is a sprawling series of rumors about Hearst booted about among journalists, many of them libelous, but in any event entirely different from the movie. It contained, for instance, scenes in Italy showing how Bernstein and Kane plotted to take over the Inquirer without tipping their hand to Thatcher. Kane’s son does not die and becomes a major character with Kane at Xanadu. Susan Alexander betrays Kane with a lover, who ends up dead after Kane discovers the affair. And so forth. It was a problematic (from a legal point of view) draft, but also an undisciplined melodrama. Carringer shows how Welles took this draft and over several successive versions molded the work to a tighter story reflecting his own view of the movie. Welles not only supervised the writing, he did extensive re-writes himself. Carringer’s conclusion was as follows:

“In the eight weeks between the time [Mankiewicz’s original] material passed into Welles’s hands and the final draft was completed, the Citizen Kane script was transformed, principally by him, from a solid basis for a story into an authentic plan for a masterpiece. Not even the staunchest defenders of Mankiewicz would deny that Welles was principally responsible for realization of the film. But in light of the evidence, it may be they will also have to grant him principal responsibility for the realization of the script.”

Kael’s essay had the reverse effect of what she intended: It resulted in the digging up of proof that Welles was intimately involved in the script writing, just as he was involved in every other aspect of the film. If anyone in film history was an auteur, it was he. And as the years passed, Kael gradually acceded to the view that the director was the “author” of the film and engaged in analysis accordingly. She had given up (but never admitted the defeat). The essay, however, had an unfortunate impact on writers for the general public, however. Citizen Kane, as well as Welles’s later works, were treated as things that should be interpreted by reference to insider’s views of how the films were made. Instead of treating the movies as works of art, capable of analysis on their own right, almost all popular writers on Welles and his works treat him and them as subjects for rehashing insiders’ gossip. Perhaps that lingering effect is why Citizen Kane is currently losing its allure to first-time viewers and seen as the province for Hollywood trivia buffs or those devoted to outdated and “desiccated” European film theory.

Citizen Kane’s Diamond Jubilee

At 75 Citizen Kane no longer generates the enthusiasm it used to (it has even been knocked off the top spot in several film society all-time lists) nor the controversy. In fact, it seems to have gone unremarked on, unlike its 70th anniversary, which produced a new digital transfer. The customer response on Amazon or shows that younger viewers mostly fail to understand, or are actively hostile to, the acclaim that the film received. Used to the Hollywood production values of today, some of which are the same as the cliches Citizen Kane challenged in 1941 (rapid cutting, pinpoint close-ups to direct audience attention, over-reliance on musical score to provide emotional content) and some which are new (rapid plot development to cover lack of characterization, reliance on suspense and shock in routinized ways, emphasis on special effects), first-time viewers of Citizen Kane today seem to have little interest in what they see as a cinematic language that has been superseded. The question is, Does Citizen Kane have more than historic interest?

10. Bernstein's recollection:

10. Bernstein’s recollection: “It wasn’t money he wanted. Thatcher never did figure him out. Sometimes even I couldn’t.”

To answer that question, instead of starting with questions of the cinematic style of the film and whether the elements were original or effective, let’s start with what Welles said he was attempting to say with the film. When it was leaked in January 1941 that the film was based on the life of Hearst (the production of the film had been a closely guarded secret), Welles issued a statement to the press denying that the movie was so intended. (The statement is found at Brady, pp. 283-85.) Welles said that he wanted “to make a motion picture which was not a narrative of action so much as an examination of character.” He intended to show that a single personality could generate numerous different opinions, even from those who knew him best. For this, he said, he needed “a public man—an extremely public man—an extremely important one.” He first considered making him President of the United States but discarded the idea probably because it would be difficult to have the audience believing a counter-factual man in real historical times when the real figure was so well known. Welles then concluded that the only other character who could have as decided an influence on public life in American democracy was a wealthy newspaper publisher.

“It is possible to show a powerful industrialist is potent in certain phases of government. It is possible that he can be good or bad according to the viewpoint of whoever is discussing him, but no industrialist can ever achieve in a democratic government the kind of general and catholic power with which I wished to invest my particular character. The only solution seemed to be to place my man in charge of important channel of communication.”

So Welles fixed on the tycoon of a newspaper empire. And because the character had to represent a sort of New Man, he had to be in charge of papers that pioneered yellow journalism.

But Welles had a second part to his central premise. He was to make this a story of failure, not success.

“I did not wish to portray a ruthless and gifted industrialist working his way up from a simple lumberman or streetcar conductor to a position of wealth and prominence. The interpretations of such a character by his intimates were too obvious for my purpose. I therefore invested my character with sixty million dollars at the age of eight so that there was no considerable or important gain in point of wealth possible from a dramatic point of view. My story was not, therefore, about how a man gets money, but about what he does with his money—not when he gets old—but throughout his entire career. A man who has money and doesn’t have to concern himself with making more, naturally wishes to use it for the exercise of power.”

11. We see Susan Alexander through the sky light of El Rancho before the camera travels through it to encounter her for the first time.

11. We see Susan Alexander through the sky light of El Rancho before the camera travels through it to encounter her for the first time.

The method of examining this character was also specified. He chose a psychoanalytic approach. He would try to find the underlying reason why such a person would “fail” despite his ample means of “succeeding,” and he would use the character’s closest friends and foes to probe his psyche. Power is what Kane obtained, what he wielded. But there was something else he was looking for, even if he did not consciously know it, and it was why he threw everything he had away in the vain hope of acquiring. It was the purpose of the “Rosebud” theme to symbolize his deeper, subconscious driving force. The story is about what Kane is secretly looking for and ultimately how he fails in his quest. Welles would later admit that his analysis of the character was “‘dollar-book’ Freud, but, nevertheless, it’s how I analyze the film.” We’ll come back to this “admission” later.

Now, this statement of what was intended shows how different the movie was from what we see made today. Yes, there are similar characters that provide models for such a film now. One need only consider the former CEO of Fox News. But no one would consider examining such an unappealing and distasteful character today in the same way that Welles did then. All our political characters today are cardboard. Political villains, especially, beggar the limits of our empathy whatever political viewpoint we have. So Hollywood would never consider making such an examination. And independent films have settled into examination of issues other than public ones. (Television programs are these days more likely to make such examinations but given the episodic nature of such series, they are not comparable to movies.)

Moreover, the method chosen, psychoanalytic, is foreign to current film. Greed explains everything in our day, probably because our society has reduced everything to commodities with a price. It would therefore be a meaningless exercise today to set out to find why someone with wealth and power acts as he does, because most see it as self-evident. But let’s assume this method is fruitful and see where it leads in this movie. After all, all art has to be examined in relation to what was intended. If we rejected that proposal, there is nothing more to say about a work.

12. The Newsreel, from which we learn the formal chronology of his life, is a flat construct. The reports are not looking for depth, only a

12. The Newsreel, from which we learn the formal chronology of Kane’s life, is a flat construct. The reporters are not looking for the real story, or even depth, only a “hook” to finish their artifice.

What drives the narrative of this film is the supposed search for the meaning of “Rosebud.” It makes the film something of a psychological detective tale. But why are we looking for it? This is not how Freud or his disciples would examine a man’s psyche. No, the quest is launched by the makers of a newsreel, journalists of the type that were replacing the yellow journalism of newsprint. And while they didn’t operate quite like Kane’s papers did (they did not start with a conclusion and work backwards), they nonetheless began with the assumption that the story of this man’s life could be made engaging, understandable or entertaining with a “hook.” And they arbitrarily picked the dying word of Kane. So the quest is the quest of the new mass information disseminators into the life of one who operated under old principles. But both were motivated by the same thing, mass consumption of entertaining information.

Not to get ahead of ourselves but let’s consider how this quest ends for the new journalist, Mr. Thompson (William Alland). Although he speaks to the surviving characters closest to Kane at the key moments and even consults the memoirs of Kane’s surrogate father, he does not answer the question he was given: What did “Rosebud” mean? This, despite the fact that he talked to the butler Raymond, who twice heard Kane say the word and told Thompson of the glass globe, a clue that Thompson makes no attempt to follow up on. As he leaves Xanadu and its hordes of items that Kane possessed (among which we will find the meaning of the word), Thompson delivers himself of his conclusion that the search was a waste of time. Rosebud was simply the missing piece of a puzzle, and in any event one word could not sum up a man’s life, he concludes. And with that the search is over, and nothing has been learned of interest to the new journalists.

13. Before we see Kane, we see the window which encloses him. The camera will penetrate that barrier.

13. Before we see Kane, we see the window which encloses him. The camera will penetrate that barrier.

But we have watched the search, and we have observed the principal crisis points of Kane’s life, their immediate causes and their long-term effects. We have seen a pattern that makes up the arc of his psychic life, and we can come to certain conclusions about Kane’s inner life. In his famous 1941 review of the film Borges (who saw the film in Argentina, where it ran a month before the general U.S. release) said that it represented what Chesterton called a “labyrinth with no center”—the most frightening thing of all. By that he meant, not that the movie was a pointless puzzle (as some have interpreted it), but that Kane himself was a “simulacrum, a chaos of appearances.” Whether we agree that is so or not, Borges is at least partially right in seeing this as the “psychological and allegorical” solution to the “metaphysical detective story” we embarked on. The new mass journalists found none of that interesting. In fact, the entire movie, its comments on Kane’s character, the intimate details of his life, the things that only his confidents knew, the conclusions we can draw about the meaning of his life, all of what we find compelling is what the new mass media considers unimportant. And so, at least in part the movie says that journalism is not the means to make the “metaphysical quest.”

Yet in less than an hour and a half, we understand Kane and to a certain extent, at least, can empathize with him. And this might be the most surprising thing of all. How can this be when even those closest to him had no clear picture of him? Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloan), a follower whose identity is so merged into Kane’s that we don’t even hear his first name mentioned, says to Thompson (#10): “Thatcher never could figure him out. Sometimes even I couldn’t.” Chekhov called the soul, what Borges said was a labyrinth without a center, a cave.  But Bernstein, who was there “from before the beginning” and now “after the end,” at least knew what to look for to find out: Whatever it was that Kane wanted. And Bernstein also knew that, maybe, Rosebud was “something he lost. Mr. Kane was a man who lost almost everything he had.”  He was talking about a man who died in a castle he built from the stones of Europe among gardens and bestiaries and the “loot of the world” enough to “fill 10 museums” (in the words of the Time on the March newsreel). And yet it is Bernstein, the only one to profit (materially) from his association with Kane, the only curator of the unsullied image of Kane, the outsider to old line Anglo-Protestant elites—it is this Mr. Bernstein who comes closest to uttering a Christian morality on the destruction: For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

The other witnesses don’t see Kane’s life in moral terms. The banker, Thatcher (George Coulouris)—the substitute father (and mother), the man responsible for raising him—saw Kane only as a series of ledger book entries. His final conclusion on Kane’s life, as he tells a bemused congressional committee, is that Kane was a “communist.” Leland (Joseph Cotten), his oldest and perhaps only friend, his social equal, or perhaps superior because his place was conferred by his parents not sudden, randomly achieved wealth, saw him, in the end, as having “behaved like a swine.” His butler Raymond summarizes his view: “He was a little gone in the head sometimes, you know?” Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) suffered the most at the hands of Kane, but she also has the most ardent and conflicting emotions. But she cannot articulate her feelings, she can only suffer alone. Perhaps a man’s intimates are incapable of fully judging him, because they can only see him in terms of their own values, desires and losses.

If journalistic fact and the recollections of intimates do not bring us to the center of the labyrinth, then what does? It is here that the techniques silently carry the load. Until then there was no movie that used all the technical resources available to allow the audience to view inside the “cave.” Visual techniques, of course, are the most obvious. And while Bazin highlighted the static frames and deep focus, Welles also employed his own version of montage and cutting. But the main visual effect of the movie is the omnipresent camera, a sort of divine eye that we get to view through. It is a tool, unlike the flat, dispassionate view of mass communicators (#12), which can penetrate depths, not simply gaze at surfaces. From the very beginning, when we are confronted with the “No Trespassing” sign on the fence of Xanadu, we see what the camera can do. In this case it slowly floats above the fence and proceeds into the grounds and in a fairy tale way we see “once upon a time.” It proceeds through the remains of a menagerie, gondolas in a strange lake which reflects a castle, what looks like a crumbling gazebo, an abandoned golf course, a haunted gardens until finally we see the fairy tale castle itself with one light on. A close-up shows a barred window with a light that suddenly goes dark. And then we are on the inside watching a snow storm from the inside of a globe. The camera, we see, can penetrate barriers and see inside small globes. We then watch a man die. The odd feature of the camera, allowing us to penetrate through windows is seen again when we first visit Susan Alexander at El Rancho in Atlantic City. We first see her trapped in the club from its vista through the sky light (#11). The glass does not prevent us from traveling into the enclosures to meet Susan directly, however. But our freedom highlights her enclosure, perhaps from sorrow, but certainly from having had contact with Kane. For no one is visually enclosed more than Kane. And whatever the camera is (psychoanalysis? empathy? divine insight?), it first must disengage Kane from the confines he is held in before we can understand him. The camera portrays his boundaries, visually, and then allows us to invade them.

As Mary Kane signs the papers transferring her son to the banker Thatcher, her husband looks on impotently and Charles is seen through the window in happy ignorance.

14. As Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead) signs the papers transferring her son to the banker Thatcher, her husband (Harry Shannon) looks on impotently, while Charles is seen through the window in happy ignorance.

The camera constantly tracks Kane, even when he is not the center of the scene’s attention. It is a visual reminder of his narcissistic personality disorder but it also holds him up to view as a specimen being observed, as the object of the scientific inquiry. But even more the enclosures show how he is boxed in, how his freedom is circumscribed, how he became what he was. He would have died behind a castle window out of sight, were it not for the camera’s ability to pierce it (#13). From the very first time we encounter him (outside the newsreel, which itself is a visual box without depth), we see him becoming enclosed. At first he is playing as a child in the snow but by a reverse tracking shot we see him slowly enclosed in a box which becomes smaller until we see it is the window in the background during the grown up’s decision of his future (#14). Although the discussion is about him, he far from their presence and enclosed in a visual cage.

The “framing” of Kane is ubiquitous in the film. When Bernstein speaks of him to the reporter after his death, he gazes on the framed portrait of Kane in his office (#10). Kane drafts his “Declaration of Principles,” which he feels will make the Inquirer as important to the people of New York as “the gas in that light,” at the window, and we see him from the outside, “imprisoned” by the window frames, while Leland wistfully gazes into the “open: world (#18). At the moment of his greatest professional triumph, when he has acquired the entire reporting staff of the rival Chronicle, he celebrates by dancing with hired call girls. As we watch Leland and Bernstein discuss the consequences of hiring reporters who hewed to political line opposite of the Inquirer‘s, we see Welles in the background, his figure reflected in the window between them, as though he was ever present, but always hemmed in (#9).

15. through the doorway into Susan Alexander's apartment.

15. Susan and Kane in her room for the first time seen through the doorway of her apartment.

The camera pictures Kane as transfixed by enclosing borders at his highest, his lowest and his most critically important moments. The staff of the Inquirer have planned a homecoming when he arrives from his celebratory vacation in Europe. He runs off embarrassed after he drops off a society notice. The staff is perplexed until his notice is read: he is engaged to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick). After they run to the window, we see the couple for the first time through the frames of the window, as though fenced in below (#5). Emily, we soon find out form Bernstein, “was no Rosebud.” But by complete accident (#3) Kane allows himself to believe he has another chance. When Kane first enters Susan Alexander’s room, we see them both framed by the doorway (#15). He reflexively shuts the door, and we hear her say, when she opens the door so we can see them again: “Hey! Excuse me, but my landlady prefers me to keep the door open when I have a gentleman caller.”

But Kane was given no second chance. The visual enclosures presaged his lack of freedom. His future was as determined as his past. At the moment of his greatest political triumph, when he is delivering his last speech at a time when everyone is expecting him to be elected governor, his implacable enemy, Jim W. Gettys, watches him from a balcony whose view encloses (confines?) Kane, as he is vehemently promising to jail Gettys (#2). The two political enemies confront each other in a scene from which only one will survive unscathed. And the confrontation takes place with the combatants face to face, penned in by Susan’s doorway, too confined for an arena, but the match is not of physical prowess, only a matter of will (#16). During this his most fateful encounter, when Gettys confronts Kane with the reality that his political life, his family and ultimately his only friendship requires him to do something that he cannot—bend to the will of another that fate made superior to him for once—he is visibly ensnared and shadowed. Everyone but Kane knows it. And Gettys delivers his disdainful conclusion when Kane refuses the one way out Gettys offers him: “If it was anybody else I’d say what’s going to happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you’re going to need more than one lesson. And you’re going to get more than one lesson.”

Kane and Gettys fight for their lives as Emily Norton Kane watches Kane.

16. Kane and Gettys. both bathed in the darkness of their intent, fight for their lives as Emily Norton Kane watches her husband from inside Susan’s apartment.

I won’t continue for the second part of the movie this list of visual cues that show how Kane’s behavior is strictly, almost mechanically determined. Kane operates under the illusion that he is in control. As he tells his wife, his great political nemesis and Susan all incongruously assembled to hear him: “There’s only one person in the world to decide what I’m going to do—and that’s me.” But like a figure from a Greek tragedy, Kane had it almost right. It is true that no one else will decide for him what to do. But he is mistaken that he makes the decision. In the second half of the film, his life with Susan, we see his life following the same deterministic rules. Despite what he has seen, he is still trapped in circumstances and behaviors beyond his volition. When the end comes, and Susan leaves him despite his inept attempt at change, he has an explosion of uncontrolled rage, destroying Susan’s room. When he emerges, the camera captures him framed in a doorway (#8). He is still trapped by external (or by the logic of the story, internal) forces that compel his conduct. As he heads towards his room, where he will disappear from our sight, we see visually the final image of his doom: the series of his identical images in the mirrors, all enclosed in the same way, all heading for the same tomb, his final enclosure (#17).

17. Our last view of Kane, and the last expression of his fate. All possible versions of him are doomed to suffer identically.

17. Our last view of Kane, and the last expression of his fate. All possible versions of him are doomed to suffer identically.

What constrains Kane, the condition that determines his behavior and ultimately his fate, is something that now has a name. Kane suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. We know this now because in this interminable election season we’ve seen in on display in a particularly vulgar version. The DSM-5 describes what we’ve seen in the movie (and in the GOP candidate): Grandiose feelings of superior intelligence, success and power, excessive need of submissive love and admiration from others, inability to empathize with others, wanton exploitative conduct, a belief in entitlement that has been wrongfully denied. The populist demagogue is an exemplar of this condition. It’s not an objection that the DSM was not around when Citizen Kane was made any more than that Sophocles did not know about the Oedipal Complex or Shakespeare about Represession when he wrote Hamlet. Usually diagnostics imitate art.

18. Kane drafts his Declaration of Principles as Leland seems to look for freedom from the enclosure.

18. Kane drafts his Declaration of Principles as Leland seems to look for freedom from the enclosure.

The hints in Citizen Kane are unmistakeable. Leland tells Thompson that Charlie never gave anything to anyone he only “left you a tip.” Susan complains that Kane never loved her, he only gave her things, nothing that really mattered. And Kane’s method for obtaining admiration, consent and love is to make promises. But his closest friends know what his promises mean. When he drafts his famous Declaration of Principles, Bernstein warns him (jokingly) against making promises he can’t keep. At his campaign rally he teases about promises he won’t state because he is too busy preparing to fulfill them. And twice with Susan, after all he had supposedly learned, he makes promises that he immediately breaks.

The first promise to Susan is made after her suicide attempt. He doesn’t understand her intense desire to quit singing, something that he had poured all his hopes into after his bitter electoral defeat. She tells him, plaintively, “You don’t know what it’s like to feel that people—that a whole audience doesn’t want you.” This is a concept that a narcissist has a particular way of dealing with, and Kane blurts out, “That’s when you’ve got to fight them.” But then, seeing that she cannot mount such a fight, assures her, “All right. You won’t have to fight them any more. It’s their loss.” But as Susan eases into a look of relief, the scene dissolves into a night view of the castle of Xanadu, accompanied by the ominous Power motif (discussed below), which in turn quickly dissolves into a resentful Susan working on a jigsaw puzzle. Clearly, Kane had not taken her interests into account in this last move. Instead it seems that Kane has taken refuge in priveleged isolation to shield himself from the humiliating stares of a public who knows of his political failure and the failure of his wife’s musical career which he used to justify or at least replace the former.

Kane’s second promise to Susan was one that he knew was his last hope of adulation, the response he repeatedly mistook for love. It was day following the night that he struck her for the accusation that he did not love her. The next day she packed and announced to him that she was leaving. For the first time he is reduced to begging:

Kane: Susan, please don’t go. Please, Susan. From now on everything will be exactly the way you want it. Not the way I want it—but your way.

[Script direction: She is staring at him. She might weaken.]

Kane: You mustn’t go. You can’t do this to me.

[Script direction: It is as if he had thrown ice water into her face. She freezes.]

She realizes that Kane is only thinking of himself. Her needs mean nothing, and with that resolution she leaves.

Kane’s tragic flaw is that he lacks the capacity to love another. When Leland tells him that he demands love only on his own terms, Kane agrees, he thinks wisely, by saying those can be the only terms that anyone knows (#4). And it is not just that he is incapable of giving love, he seeks only a particular kind of return on his gestures. We learn that Kane responds, not to personal love, but to abstract adulation. When confronted with the choice to withdraw from the gubernatorial race or see his family destroyed by scandal, he refuses to withdraw. Even when Susan pleads that he consider his “little boy,” Kane’s only concern was that Gettys was trying to take from him “the love of the people.” Leland told the reporter Thompson that Kane told him after he first met Susan that she represented “a cross-section of the American people.” The love he pursued from her, then, was of the same sort that Gettys was trying to deny him. Susan finally leaves Kane when she realizes that she represents nothing more to him than ego gratification.

19, Kane (Buddy Swan) resists leaving with Thatcher. Jim Kane (Harry Shannon):

19. Kane (Buddy Swan) resists leaving with Thatcher.
Jim Kane (Harry Shannon): “What that kid needs is a good thrashing!
Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead): That’s what you think, is it, Jim? … That’s why he’s going to be brought up where you can’t get at him.”

Now, if we can return for a brief moment to Welles’s comment about “‘dollar-book’ Freud,” we can see how the movie treats the cause of Kane’s narcissistic imprisonment (the etiology, if we choose to be a bit more pretentious). In “On Narcissism” Freud developed his early explanation both of the development of the libido and the component parts of his proposed psychic structure (then called id, ego and ego ideal). He also introduces the concepts of repression and sublimation. Freud asserted that libido pre-dated the construction of ego in a child. While the ego is being developed, the child’s libido is object-directed (primarily toward the mother). (Originally the child knows no difference between inward and outward affection, because its ego is absent or only rudimental. It is the life-long, and impossible quest, to return to the state where one is united with everything.) As it extends its libido outward, a child’s (healthy) narcissism is depleted. Only the return of love by his love-object (mother) can restore it. An ideally healthy adult is one whose ego ideal is constructed (normally by the father) while his outward-libido remains in balance with his ego-libido (supplied by the mother), and one’s ego is eventually sustained on its own by fulfillment of the imagined expectations of the ego ideal. When there is a disturbance in the normal development a person can substitute narcissistic object choice for normal anaclitic object choice. (Thus a profound narcissist, just like Freud’s example of homosexuals and others whose sexuality did not develop “normally,” has a stunted desire for sexual objects of libido.) However an adult develops, the equation is the same as during ego formation. Extending libidinal energy outward (to an object of love) depletes narcissistic investment in one’s ego; being loved, however, restores one’s self-regard and enhances one’s ego. (The risk is that extending love without return results in the diminishment of self. On the other hand, receiving love without concomitant investment results in enlarged self-regard. The goal of the narcissist is to obtain love without giving it; instead the narcissist offers things or promises he has not intention of keeping.)

We can speculate that Welles had a fairly good grasp of basic Freudian theory, not only because he repeatedly draws on Freud throughout his careen in describing characters (including Shakespearean ones) or even because Freud’s world-view was much more prevalent in the early half of the 20th century than it is now. But also Welles himself experienced similar repression and displacement when the physician Maurice Bernstein moved into his house, replacing his father and becoming the primary influence on Welles. Bernstein remained so important to Welles, that he flew to Los Angeles to take care of Welles during the production of Citizen Kane when Welles broke his ankle. And Welles named Everett Sloan’s character after him, perhaps as an intended clue. (But with Freud, there is generally no unintended clue, only subliminal ones.)

One further textual clue suggests that orthodox Freudian explanation of narcissism is intended to be depicted perhaps comes from the nature of the relationship between Kane and Susan. Because the narcissist has substituted narcissistic object choice for normal anaclitic object choice (that is, ordinary heterosexual erotic object), the narcissist seeks abstract rather than erotic love. Leland suggested the Kane was interested in Susan for what she represented, not what she was (and he laughs about it). We then see a scene of a coquettish Susan meeting Kane (#3). But she is quite proper in observing the conventions, even insisting that the door be kept open. Susan herself twice insists that before they were married she had no sexual relations with Kane. The first time was during the encounter in her apartment between Kane and Gettys, where she indignantly asks “What story?” The second time was when she first spoke to Thompson. He questions her as though she were a gold-digger, she insists that he was only interested in her voice and she only got music lessons out of it. The marriage was forced by the publicity and loss of the election. (Even Leland says that Kane’s motives with respect to Susan was to eliminate the innuendos of the newspaper headlines.)

20. The Declaration of Principles, which Leleand

20. The Declaration of Principles, which Leleand “had a hunch it might turn out ot be something pretty important.”

Whether or not Welles intended such a deep digging into psychoanalytic theory, it is clear that he was pointing to a quasi-Freudian explanation of Kane at the very least. (He, after all, said as much.) Kane is strongly attached to his mother when we see him at the age of eight. She has shielded him from the influence of his father whose values would normally be instilled to form his ego ideal (see #19). But he is nevertheless taken from her to live with Thatcher. Whatever unresolved Oedipal rage Kane had against his father, he now directs against the banker. Kane therefore had no chance for a well-adjusted ego with anaclitic object choice (in Freud’s terms). Instead, Kane and Leland enjoy a raucous and undisciplined adolescence at various colleges most of which they were thrown out of (according to Bernstein). Kane’s rage against his surrogate father never dissipates (his Oedipal complex is never resolved), however. When Thatcher, as head of the bank that takes back ownership of Kane’s newspaper empire in the Depression, asks Kane what he would like to have been (a startling question for a man who was supposed to have raised him), Kane answers: “Everything you hate!”  With his damaged ego development, Kane has little chance to have a normal psychic life. We see the strategy he would employ his entire life from the beginning of his role at the Inquirer (#20). Kane expected immediate adulation in exchange for promises to be paid later. But as Leland observed looking back: “He never gave anything away. He just left you a tip.” As for love, Leland said: “That’s why he did everything. That’s why he went into politics. It seems we weren’t enough, he wanted all the voters to love him too.”

So there is support for Welles’s “dollar-book Freud” but the visual framing of Kane and the testimony of his intimates are not enough to make us viscerally feel the desperate constraining limits of Kane’s psyche and how it came about. Two other techniques are required.

First, there is the musical (and more broadly aural) soundscape of the film. Whenever Welles had the technical capabilities (which some of his self-funded movies lacked), he always devoted considerable attention to its sound ambiance and musical score. His long radio career, which he pursued simultaneously with his theatrical one, taught him the emotional impact of sound. When he became executive producer of his own nationally broadcast shows he closely supervised sound production and engaged in a variety of experiments. With RKO, Welles had become associated with the studio that was most interested in the sound of its films and the one with the most advanced sound equipment. On Citizen Kane Welles was able to use sound engineers with radio backgrounds. Even so, it was Welles’s close supervision and innovative concepts that made the sound of the movie as groundbreaking as was the visual style of the film, according to James G. Stewart, the film’s sound engineer, who also credited Welles with teaching him the principles of sound aesthetics which he thereafter used for the rest of his career.

Many of Welles’s sound techniques enhanced the realism of scenes, much as Bazin noted his visual style did. For example, after we see Susan begin her aria in the staged opera, the camera pans slowly upward through the rigging. As our view ascends higher, we hear Susan’s voice diminish, like aural perspective. This was not done by simply lowering the volume of the recorded sound, but rather by increasing the microphone’s reverberations, a technique used in Welles’s radio productions. When Kane delivers his political speech in the great hall, Welles declaimed his speech with the timing of one speaking in a large, cavernous hall with sound reflection. In postproduction the reverberation rate of his voice was manipulated to simulate the sound of the echo in such a venue. Scenes at Xanadu have a cavernous sound, usually produced in postproduction. Much of the sound involving multiple sound sources, like the scene where Welles is dancing and the new reporters are celebrating, was recorded live, with especial care given to sound levels from different sources so dialogue can be heard and yet the scene sound genuine.

The soundscape was not only designed to add realistic details to the film but also to plumb psychological depth. Much of this was done in connection with Bernard Herrmann’s musical score or the score in connection with recorded sound. The best example of the latter is the musical-sound confusion during the montage of Susan’s final opera tour. As images flash of the efforts made by Susan, the exasperation of her singing coach, newspaper headlines and the reactions of Kane and the audience, the sound is a cacophonous mix until the end when only her voice is heard then the frequency reduced so that it sounds as though she is running out of steam just as the light filament (by then the only image) burns out. Usually, however, it is Herrmann’s music which underlies scenes requiring sound interludes, for example the montages of photographs.

Herrmann invested a great deal of thought and time into the score and he did so with the active collaboration of Welles. He made a decided choice to reject the prevailing approach by Hollywood veterans such as Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Dimitri Tiomkin and relative newcomer Miklós Rózsa, all of whom employed full symphonic orchestras to play their version of lush late Romantic music along the order of Richard Strauss. The music was inserted after the movie was a finished print, to enhance the emotional or dramatic intensity of particular scenes often during dialogue. Herrmann’s music was largely subtle, produced by small groups of unusual instrumentation and never during the most dramatic scenes, which depended exclusively on acting and mise-en-scène. The quiet background added an unexpected drama because it was so unusual then (and now).

Herrmann composed fully structured pieces for set scenes, especially montages. Welles often waited for Herrmann to compose a piece and shot or cut the scene around the composition. The best example is the famous “breakfast montage” (see video below) where Welles portrays the disintegration of Kane’s marriage with Emily by successively cut scenes of their breakfasts. (Welles himself added this to the script based, as he admitted, on the concept by Thornton Wilder in his one-act play The Long Christmas Dinner.) Herrmann composed a waltz (a musical form that introduced us to her (#5)), which together with the successive shots underwent a series of variations each becoming more dark and dangerous, just as Kane himself was becoming so himself. But the music merely underlies the drama, not overwhelm it. Welles decision that Herrmann compose the piece and then edit the scene following the cues of the music was an unheard of deference to the musical content of a film.

But for our purposes the two most important pieces of music were two two-bar motifs which we first hear at the very beginning of the film. The first, which Herrmann called “Kane’s power” is heard in the first two bars of the score, played by the bassoons and muted trombones. It consists of five notes (E–D♯–E–E–B♭). It is darkly foreboding, and represents the icy exterior of a place owned by an evidently powerful man. It is related to the “There is a man” tune that is sung at the reporters’ party (#9), which later becomes the theme of Kane’s political campaign. Both are heard when Kane’s fortunes are on the upswing (one intensely serious, the other buoyant and optimistic). It is the “power” theme, however, that suggests the deep driving force. When Kane’s fortunes take a decisive turn, only the “power” theme continues. Throughout the film the motif transforms to a variety of forms including ragtime, polka and finally the funeral end of the film. It is the force that keeps Kane plowing forward in the furrow that he has dug for himself. It represents Kane’s id.

A second motif is also heard at the beginning. It is melancholic but strangely wistful, and Herrmann calls it the “Rosebud” motif. It too is made up of five notes (C♯–D–B–F♯-C♯), and we hear it played by a solo vibraphone the second time we see the castle. We hear it with fuller instrumentation and repeated when we see the snow globe for the first time. This theme is repeated throughout the film, but not usually in the same circumstances as the “power” motif. It is found when it looks like Kane may have a way to redemption. It is prominent when he meets Susan and ascends to her apartment (#3), for example. The motif represents Kane’s idealized ego, restored to the harmony of mutual maternal-filial love, the longing for the unattainable condition where there is no distinction between inward and outward libidinal direction. Its distinctive mood is unsettling and gives a distinct coloration to the film.

As effectively as the camera and musical motifs guide us through the psychological inquiry, they are aided by the cutting. In most movies cutting is so prevalent that it becomes second nature and we rarely notice it. In Citizen Kane, there are unusually long set shots filmed by a single camera. When there are cuts, they are usually surprising and punctuated by a very brief musical statement or exclamation. The cut from the poster of Susan to the long tracking shot through the rain to the skylight of El Rancho is accompanied by a startling musical attack, much like lightening, for example. Some dissolves transition from one form of information to another. One example is how the white page that Thompson is reading in the Thatcher library becomes the snow that young Charlie Kane is sledding on. Another is how Leland’s narration from the hospital dissolves into the scene at the Kanes’ breakfast. Montages with more rapid cutting are designed to show a process acting over a period of time, telescoped to a few moments. The famous breakfast montage (in the video above) is an example. So is Susan’s opera tour, showing how she has been worn down by the ordeal of performing before audiences who think she is ridiculous. That montage directly cuts to the long, fixed scene of her bedroom after she has overdosed on pills. The stationary camera showing a glass and spoon prominently in the foreground and the door in the distant background with what appears to be a bed between is all the more effective as it followed the rapid cutting and dissolves of the opera tour montage.

But the most effective use of cutting occurs when it shows how two episodes are related, even though they are separated by an expanse of time. A good example is the cut between scenes after Susan attempts suicide. A pale and exhausted Susan explains her suicide attempt: “Charlie, I couldn’t make you see how I felt.” She tells him of her humiliation before audiences that didn’t want her. Kane at first, impulsively, follows his id: “That’s when you have to fight them!” But then relents and tells her she won’t have to sing again. It will be “their loss.” She relaxes in relief, perhaps believing that Kane has finally understood her. All of this was accompanied by the “Rosebud” motif. But then the scene cuts to a picture of the foreboding Xanadu castle with the “power” motif again heard. What she exchanged for humiliation was haunted loneliness and isolation, Kane’s ultimate perversion of his narcissistic drive (#21).

21. Susan’s relief and happiness when Kane relents and lets her stop performing cuts to the reality of what her next ordeal would be.

This temporal cutting can  take place in the middle of things. We hear Susan practicing the aria from The Barber of Seville in her parlor but the scene cuts in the middle of singing and in the next scene she seamlessly continues, as Kane, in different clothing, sits listening in the same chair, although it is a much later time. He claps, and as he does, the scene cuts to the clapping at a political rally. Sometimes the cut shows identification between people or events. When, for example, Leland is making a pitch on the street the scene cuts mid-sentence to Kane in the great hall who finishes Leland’s sentence. All of it causes the audience to realize that the film is an analytic exploration in which chronological sequence is a hindrance. In fact, we come to see the soul of Kane only by viewing one long ago cause and its matching much later effects, separately considered. It is as though this fracturing of time and visual frames of reference and even points of view are all required to gain empathy with another. On reflection that conclusion applies as much to each of us as to an examination of Kane.

In the end the film succeeds as a work of art because it had a single, perhaps unusual, point of view, and all technical facilities of the movie studio and all the artistic possibilities of a theater troop combined to realize that viewpoint in original (and therefore exciting) ways. Bazin once dismissed as an impossibility the notion of “total cinema.” But to the extent a film approaches that impossible limit it can be measured as great art. There are exceedingly few films that came as close to that ideal as Citizen Kane.


Paul Arthur: “Out of the Depths: Citizen Kane, Modernism, and the Avant-Garde Impulse,” Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook ed. James Neremore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 263-84, reprinted from Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Perspectives on Citizen Kane (New York: G.K. Hall, c1996).

Peter Bogdanovich, “The Kane Mutiny,” Esquire, pp. 99-105, 180-90 (October 1972).

André Bazin, “The Technique of Citizen Kane,” Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties trans. by Alain Piette and Bert Cardullo; Bert Cardullo (ed.) (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 231-39, originally “La technique de Citizen Kane,” Les temps modernes, no. 17 (February 1947), pp. 943-49.

André Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” What is Cinema? trans. by Hugh Gray (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1967-71) (2 volumes), vol. 1, pp. 23-37 (Translation of selections from Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? a collection of essays published posthumously in four volumes (Paris: Éditions du Cerf., 1958-62). The particular essay was a composite of three essays written by Bazin between 1950 and 1955.

André Bazin, “An Aesthetic of Realism: Neorealism,” What is Cinema? trans. by Hugh Gray (Berkeley, Calif: Universit of California Press, 1967-71), vol. 2, pp. 16-40. Originally published in Espirit (January 1948).

Jorge Luis Borges,  “An Overwhelming Film (Citizen Kane),”  Selected Non-Fictions ed. by Eliot Weinberger (New York: Viking, 1999), pp. 258-59, translation by Suzanne Jill Levine of “Una Film Abrumador,” Sur, no. 83 (August 1941). 

Frank Brady, Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles (New York: Scribner, c1989).

Robert L. Carringer, “The Scripts of Citizen Kane,” Central Inquiry, no. 5 (1978), pp. 369-400, reprinted in James Nevemore (ed.), Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 79–121.

Robert L Carringer, The Making of Citizen Kane (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, c1985).

Sigmund Freud, Zur Einführung des Narzissmus (Leipzig: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, 1924) (a book version of an essay originally published in 1914), translated in Joseph Sandler, Ethel Spector Person, Peter Fonagy (ed.), Freud’s “On Narcissism—An Introduction” (New Haven : Yale University Press, c1991). A version of Freud’s essay (without identificaiton of the edition or the translator) is found online at

Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Perspectives on Citizen Kane (New York: G.K. Hall, c1996).

Bernard Herrmann, “Score for a Film: Composer Tells of Problems Solved in Music for ‘Citizen Kane’,” New York Times, May 25, 1941, Drama-Screen-Music section, p. X6 (online; subscription required), reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 69-72.

Pauline Kael, “Raising Kane—I,” New Yorker, February 20, 1971 (online) and “Raising Kane—II,” New Yorker, February 27, 1971 (online), reprinted as the introductory essay to The Citizen Kane Book (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1971) (and in other collections of Kael’s writings).

Istvan Meszaros, The Work of Sartre: Search for Freedom and the Challenge of History (New York: Monthly Review Press, c2012).

Frank Rich, “Roaring at the Screen With Pauline Kael,” New York Times Book Review, October 30, 2011, pp. 1, 12-14 (online; open access).

Andrew Sarris, “Citizen Kane: The American Baroque,” Film Culture, vol. 2 (1956), pp. 14-16, reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 102-08.

Andrew Sarris, “Citizen Kael vs. Citizen Kane,” Village Voice (April 29, 1971), reprinted online by

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Quand Hollywood veut faire penser: Citizen Kane, Film d’Orson Welles,” L’Ecran français (August 1, 1945), reprinted in Olivier Barrot, L’Ecran français, 1943-1953: histoire d’un journal et de une époche (Paris: Les Editeurs français réunis, 1979), pp. 39-43.

Lawrence Van Gelder, “Pauline Kael, Provocative and Widely Imitated New Yorker Film Critic, Dies at 82,” New York Times, September 4, 2001, p. C12 (online; open access).

Orson Welles, “Citizen Kane is not about Louella Parsons’ Boss,” Friday, no. 2 (February 14, 1941), p. 9, reprinted in Ronald Gottesman (ed.), Focus on Citizen Kane (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 67-68.

Leila Wimmer, Cross-Channel Perspectives: The French Reception of British Cinema (New York: Peter Lang, 2009).

Bill Wrobel, “Herrmann’s Citizen Kane,” Film Score Rundown (November 4, 2001) (PDF).


Shakespeare, Freud, Machiavelli and Welles: The “Prince Hal Problem”

The Prince Hal Problem

Chimes at Midnight-Final Scene

Final shot in Chimes at Midnight: As Falstaff’s coffin is wheeled out of the inn into the blighted landscape, Ralph Richardson narrates the virtues of the new king: “… he left no offense vnpunished, nor fréendship vnrewarded … for conclusion, a maiestie was he that both liued & died a paterne in princehood, a lode-starre in honour, and … famous to the world alwaie.” (Holinshed, Chronicles …, Vol. VI, p. 583 (1587 ed.).)

Since the post on Chimes at Midnight two months ago, I kept coming back in my mind to the “Hal question.” In this piece I will look at how Shakespeare himself delineated Prince Hal (before he became Henry V), how critics and other analysts considered Hal’s behavior and then return to the treatment by Orson Welles. To summarize that discussion: How are we to relate to the character of Prince Hal, who is portrayed in the film as a calculating manipulator, one who while heir apparent idles his time drinking and whoring, at a time when the kingdom is threatened with civil war? He choses to carouse with an alcoholic knight, who clearly cherishes him, intending all the while to banish the affection of him and his friends so that his apparent reformation will astonish the people of England, his future subjects. Although the film is the story of the old knight, Sir John Falstaff, the character of the prince is the central character in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Henry IV, Part OneHenry IV, Part Two and Henry V. Indeed the tetralogy, beginning with Richard II, seems designed (at least in retrospect, Shakespeare probably did not have this clear intention when he began with Richard II) to build toward the glorification of Prince Hal, as Henry V the valiant victor at Agincourt and the most important English historical hero in all of Shakespeare’s works.

In its outward appearance the behavior of Hal is not remarkable. He is simply a young man sowing his wild oats, who, when he becomes king, decides to reform abruptly and take on his responsibilities. Such a transformation in anyone is not a particularly common occurrence, but it is not difficult to see how a fictional story can be made of it, although as a plot it is more likely in temperance-born again-revivalist stories than in any good literature. And Shakespeare makes the task much more difficult by inserting a soliloquy signaling his intention to reform later at the beginning of our view of Hal’s relationship with Falstaff, a particularly inappropriate time to declare such a secret intention, especially as it takes place just after he has agreed to participate in a highway robbery! And when he finally rejects Falstaff (a play later), Hal, now King Henry V, does it with such brutality, for which he has not prepared Falstaff, that in the end it is clear that “the King has killed his heart,” as Hostess Quickly says in the (next) play (Henry V, II:i:84) (and Pym (?) in the movie). The violence of the rejection seems to be part of his original plan, that

… when this loose behaviour I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes.
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
(Henry IV, Part One, I:ii:206-13.)

It is apparently planned ruthlessness designed to make him all the more remarkable.

So there are two related questions: How are we to understand Hal in the original plays? and does Welles attempt to solve the problem in the film and, if so, how?

Conveniently, last week Trinity College’s Cinestudio began a three day showing of the restored film. To prepare for it, and to see what I could come with on my own, I carefully reread Richard IIHenry IV, Parts One and Two, and Henry V. I also read a variety of commentaries on the works (which historically mostly focuses on the character of Falstaff), particularly on commentaries on Elizabethan stage presentation, literary character analysis, literary psychoanalysis and myth-folk lore analysis of the plays. As for Welles, I read again the playscript for his Five Kings, the 1939 Mercury Theater production of the same plays. I also reviewed as many interviews of Welles on his approach to Shakespeare as I could find. And for good measure I watched the two other Shakespeare plays Welles filmed—Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952)—as well as the Omnibus television version of King Lear (1953), which was directed not by Welles but rather by Peter Brook (who also wrote the teleplay), who would go on to film the play 18 years later with Paul Scofield as Lear. Welles, however, played Lear in the teleplay. I also listened to the Shakespeare-based radio broadcasts by Welles on the CBS radio network (all of which can be heard via The Internet Archive): Hamlet (Fall 1937,  CBS Workshop, with Ray Collins), Julius Caesar (September 11, 1938, Mercury Theatre on the Air) and Scenes from King Lear (1946, Mercury Summer Theatre).

With this basis I think we can come to some supportable observations about how Shakespeare treated the “Hal problem” (which is the crucial component in the characterization of Falstaff), how we can interpret Hal and Falstaff psychologically, and how all this allows us to evaluate Welles’s film. But first, the reviewing and the other thinking crystalized certain observations about Welles as a film-maker that I omitted in the last post, failed to elaborate satisfactorily or missed in my earlier view of the movie. So I’ll make three observations before returning to the questions I posed.

Digression: Three Additional Style Observations on Chimes at Midnight

Othello (Welles) departing from where he overheard (he thought) proof that cassio proof of Desdamona's infidelity. He is now completely captive in the snare created by Iago.

Othello (Welles) departing from where he overheard (he thought) proof that Cassio told of Desdemona’s infidelity. He is now completely captive in the snare created by Iago and he is seen as though in a cage. and darkness obscures most of our view of him.

First, in all his Shakespeare films, Welles has a superb visual style. It is not necessarily a personal style (in the way that we can say Eisenstein, Bergman and Malick, for examples, have personal styles), because it is subordinate to individual movies rather than an overall “aesthetic.” The cage motif in Othello, for example, is stunning. At the beginning of the film (which takes place after the end of the play) Iago is hoisted in cage where he will presumably die. Welles told Bogdanovich that the idea for the cage came from the treatment of defeated Berber guerrilla leader Abd el-Krim, who was driven in a mule-drawn cage to show tribes during the Riff War. As a punishment for Iago it is entirely consistent with the play, which has Iago explaining early on (I:i) that if he did not hide his true intent (to poison Othello’s mind) he would “wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at.” In the cage, after he has been exposed, he will die with jackdaws (corvids, i.e., crows) and other birds pecking at his flesh. But that is just the beginning. The cross-hatch shadows and cage-like window fixtures and other spatial divides continue through the film. And increasingly the cross-hatches and their shadows separate us from what takes place on screen. Othello is a prisoner of his own naiveté, jealousy and misplaced trust. And much like Desdemona herself, we find ourselves caught within or viewing into a snare we did not create but cannot escape.

The long crane shot is probably his signature visual expression, but all the famous examples (the opening of Touch of Evil, the warehouse scene in Citizen Kane and the ballroom scene in The Magnificent Ambersons) serve a narrative purpose. Of course such shots could only take place when Welles had the resources of a studio. But even when the studio provided the train set that every boy wanted (in Welles’s famous quote) they never understood what could be achieved. So for reasons that defy explanation, they broke up the continuous ballroom shot in Ambersons, probably for the same reason that public high school administrators destroy student individuality—because they are stupid and because they can. Lacking the full technical apparatus that Hollywood studios would have provided him, these long crane shots are missing from the Shakespeare movies, but other devices abound.

Hal addressing the body of his foe/double Hotspur as verdant England symbolizes the birth of the heir apparent.

Hal addressing the body of his foe/double Hotspur as verdant England symbolizes the birth of the heir apparent. Welles’s scenery and staging is reminiscent of compositions by Thomas Gainsborough (except for the corpse).

I already noted some visual highlights of Chimes at Midnight: the austere court scenes with their militaristic trappings, the deadened outdoor landscapes (the fields around Justice Shallow’s estate, the battleground at Shrewsbury and the burial field of Falstaff, for examples). There is one scene that on reviewing is quite noteworthy. The only scene of “normal” life with vegetation is when Prince Hal is talking to the dead Hotspur. Behind him are trees that look just like “England in springtime.” This would be a perfect visual cue for Hal’s “rebirth,” which it is in the film (at least the beginning of the rebirth) but given the plot vagaries (discussed below) that is not the case in the plays.

The set and view of the large room in Shallow’s estate with Falstaff in the deep background and Shallow and Silence in the foreground—Shallow on the floor after a night of drinking—provide the perfect visual context for Falstaff’s musings on the vanities of old men. The ground level view (what Marlene Dietrich called Welles’s “frog’s eye view”) allows Falstaff to tower over us in the triumph of discovering that Hal has become Henry V. We watch Falstaff’s joy as though from the front row below the apron, knowing all the while that his delusion will end in humiliation. (The difference between tragedy and comedy is always a matter of personal taste.)

All of this seems to me to put to rest all the attempts to attribute the visual magic of Kane solely to Gregg Tolland.

Second, Falstaff is finally a role that Welles fully inhabited. From the beginning, way back in Federal Theatre Project and Mercury Theatre days, there was always the nagging doubt that Welles could truly act rather than simply rely on his baritone voice and idiosyncratic pacing. It is true that as some pointed out during the run of Five Kings, early on Welles depended in his recitation of Shakespearean (and Marlowian) verse on peculiar tempos, with word groups followed by odd pauses unrelated to meaning. You can hear this peculiarity by listening to Welles’s Brutus in Julius Caesar or indeed any other role in his radio broadcasts. It is also true that Welles depended more on poses than Method early on. You can see a bit of this in his film role of Macbeth. If you trace him from Othello through King Lear to Falstaff, you will see that the mannerisms are gradually shed and in Chimes at Midnight he becomes Falstaff rather than simply representing him.

Falstaff: “[H]ow subject we old men are to this vice of lying! This same starved justice hath done nothing but prate to me of the wildness of his youth, … every third word a lie” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:292-96.) Silence (Walter Chiari), Shallow (Alan Webb) and Falstaff (Welles), l-r.

Finally, the soundscape of Welles’s films is quite striking, and it is particularly notable on experiencing several films together. It’s hard to imagine how revolutionary the sound of Citizen Kane was at the time. Kenneth Tynan attended it five times in short order and one time closed his eyes solely to absorb the sound of the film. Of course, Kane had music by Bernard Herrmann. Brilliant in itself, the score (including and especially the composed “opera” that Susan Alexander attempts to master) quietly underlies the disintegration of Kane. The Germanic opera leitmotif semblance (music this time by Jacques Ibert1) was again tried in Welles’s Macbeth, which enhanced the obviously low-budget set. That score was spoiled only by the overly bright “triumph theme” (of the forces attacking Dunsinane). The Herrmann score for Kane, by contrast, is truly a moving work, intellectual and subtle. It will be a long time before we hear that quality of music in American movies. The local strip mall multiplexes are equipped with very loud (but low quality) speakers, designed for the banal hammering in movies like Inception, where special effects and loud minimalist music is supposed to cover poor writing and insipid plot. Although Welles (according to Virgil Thompson) had no especial ear for music, he always knew what “worked.” If one compares the released version of Touch of Evil with the version much later produced according to Welles’s 58-page post-production memo, it is entirely obvious who knew how the movie should sound, as between Welles and the studio flacks who commissioned a Mancini score!

Once Welles was cut off from the studio system he was forced to contract with composers (or rely on classical music in the public domain). For both Othello and Chimes at Midnight Welles made the inspired choice of Angelo Lavagnino as composer. (Welles told Bogdanovich that Lavignino also composed a completely different score for Welles’s later stage version of Othello.) Lavagnino’s score for the film Othello is chilling. From the very beginning (with the simultaneous funerals of the pagan Othello and the Christian Desdemona and the caging of Iago) we are in the grip of music that is profoundly “epic,” although it marries the modern with the pre-Baroque. Like the score of Kane it is not intrusive, but holds our attention as we watch the trap that Iago devises to ensnare two helpless victims. The score of Chimes at Midnight is equally effective and involved a wider range, including folk dances, court music, the background for a brutal battle scene, chant-song and the melancholy backings for several soliloquies. As with all of Welles’s films (except when the studio interfered as it did with Touch of Evil), the musical score does not intrude; nevertheless, some figures remain with you long after the film is over (as does the general atmosphere of the film which is intertwined with them).

But the musical score is not the only part of the soundscape of this film. Throughout Chimes at Midnight, we hear the natural sounds that place in context and comment on the action and the places where it takes place: church bells in the background, dogs running through the common spaces, soldiers’ boots tromping on stone (an effect Welles discovered in his Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar), rain outdoors and the wind that swirls as the armies are about to face off. The battle scene (which lasts quite long and marks a turning point for the characters in the movie, and to a lesser extent in Henry IV, Part One) is filled with thuds of clubs and swords hitting bodies, hisses of arrows, whistling of slings, the metallic clangs of armor and swords and the slosh and squelch of mud under foot of the fighting and under the parts of those engaged in the lonely and futile struggle to live. The human voice is also used as part of the soundscape independent of the dialogue. Conversations overlap to keep scenes moving (a trick he developed in his Mercury Theatre plays), crowd noises punctuate speeches, and rather than have everyone miked at the same volume, Welles tries to simulate the location of characters within large spaces or long hallways by positioning the microphone where the camera is, rather than where the character is. This concern for three-dimensional placement is similar to his interest in “deep focus” in Kane (although in some ways it works in the converse way since there is no equal auditory access as there is visual access in the camera technique, rather we hear less distinctly the voices that are farther away). This technique is especially notable after the death of Henry IV, when Hal addresses the courtiers. We hear him up close, next to him, as he addresses the crowd in the large room separated by the long, narrow walkway to the throne, and then we hear him from behind the crowd in the large room. The change subtly marks the transition of Hal from a private person we know intimately to the public figure we can only distantly observe.

I will note one other feature of the film, Welles’s editing of the plays, in the course of the discussion of the “Hal problem,” which begins, as it must, with Shakespeare’s own treatment.

How Shakespeare Created the “Prince Hal Problem”

The place to begin is the constraint I suppose Shakespeare felt so as not to depart too greatly from popular conception of Hal (who had become a highly popular king in England’s historical imagination by Shakespeare’s time). And that conception ultimately comes from England’s preeminent historical popularizer of the time, Raphael Holinshed. His Chronicles treats the issue of Hal’s youthful behavior rather gingerly. It is worth setting out the passage at full length inasmuch as it not only deals with the wild oats supposedly sown by Hal, but also his confrontation with his father Henry IV and Hal’s volte-face.

Thus were the father and the sonne reconciled, be|twixt whom the said pickthanks had sowne diuision, insomuch that the sonne vpon a vehement conceit of vnkindnesse sproong in the father, was in the waie to be worne out of fauour. Which was the more like|lie to come to passe, by their informations that priui|lie charged him with riot and other vnciuill demea|nor vnséemelie for a prince. Indeed he was youthful|lie giuen, growne to audacitie, and had chosen him companions agréeable to his age; with whome he spent the time in such recreations, exercises, and de|lights as he fansied. But yet (it should séeme by the report of some writers) that his behauiour was not offensiue or at least tending to the damage of anie bodie; sith he had a care to auoid dooing of wrong, and to tedder his affections within the tract of ver|tue, whereby he opened vnto himselfe a redie passage of good liking among the prudent sort, and was be|loued of such as could discerne his disposition, which was in no degrée so excessiue, as that he deserued in such vehement maner to be suspected. In whose dis|praise I find little, but to his praise verie much, par|cell whereof I will deliuer by the waie as a metyard whereby the residue may be measured. (Holingshed, Chronicles … (1587 ed.), Volume 6, page 539. For  version of this passage with modernized spelling by Rosemary Gaby’s see Note 2 below.)

Holinshed’s treatment of the reign of Henry V is heavily varnished hagiography. So I suspect that if there were not a strong tradition of Hal’s dissolute youth, Holinshed would just as soon have passed over it, particularly given that the sudden change plays no heroic or moralistic role in the historian’s story of Hal’s life. Indeed, he treats Hal’s behavior defensively, alternating between attributing it to the gossip of pickthanks (a word that sadly is not often seen these days, which causes me to overuse lickspittle) and minimizing the severity of the misbehavior. This suggests that his readers must already have believed in Hal’s youthful reputation, otherwise, why would he include it?

Shakespeare could have followed Holinghed’s lead and downplayed the stories, but he ventured in the other direction. Far from participating in only harmless pranks, Hal is made to agree to join Falstaff in a highway robbery. (It is true that he does so only to trick Falstaff and Hal never joins in the robbery, but he nonetheless agrees to the plot, furthers its enterprise and thus under law would be guilty as a joint venturer, just as Northumberland is later a party to the rebellion by agreeing to and furthering it, even though he fails to participate at the last minute). Shortly after he became king (in the previous play), Henry complained to Hotspur’s father that Hal daily frequented taverns “With unrestrained loose companions, / Even such, they say, as stand in narrow lanes, / And beat our watch, and rob our passengers …” (Richard II, V:iii:7-9). By playing up Hal’s transgressions, Shakespeare emphasizes the differences between Hal and Hotspur, in order to measure Hal’s aptitude to succeed his father (or at least to test his father’s patience). To make this comparison, Shakespeare treats Hotspur and Hal as equivalent in age, something not found in Holinshed, and in fact untrue. Hotspur in life was only three years younger than Henry IV and 22 years older than Prince Hal.  It is thus not a wish that plausibly could have occurred to the king that “some night-tripping fairy had exchanged / In cradle-clothes our children where they lay, / And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!” as Henry fantasizes (Henry IV, Part One, I:i:86-88) when comparing Hotspur’s martial virtues to Hal’s “riot and dishonour.” (By changing the age of Hotspur for the first Henry IV play Shakespeare also contradicts Richard II, which has Hotspur meeting the young Henry (then Bolingbroke) when the latter returned prematurely from exile at Ravenspurgh, as Hotspur himself reminds the audience in Henry IV, Part One (I:iii:244). (Shakespeare not only neglected established facts, he often contradicted events that he himself made up.3) Thus it seems that Shakespeare went out of his way to deal with Hal’s riotous youth so that we can watch Hal overshadow Hotspur and become the glorious Henry V, victor of Agincourt (among the many other virtues that Holinshed lists, but Shakespeare ignores).

Hal (Keith Baxter): “Yet herein I shall imitate the sun …” (Henry IV, Part I, I:ii:195).

What then are we to make of Hal’s soliloquy, announcing his plan to continue his debauchery until such time as he is required to convert and then change completely to the amazement of all? We could attribute this to self-delusion (all dissolutes think their debauchery can continue to some unspecified future time; and that he compares his eventual reformation to the sun emerging from behind clouds might support this thought), except that in the end he does reform. We could look at it as an aspiration which he works to bring to fruition, and against all odds succeeds. This might have been the interpretation if Henry IV, Part One were the only play. For in it Hal carouses only until it’s necessary for him (and Falstaff and his retainers) to “go to the wars” to face the forces of Hotspur. In the meantime he is aware that he really doesn’t measure up to Hotspur (“I am not yet of Percy’s mind”), a man who has already covered himself in glory with a reputation of ferociousness which Hal bravely parodies: “he that kills me some six or seven / dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says / to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life, I want work'” (Henry IV, Part I, II:iv:101-03).

When summoned before the king and facing the dressing down that Henry V has been waiting to deliver, Hal acknowledges his misbehavior (with extenuation for the exaggerations of “smiling pickthanks and base newsmongers”) and vows to take Hotspur down in combat in order to “redeem all this on Percy’s head, / And in the closing of some glorious day / Be bold to tell you that I am your son …” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:132-34). At Shrewsbury he offers to save the destruction of innocents in both armies by adding to Henry’s offer of reconciliation by engaging in sole combat with Hotspur. In the battle that follows the refusal, Hal saves his father from certain death then goes on to kill Hotspur. One would expect that his conduct in this battle would mark the promised reformation and Hal’s rejection of Falstaff (who had falsely claimed that he killed Hotspur upon his revival after after Hal left the scene), but no! The play ends with Henry IV ordering his forces to carry the fight to the rebel in the north and the east.

In Henry IV, Part Two, Hal returns from the east, and the cycle begins again. (It’s as though the two plays were about alcoholics and their codependents.) With his father physically ill, Hal pairs up again with Poins and again heads to the tavern to play a prank on Falstaff. More merriment ensues. Hal does not chastise Falstaff for his conduct at Shrewsbury, nor warn him that when he assumes the throne, he must dissociate himself from his “riotous” friends. And so, Falstaff goes on to aid the prince’s brother in the north (Hal stays behind as part of Henry’s plan to divide him from Falstaff), and when he comes back Falstaff stays with his acquaintance Justice Shallow, a ridiculous old man from whom Falstaff hopes to “devise matter enough out of / this Shallow to keep Prince Harry in continual laughter / the wearing out of six fashions, which is four terms, or / two actions, and ‘a shall laugh without intervallums” (Henry IV, Part Two, V:i:71-74). In the mean time, Henry IV has become gravely ill and is once again lamenting the depravity of his son, when he discovers that Hal is in London dining with Poins:

Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds,
And he, the noble image of my youth,
Is overspread with them; therefore my grief
Stretches itself beyond the hour of death.
The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape
In forms imaginary th’ unguided days
And rotten times that you shall look upon
When I am sleeping with my ancestors.
(Henry IV, Part Two, IV:iv:54-61.)

When Hal returns to the castle, he finds his father asleep, barely alive. He takes the crown from the pillow and leaves the room. Henry awakes, demands to have the crown brought back and finds that it was his own son who took it. He excoriates his son for wishing him dead. Hal convinces his father that he only took the crown to speak to it and “upbraided it: ‘The care on thee depending / Hath fed upon the body of my father …'” (Henry IV, Part Two, IV:v:159-60). He again speaks of his (still!) unrealized plan to reform: “The noble change that I have purposed!” (line 155). And he does this with sufficient pathos to convince the king who is now finally reconciled, content now to die.

We learn of Henry’s death in a scene involving the Lord Chief Justice (V:ii), who now fears for his own safety having once committed the prince, now king, to jail for riotous behavior. When the new king confronts him, the justice explains that he was acting on authority of the king (in loco parentis, I suppose) to deliver the rebuke that was due him. Hal, now Henry V, assures him that he did well and hoped that he would do the same to a wayward son of his own. Falstaff is still at Shallow’s when he learns of Henry’s death; he rushes to see Hal, believing that they will rejoice together in Hal’s new station. Instead, in the presence of his own train as well as Falstaff’s entourage, the new king rejects and banishes Falstaff in the most brutally abusive language:

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester.
I have long dreamed of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane,
But being awaked I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace …
(Henry IV, V:v:50-55.)

Stunned, Falstaff tries to explain it to his friends: “I shall be sent for in private to him …” (line 80) and “I shall be sent for / soon at night.” (lines 92-93.) Instead, the Lord Chief Justice has him taken away to the fleet prison, while Prince John remarks favorably on his brother’s “fair proceeding” with his “wonted followers.” Lest anyone improperly conclude that the King’s treatment was harsh, Shakespeare has the prince say that they will all be “very well provided for” and their banishment will last only “till their conversations / Appear more wise and modest to the world” (lines 102 & 103-104). But possibly Shakespeare still worried that this ending for Falstaff was not satisfactory and has a dancer give an epilogue, promising to bring back Falstaff in yet another play:

… If you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you
merry with fair Katharine of France—where, for anything
I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already
‘a be killed with your hard opinions …
(Henry IV, Part Two, Epilogue, 25-30.)

Between 12 and 1

Hostess Quickly (Margaret Rutherford) remembers Falstaff: “‘a cried out, ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him ‘a should not think of God – I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.” (Henry V, II:iii:18-21.)

Despite the bantering about the audience’s “hard opinion” of Falstaff, this epilogue by a narrator standing in for the author suggests to me that Shakespeare himself was troubled by his ending to Falstaff and hoped to resolve it in the next play or at least to postpone finally resolving the business.

In that play (Henry V) Shakespeare gives King Henry the lines ordering Falstaff’s release, attributing the old man’s ill behavior during the king’s procession to “an excess of wine.” This allows us to soften our of opinion towards old Hal. But to bolster the case that the original treatment was justified, Shakespeare has this offer of clemency trigger a dissent from the king’s advisers, who urge that the punishment be continued “lest example / Breed, by his sufferance, more of such a kind” (Henry V, II:ii:45-46). As someone might say, Shakespeare seems to protest too much over the treatment. And probably he could not find a way out of the dynamics he had created, because Falstaff does not appear as promised by the dancer in the last play. Instead Falstaff receives something of a wake in the next scene with Hostess Quickly, Falstaff’s small page (played charmingly in the film by Welles’s daughter Beatrice), Pistol, Bardolph and Pym.  It is Mistress Quickly, despite her fights with Falstaff, who offers the only eulogy: “Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. ‘A made / a finer end, and went away an it had been any christom / child; ‘a parted e’en just between twelve and one, e’en / at the turning o’th’ tide / … / and ‘a babbled of green / fields” (Henry V, II:iii:9-17). Quickly and Pistol and others fill the comic role of left vacant by the death of Falstaff for the rest of the play.

There are very few modern commentators who defend Hal’s behavior towards Falstaff. Even those who reflexively defend Shakespeare’s treatments are at least defensive about Hal. Allan G. Chester, for example, in his preface to Henry IV, Part Two in the Pelican Shakespeare, says: “We need not condemn Hal too severely. Good judgment would have taught Falstaff that the laws of England would not be at his commandment after the death of the old king, and delicacy would have forbidden him to obtrude himself so abruptly into Hal’s new situation. … It is Falstaff, not the prince, who compels the rejection.” But does boorishness require imprisonment? And would not the laws of England, not to mention the example of the prudence of his own father (as the king expressly tells him in Henry IV, Part One, III:ii), be equally instructive to Hal against participating in a robbery, not to mention continuing in Falstaff’s company long after he had been repeatedly urged against it by the king? Even Poins, Hal’s “shadow,” tells him that the world would consider him a hypocrite if he were to weep over the illness of his father “because you have been so lewd, and so much / engraffed to Falstaff” (Henry IV, Part Two, II:ii:58-59).

Last time I mentioned Nuttall’s theory that Shakespeare patterned Hal after the Friend of the sonnets to whom we was (homosexually?) attracted as an explanation of why Hal troubles us and not the author. I left the analysis at that, but I should emphasize now that the theory is useful only in showing us that Hal’s behavior troubled even eminent literary critics, who usually act as if it were a professional obligation to reject all suggestions of unsuccessful dramatic conceptions by Shakespeare. But Nuttall’s explanation, based as it is on a predilection of the drama’s author inferred from a construction of another literary text, requires that we believe that in one case the narrator is speaking on behalf of Shakespeare relating his biography and in the other the character is modeled on the assumed features of the recipient (Shakespere’s real life “Friend”) of the other text. However dazzling one might think this analysis is as an example of academic virtuosity, at bottom it makes the twin mistakes of assuming that the narrator of a text (or a character in a literary drama) speaks the thoughts of the author and that the tidbits of biographical information concerning the author that we can mine from a text has some importance in evaluating another text. But beyond that, Nuttal’s conclusions, even if true and relevant, amount to nothing more than that Hal is simply a boorish jerk, of a kind that Shakespeare somehow liked, but a jerk nonetheless. But one need not have gone through the hoops Nuttal did if that is all one wanted to say about Hal’s character.

Traditional literary critics, therefore, being less than helpful on this issue, we might as well consult a field which brings a form of psychological insight into literary tests (albeit a field that is not much consulted these days for that purpose). And psychoanalysis is a field that routinely comments on literary productions and has a structure (whether you subscribe to it or not), which allows for discussion of behavior and what prompts it. To many the Freudian apparatus creaks with age and totters with odd ideological baggage, but it is the latter feature which allow us to talk about the subject. We cannot say there is an accepted “literary” way of looking at Hal’s conduct. But we can expect that there might be a psychoanalytical way, just as there might be a “Christian” or “historical” way to explain his behavior. After all, much of Freud’s theory depends on his view that literary archtypes illustrate certain mental phenomena, and Freud himself often analyzed literary characters and their authors solely on the basis of literary evidence. So let’s see what psychoanalysts have to say on the problem.

A Psychoanalysis of Prince Hal

Although Freud himself had much to say about certain of Shakespeare’s characters (particularly Hamlet and Lear), he has only fairly banal comments on the historical plays. This might seem odd, considering that the themes in those plays revolve around authority conferred by patrilineal descent, threats to the continuity of that authority, and the central feature, inherently creating a psychological division: the fact that the heir apparent can only realize the potential for which he spent his entire life preparing (kingship) through the death of his father. Monarchy of the English type also has the political necessity for male heirs and the strategic bonding through marriage, resulting in the trading of females for political purposes. These features all depend on a sexual differentiation, which necessarily affects all aspects of personal development and identity. The monarchy really ought to be a fertile soil for an approach to an understanding personality (such as Freud’s) which posits that most formative events take place within a family and involve sexual tensions and competition for affections.

“Falstaff is dead,” says his little Page (Beatrice Welles) sadly in the courtyard where his coffin lies.

Yet Freud limited himself to two comments about the Henry IV-V plays. First, he discussed Falstaff as an example of the humorous technique of “economized expenditure of effect” (Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscious, §VIII). Falstaff’s size, harmlessness and the “lowness” of those he abuses prevents us from objecting to his gluttony, cowardice and deceit, says Freud. (The nature of humor must have changed much more between our time and Freud’s than from Freud’s to Shakespeare’s, or else I have been stricken with the cursed “political correctness” that they condemn these days for this explanation seems not only class-bound but also unconvincing.) He also notes that with respect to Falstaff himself his ego is “superior” so that his physical defects do not rob him of his psychic security.

Second, Freud mentions Hal in Interpretation of Dreams (Chapter VI) where he observes that when Hal puts on his father’s crown (thinking his father near death) he was acting out his (unconscious?) wish for his father’s death. “Whenever there is rank and promotion,” says Freud, “the way lies open for wishes that call for suppression.” Of course this is hardly a clever insight, for King Henry himself makes that very point (less prosaically) when he surprises Hal wearing the crown. Hals says: “I never thought to hear you speak again.” Henry replies: “Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought.” (Henry IV, Part II: IV:v:92-93.) Indeed, isn’t the putting on the crown merely the stark culmination of Hal’s brooding over the course of the two plays (namely, that Hal’s behavior was a the punishment inflicted on him for taking the crown (and killing) Richard II)?

So we have Hal’s wish to toss aside his father. What about Falstaff? For that we have to figure out what Falstaff meant to Hal, and for that in turn we must go deeper into the mire of psychoanalysis than Freud did with either Hal or Falstaff.

There is a pair of father-son relations in Richard II and Henry IV, Part One, and all are named Henry. In Richard II, Henry IV begins as Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gault, the Duke of Lancaster (who happens to be uncle to the king, Richard II). Henry Percy (the father of Hotspur), the Earl of Northumberland, is an early supporter of Henry Bolingborke on the latter’s return from unjust banishment to fight the king for his rightful estates (taken by Richard II on the death of John of Gault to pay for his extravagance, we are told, and to defend against uprisings by the Welsh and Scots). Northumberland introduces his son, “Harry” Percy (known as Hotspur) to Henry, and Hotspur pledges allegiance to Henry. That play ends with Henry Bolingbroke becoming King Henry IV, and we know only little about his own son, Henry (Hal), now Prince of Wales and heir apparent, except that he spends his time “‘mongst the taverns” in London and that Henry has not seen him for three month (V:iii:1-12). 

Hotspur in some ways once saw both Henry and Northumberland as fathers in Richard II. But in Henry IV, Part One the new king refuses to ransom Hotspurs wife’s brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer from the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower, because Henry believed he had gone over to Glendower’s side. This constitutes in Hotspur’s mind Henry’s “rejection” of him, and under the guidance of his uncle, Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, and his father Northumberland, Hotspur goes into revolt against Henry, in effect “rejecting” his adopted father.4 But it is Hotspur’s martial glories both before and after the revolt that causes Henry to prefer him over his natural son and heir, Hal. Despite his knowledge of his father’s displeasure, Hal for his part remains a companion of Falstaff, and even after Hal, as he promises his father, washes off his “bloody mask,” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:136-37), by killing Hotspur, he returns to Falstaff. Why?

The easy answer (the Psychoanalysis 101, or perhaps Psychoanalysis for Humanities Students, answer) is the “pleasure principle,” the prominent principle from Civilization and its Discontents. This force, which directs the id to seek physical gratification is buried by social forces so that everyone is able to bring himself to go to the office in order to work on spreadsheets in a cubicle rather than doing things that are more physically gratifying. This drive seldom is responsible for any socially unhealthy actions in normally maladjusted individuals (because it is so under the control of socially embedded rules) but can bubble up in dreams or even neurotic impulses. That Falstaff is the physical embodiment of the pleasure principle for Hal is hinted at when the new king says in his rejection speech that “I have long dreamed of such a kind of man [Falstaff, whom he addresses in the third person], / So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane, / But being awaked I do despise my dream.” (Henry IV, Part Two, V:v:52-54.) If you want to read ripe prose on what a carefree sprite Falstaff is (“… he is so happy and so entirely at ease. ‘Happy’ is too weak a word; he is in bliss, and we share in his glory. …”), you can read A.C. Bradley’s essay from the beginning of the last century (before modernism disturbed the complacency of Edwardian men of letters). But while Falstaff is not Peter Pan, the play has ample evidence that he partakes of Dionysian qualities. (Although probably due to commercial considerations and not with a view to mythological parallels, Shakespeare even resurrects Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor after killing him off in Henry V.) No social rules stand in the way of his gratification, and he led other to do likewise.

Parsifal heals King Amfortas (the German version of the Fisher King from Wolfram von Eschenbach (the source for Richard Wagner) Book illustration by Franz Stassen in Print Parsifal: A Mystical Drama by Richard Wagner. Retold in the Spirit of Bayreuth by Oliver Huckle (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1903).

Parsifal heals King Amfortas (the German version of the Fisher King from Wolfram von Eschenbach’a Parzival (the source for Richard Wagner’s opera). Book illustration by Franz Stassen in Parsifal: A Mystical Drama by Richard Wagner. Retold in the Spirit of Bayreuth by Oliver Huckle (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1903).

Norman Holland points out that Falstaff is the only major figure who is “whole” in the Henry IV plays. The other major characters are “dyads” (my word, not his): Hal/Hotspur; Worcester/Northumberland, Henry IV/Richard II, John of Lancaster/Hal and Shallow/Silence. Falstaff therefore is more “significant” than the “historical” characters. Indeed he rises to folk-mythological status. J.I.M. Stewart sees Falstaff as the Fisher King from the Arthurian/Parsifal traditions. (In the last post, I pointed out Falstaff’s own imaginative association with King Arthur.) The Fisher King receives a wound to his thigh/groin, which does not heal, causing infertility throughout the land. There are many medieval versions of the tale, and the attributes of his character are found in many figures. (A concise summary can be found in the “Fisher King” article by Matthew Annis at the University of Rochester’s Camelot Project.) In the Parzival version by Wolfram von Eschenbach (followed by Wagner in his opera) it is up to the hero to journey to Amfortas’s castle (where the Holy Gail is kept) to heal the king and restore fertility (spiritual and agricultural) to the land. As for the hints in Shakespeare, the most telling (to me) is after the “duel” between Pistol and Falstaff, Hostess asks: “Are you not hurt i’th’ groin? Methought ‘a made / a shrewd thrust at your belly (King Henry IV, Part 2 II:iv:205-06) (in Welles’s film Doll says the lines). The Fisher King’s association with seasonal fertility makes him one of the saturnalian figures of folk harvest/renewal festivals. Stewart writes that the description of Falstaff in the plays points to those cyclical festivals. Hal (playing his father) calls Falstaff a “roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:140-41) (referring to the Whitsun festival in Manningtree when an ox is roasted whole), and Poins describes him as Martlemas (Henry IV, Part Two, II:ii:96), meaning the salted beef served at Martinmas, a feast in November. He is also referred to as kinds of pork appropriate for feasts: “brawn” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:109) and Bartholomew boar pig (Henry IV, Part Two, II:iv:228-29). Perhaps the clinching evidence is that, like folk characters, Falstaff dies “at the turning o’th’ tide,” as Hostess Quickly makes a point of noting in her eulogy (Henry V, II:iii:13), like many a folk figure.

At such seasonal festivals there is a spirit of abandon presided over by a Saturnalian figure, a Lord of Misrule. (Falstaff shows himself to be Saturn to Hal’s Jupiter when he calls out to the new King: “My king! My Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!” Henry IV, Part Two: V:v:49.) During Saturnalia ordinary rules are suspended: Vice is Virtue. But with the end of the festivities the Lord of Misrule is killed (and so Falstaff is rejected by Hal). Norman Holland pointed out that Freud in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego said that Saturnalia “derive from a temporary, therapeutic abrogation of the incorporated parental demand on the ego; they are lawful release from the superego.” So in this view Falstaff provides a replacement for Hal’s biological father. But why would Hal want to replace his father?

The only suggestion that seems to have any support in the plays revolves around Henry IV’s regicide of Richard II. We know that Henry IV himself worries himself over his guilt. That guilt is what blights the land with rebellion. (So it is Henry IV’s actions and not the wound to Falstaff’s groin that renders the land infertile.) This is how Ernest Kris explains Hal’s attachment to Falstaff: Because Henry IV is a regicide (and therefore a political parricide), Hal rejects his authority and must develop his own superego under the guidance of the substitute father Falstaff. We’ve seen that Hal in effect has two fathers and Philip Williams drives home the point by showing how Hal mistakes both of them as dead, and then robs them (of a crown from his father and the charges of the Hostess of Falstaff). When they actually die, they both die in the custom of folk figures: in Jerusalem for the king (Henry IV, Part Two, V:v:239) and with the tides for Falstaff. Is there any evidence in the plays that Hal was disturbed by his father’s regicide or that it (or to avoid a subconscious impulse toward parricide himself) motivated his rejection of his father and preference for Falstaff? If there is, I cannot find it. But the advantage of psychoanalytic criticism is that if you follow a long enough argument based on the “logic” of psychoanalytic theory, it is possible to fill in evidentiary holes by faith.

Hal as Henry upbraids Falstaff as Hal for not rejecting Falstaff foreshadows what is in store for Falstaff.

Hal as Henry upbraids Falstaff as Hal for not rejecting Falstaff foreshadows what is in store for Falstaff. Hal directs the royal wrath as Falstaff, but when Henry finally confronts Hal (the next day), it is Hal’s treatment of him, as his father, he laments.

So if we have followed this line thus far, the ending is easy enough. Once Hal’s father dies, Hal no longer is plagued by his father’s crime, he emerges as the rightful king and the substitute father is superfluous, and so he figuratively kills off Falstaff (who dies a little later from the figurative killing) as part of Hal’s transition from his pre-Oedipal stage.

There is one other aspect that seems to have escaped the psychoanalysts. The last we see of Falstaff (forever) is when he is being ordered off to jail by the Lord Chief Justice. That man had been commended by Henry V to act to any future wayward child of his to treat him the same way the justice treated Hal (i.e., as a wayward son would be treated by a parent). And so the justice treats Falstaff. Thus Falstaff’s regression has become complete. Starting off as the substitute father, he is rejected when he becomes unneeded and finally becomes the son, one in need of correction himself. Far from informing the superego of Hal when Hal’s own father was not capable of doing so, Falstaff will now receive the Law of the Father from Henry V.

We can thus see that Shakespeare wrote the perfect fin de siècle Vienna play, unmatched by any (except perhaps Hamlet).

But this is not the only (neo)Freudian explanation of Hal’s development. Valerie Traub argues that Falstaff is not Hal’s substitute father, but rather his substitute mother. The idea that Falstaff is a faux woman is not solely the province of Freudian feminists. W.H. Auden saw him as both a baby and a pregnant woman. He eats, Auden thought, to combine both aspects in order “to become completely self-sufficient emotionally.” Traub, however, does not see Falstaff’s shape as the result of an intention to become self-sufficient, but rather as the outward manifestation of his woman-ness (or non-man-ness), which carries with it, not comfort, but rather exclusion from the male (phallic-based) world. That world is the “serious” part of the drama. Take Hotspur, for example. His wife makes every effort to draw him into the world of healthy domestic sexuality. Hotspur, however, will have none of it. He is off to war because, as he says, the world he inhabits, that of rebellion and martial matters, is not a world for women (or sex): “This is no world / To play with mammets, and to tilt with lips. / We must have bloody noses, and cracked crowns …” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iii:94-96). He eludes her clutches and won’t even say he loves her until he is on his horse, so that he can escape her. It is significant (as we will see very shortly) that when Hal thinks of Hotspur and his relationship to his wife, he thinks of himself and Falstaff and says: “I prithee call in Falstaff. I’ll play Percy, and that / damned brawn shall play Dame Mortimer his wife” (Henry IV, Part One, II: iv:107-08). And aside from Lady Mortimer, who has no speaking part (because she only speaks Welsh and Mortimer only English), the only other woman’s role in the first Henry play is Hostess Quickly, who is rendered genderless by Falstaff who calls her an otter, because “[s]he’s neither fish nor flesh, a man knows / not where to have her” (Henry IV, Part One, III:iii:125-26). In the second play Hotspur’s widow returns and has a small scene with her mother-in-law (both of whom persuade Northumberland not to fight (to act the woman?), causing him to again betray the rebels). The only other woman to appear is Doll Tearsheet, the prostitute, the agent of venereal disease (which is why Falstaff sends his “water” off to the doctor) and vessel for a fetus, who worries that she will miscarry when she is rounded up by the beadle (and the Hostess in fact prays that she does: Henry IV, Part Two, V:iv:12-13). It is a phallogocentric world (not to put too pretentious a point on it), where women are drags on the real business of men (killing), when they are not infecting them or carrying their issue.

Traub marshalls the evidence that Falstaff represents to Hal a woman. Much of it comes from Falstaff’s own mouth:

I do here
walk before thee like a sow that hath overwhelmed all
her litter but one. (Henry IV, Part Two, I:ii:10-12.)

I have a whole school of tongues in this belly
of mine, and not a tongue of them all speaks any other
word but my name. …
my womb, my womb, my womb undoes me. (Henry IV, Part Two, IV:iii:18-22.)

Traub goes so far as to imply that Falstaff’s name can be seen as indicating a fake phallus (False-staff), but perhaps sometimes a name is just a name.

Falstaff and Hal in bed after Poins has picked Falstaff's pocket (and given the contents of Hal).

Falstaff and Hal in bed after Poins has picked Falstaff’s pocket (and given the contents to Hal).

If Falstaff plays the part of a woman, then perhaps Hal’s relationship with him is homoerotic. (Is this what Henry means when he calls his son a “young wanton, and effeminate boy”? (Richard II, V:iii:10.) If this is the nature of their relationship, Traub concludes: “Hal’s rejection of Falstaff serves simultaneously to temporarily assuage anxieties, first, about male homoeroticism and, second, about a heterosexuality based on the equation of woman and maternity. His repudiation of Falstaff exorcises both threats to Hal’s development of adult heterosexuality.” This is a plausible explanation of Hal’s character (at least if one accepts as a working hypothesis Freud’s concept of psychic development). But the physically grotesque appearance of Falstaff (supported by the language of the play) makes erotic attraction unlikely. And Traub has a different explanation that I think more completely explains both Hal’s attraction to Falstaff and its violent rejection—Hal’s emotions towards Falstaff are Oedipal.

This would mean that Falstaff’s body (as Auden points out) is maternal. And Traub points out how Medieval concepts of the maternal body (with all its various orifices constantly expelling things to the horror of men) is consistent with the physical description of Falstaff. Hal more than once rattles off numerous insults all amounting to seeing him as a “stuffed cloak-bag of guts” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:439-40), like one with child and the organs that hold it. Moreover, Falstaff is constantly emitting or leaking substances: he is an “oily rascal” (Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:511), an “obscene, greasy tallow-catch” (line 224), who “sweats to death, / And lards the lean earth as he walks along” (Henry IV, Part One, II:ii:107-07). Even the dancer in the epilogue to Henry IV, Part Two promises the audience a continuation “where, for anything / I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat” (Epilogue 28-29). And it is not just oils and sweat that Falstaff excretes. Coming from the chamber pot, he interrupts his singing of Arthur to order “Empty the jordan” (Henry IV, Part TwoII.iv.33).

Child birth of course is the paradigmatic maternal function that historically has engendered the most disgust in males, taking place, as Freud delicately latinized it: inter urinas et faeces nascimur (a fact, he noted, that neurotics and many others took exception to). Perhaps it is the discontent of all civilization but George Barker expanded the disgust among modern Anglophones to all aspects of procreation. Here are stanzas from his “True Confession”:

The act of human procreation—
The sore dug plugging, the lugged out bub,
The small man priming a lactation,
The grunt, the drooping teat, the rub
Of gum and dug, the slobbing kiss:
Behold the mater amabilis,
Sow with a saviour, messiah and cow,
Virgin and piglet, son and sow:

The act of human procreation,—
O crown and flower, O culmination
Of perfect love throughout creation—
What can I compare it to?
O eternal butterflies in the belly,
O trembling of the heavenly jelly,
O miracle of birth! Really
We are excreted, like shit.

Hal describes to his father his promised rebirth—when he slays Hotspur—in similar terms with blood and gore as though rebirth like birth must be accompanied with all the excretions:

I will redeem all this on Percy’s head,
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son,
When I will wear a garment all of blood,
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, washed away, shall scour my shame with it.
(Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:132-37.)

And when Hal in fact fulfills this promise, he sees that Falstaff is also down. If Shakespeare had only read his Neo-Freudians more carefully he probably would have ended the Hal-Falstaff relationship here, where Hal’s rebirth, his “breeching” (the stage in Medieval son-rearing where the boy puts on pants and leaves the company of women caregivers) and resolution of his Oedipal drive take place all at once. But Shakespeare did not end it there; Falstaff had been feigning death, Hal’s father does not see the shame removed from Hal, and there is another play to be got through where Hal returns to the taverns of London and Falstaff. It is only at the end of the second play that Hal rejects Falstaff. Perhaps the violence of the rejection has something to do with how belated it was under this theory, involving a near completion followed by backsliding. As it was, it took place only after Hal’s father had died and Hal took up yet another father figure, the Lord Chief Justice.  So the rejection does not tie up all the Freudian threads we have been weaving, and maybe they are irrelevant, because Shakespeare was writing a comic-drama, not a case study, and for him the play was the thing, not the couch.

Welles ignores Freud and takes Medieval politics seriously

Hours before he died before a typewrite in his hotel room on October 10, 1985, Orson Welles taped this interview on the Merv Griffin Show. It aired Monday, October 15, 1985.

Hours before he died before a typewriter in his hotel room on October 10, 1985, Orson Welles taped this interview on the Merv Griffin Show. It aired Monday, October 15, 1985.

Orson Welles was an open book to the public. He loved giving the kind of interviews that let the public see deep inside him. It didn’t matter who the interviewer was, whether a serious student of French cinema or a network entertainment talk show host. And while Welles was more than happy to let audiences into his world, he made much of it up out of whole cloth (or exaggerated real events beyond recognition). During his many interviews his contradictions (of himself, on his opinions of others, his own and others’ contributions to his projects, his intentions and even basic factual matters) became so numerous that one hardly knows what to believe. He was not shy about divulging personal details, depending on the circumstances and the effect he was trying to achieve. But as he was always spinning the mythology of Orson Welles, the content of that mythology and the lessons he drew from it changed over time. He could be perfectly demure (as on middle- and low- brow television talk shows like The Dean Martin ShowThe Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Dick Cavett Show) and at other times crude, vulgar and slanderous (see his conversations with Henry Jaglom). Although his life was filled with stuff that psychoanalysts could prattle on about (and amateurs did), and although his films echoed (sometimes starkly) things in his life, Welles never offered psychological explanations for his characters or his films, at least not Freudian ones, especially of Shakespearean characters. (His discussions of the motivations of Othello and Lear in his Bogdanovich interviews is entirely uninformed by any Freudian approach: He says that the shortcomings of both men arise from their inexperience with the ways of women. In all of Welles’s films the one exception, one that he even hinted had a Freudian explanation, was Citizen Kane.) He also denied that his films were intended to have autobiographical themes. I think we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt on that and therefore set aside Nuttal’s example (and the approach of many Welles’s critics) and not try to interpret the movie based on some understanding of his biography.

More reliable than Welles’s views of himself or others’ analysis of his psycho-biography are Welles’s own views on how Shakespeare ought to be presented. Shakespeare is possibly the one passion of Welles that lasted a lifetime. From a boy he produced Shakespeare plays at the progressive Todd School at a time when Shakespeare was usually absent from American secondary education. Partly to rectify that after graduation, Welles together with the head of Todd School edited a number of Shakespeare plays with commentary, set illustrations and production suggestions for high schools. When he was 16 Welles performed Hamlet’s father at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. At 18 he toured the country with a Broadway company performing the role of Mercutio. He produced three Elizabethan plays in New York by the time he was 23 and had an out-of-town preview tour of the Henry IV-V plays (which closed before reaching New York). Before Chimes at Midnight he had filmed two other Shakespeare plays, performed in another and had produced and played Falstaff in a Dublin stage version of Chimes at Midnight. In short, Welles was as serious a person in Shakespearean stage and film as anyone not permanently associated with a repertory or national theater company. So his opinions in how Shakespeare should be approached (generally and specifically with respect to specific plays, characters or scenes) ought to be accorded some weight. Indeed, John Gieguld (who had played Hotspur to Ralph Richardson’s Prince Hal in a production at the Old Vic in 1930) said that in his experience Welles had “extremely perceptive appreciation of the Shakespeare text.”

According to interviews late in his life, two principles guided his general approach. First, according to his 1974 interview with Richard Marienstras (who occasionally sounds dubious of Welles’s answers), Welles believed that stage productions ought to respect the theatrical traditions and avoid experimentation. (He was forced to admit that his own Julius Caesar violated that principle, but he claimed that world political exigencies required that an anti-fascist cast be put on the production.) Second, as he told Bogdanovich (and others), he believed that film, being an independent art form, did not need to strictly follow Shakespeare’s “intentions.”

I don’t see why there’s an argument about it. A movie is a movie, and if we are going to take movies as a serious art form, then they’re no less so than opera. And Verdi had no hesitation in doing what he did with his Otello, which is an enormous departure from the play; nobody criticizes him. Why is a movie supposed to be more respectful to play than an opera?

But in both theatrical and film versions Welles always only used Shakespeare’s words (or very occasionally paraphrases) except for the narration in Chimes at Midnight, which all comes from Holinshed (Shakespeare’s own source). Welles believed that he was free to abridge (in fact required to, given attention constraints of modern audiences) and occasionally he distributed lines from one character to another. In Chimes at Midnight he significantly re-arranged scenes and sequences (and drastically cut the story that did not involve Falstaff). But he always contended that he remained true to the characters as drawn by Shakespeare and delivered the perspective Shakespeare intended (despite the fact, as Mareinstras pointed out, that by cutting he was “changing the general balance of the play”).

With respect to Chimes at Midnight specifically, Welles strays from the accepted Shakespearean interpretation (whatever Shakespeare’s intent was) in one aspect, his characterization of Falstaff, while remaining consistent with Shakespeare’s intent with respect to the political-court aspect of the story, which though much abridged, provides the framework of the drama, even that part involving only Falstaff and his associates. But because the political aspect provides the overall context of the tale, Welles is able to fold his characterization of Falstaff into the overall political world in a way that produces a perspective that may or may not represent Shakespeare’s ideas, but resolves the “Prince Hal Problem” better than commentators and psychoanalysts do, by condensing the tale so that we follow a more logical story arc and characterization of Hal. In the end, I submit that the surgery Welles performs on the plays results in a story that is much more satisfying dramatically, politically and psychologically, at least to the modern audience, and by taking that approach his characterization of Falstaff is entirely justified. Let’s take the treatment of Falstaff first.

Welles early fell in love with the character, probably around the time he produced Five Kings in 1939. The press reports (particularly from Boston) say that he played Falstaff with much more pathos, and less bawdy humor, than the reviewers had seen before. Over the years this role must have percolated in him (especially given the failure of the Five Kings production) until he converted Falstaff from the buffoon that nineteenth century stage producters regarded him into something of a holy fool (like Prince Myshkin or Quixote), although Welles equivocated on just how “good” Falstaff was, depending on when he talked about him. Here’s what he said to Marienstras:

I think that Falstaff is the only great imaginary character who is truly good. His faults are so minor. No one is perfect, and he’s filled with imperfections, physical and moral defects, but the essential part of his nature is his goodness. That’s the theme of all the plays he appears in.

He described Falstaff to Tynan not as Christ-like (which Auden had suggested) but rather like “a Christmas tree decorated with vices. The tree is total innocence and love.” Welles told Bogdanovich that “his goodness is basic—like bread, like wine.” Back in 1947 Welles wrote in the New York Post (quoted in the Bogdanovich interviews) that Shakespeare was “a sociable sort who liked to trade gags with the boys at the Mermaid” and that he “surely wished that Hamlet could have joined him for a drink after the show. I think Falstaff is Hamlet—an old and wicked Hamlet—having that drink.” Three and a half decades later he told Megahey that Falstaff could not have been the Hamlet that stayed in England rather than return to Denmark, because “Hamlet is not a good man … .” We can gather from all this that Welles over time laid greater and greater emphasis on the “goodness” of Falstaff and minimized the faults of the character.

thou'll forget me

Sensing the end, Falstaff is no longer the wit. He tells Doll (Jean Moreau): “Thou’ll forget me when I am gone.” And it’s not even an accusation. (Henry IV, Part Two, II:iv:270-71.)

But Shakespeare shows none of the infatuation with Falstaff that Welles does. The insults hurled at him by Hal and Poins are designed not to elicit audience sympathy for Falstaff but rather to have them laugh at him (and give the actor an opportunity to exaggerate those features by playing the buffoon). Falstaff also does nothing to show “goodness” to anyone (if by “goodness” is meant something like charity or benevolence). He had enemies (like Poins) and treated his retainers shabbily (Bardolph, reminded, after Falstaff’s death, of a joke Falstaff made at his expense, replied: “Well, the fuel is gone that maintained that / fire—that’s all the riches I got in his service” (Henry V, II:iii:40-41)). He insulted Hostess to whom he owed money in a way we would now consider vile. He stole from the funds used to recruit soldiers and his drafting of soldiers was influenced by bribes. He committed armed robbery against religious pilgrims, and repeatedly lied, including by taking credit before the king of killing Hotspur. Right before his own end (when he confronted his own mortality) he even mused, with some regret, on the shortcomings of old men who had the habit of lying.

The best that can be said for Falstaff is that he was ingenuous or guileless, which, perhaps, makes him virtuous enough, inasmuch as both are rare enough qualities. Or maybe the more accurate description is that he acted better than could be expected under his circumstances. Isn’t that what Welles is really saying when he says that Falstaff never expected anyone to believe his lies? And the point of his statement to Bogdanovich: “All the roguery and the tavern wit and the liar and bluff is simply a turn of his—it’s a little song he sings for his supper. It isn’t really what he’s about”? If put that way, perhaps it does express how Shakespeare felt. Falstaff was more sinned against than sinning. And the abuse that the rabble in the Globe heaped on him was just more of the circumstances he overcame, until it became too much even for Falstaff—Shakespeare couldn’t bring himself to put Falstaff in Henry V.

Whatever Welles’s conception of Falstaff, his realization does not make the movie markedly different from the play. In fact, it only informs his acting. The tragedy of Falstaff does not depend on his being good or innocent or deserving. His tragedy is that he conceived that he deserved more than his circumstances allowed. It is that sin that Shakespeare’s Tudor audience could not forgive. It was why they found it riotously funny that he might “die of a sweat.” Welles exaggerated the “goodness” of Falstaff in order avoid portraying Falstaff in a way that we no longer can accept. The twentieth century has taught us too much to laugh at fools who are stripped of dignity they do not deserve, because we have seen how easy it is to strip anyone of their fundamental dignity, and it is not a matter for humor, and deep down we are doubtful that any of us have any dignity at all.

It is on the second point, the politics of Shakespeare’s plays, that Welles is perfectly aligned with Shakespeare’s thinking. He told Marienstras: “The idea that there is something essentially corrupt on the political confrontations of the court pervades his whole oeuvre.” But the king himself, as the embodiment of sovereignty, was outside accountable corruption. “The idea that the crown was sacred, that around the crown corruption reigned but that the crown itself, whoever wore it, was a sort of Holy Grail—for Shakespeare, this idea was very real.”

The concept that the king could legally do no wrong (at least nothing that should cause a forfeiture of the crown by rebellion), by definition, was a maxim of Medieval monarchy. It was what Richard II believed protected him de jure from lawful revolt and de facto meant God would defend him from his enemies. This was why Richard II was so confident in the face of the threat of Henry: “The breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord.” (Richard II, III:ii:56-57). This ancient principle was so ingrained that it applied even to a usurper who had overthrown a legitimate king. That is why the Duke of York, who counseled Henry against his revolt, tried to turn over his son Aumerle to Henry (once Richard was deposed) when he discovered that his son had plotted to take down Henry and restore Richard (Richard III, V:ii).

By the Renaissance and Shakespeare’s day that notion of the king above the law had frayed beyond recognition, and the concept of legitimacy was central to sovereignty. The Tudor dynasty (which replaced the House of York, which itself was a rival to the claims of the House of Lancaster founded by Henry IV) hardly had the best claim to legitimacy. Henry VI had usurped the throne. Henry VIII had abrogated the church’s authority, and his heirs had resorted to bloody means to obtain their thrones. Shakespeare witnessed real challenges to Elizabeth, who in any event was childless, and succession was the chief matter of political concern by the end of the sixteenth century. There was even a plot against her, which relied on historical  and literary references to Henry IV’s deposition of Richard II, a circumstance that caused Elizabeth, when she reviewed the documents of the plotters, to say: “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that?” (I will not here delve into Elizabethan politics, deferring that to a later post.) Shakespeare himself uses the usurpation by Henry as a dividing line between the days when kings believed in their divine right and those that worried about legitimacy. Richard on one half the divide assures himself:

For every man that Bolingbroke hath pressed
To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,
God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay
A glorious angel. Then if angels fight,
Weak men must fall; for heaven still guards the right.
(Richard II, III:ii:58-62.)

By contrast Henry broods through both plays over his right to rule. He sees the rebellions (as predicted by Richard) as a consequence of the way he gained the throne.

There were practical reasons why the legitimacy of the crown could not be questioned. Anything less than absolute sovereignty in the crown demanding total allegiance might easily lead to civil war, the gravest plight on the land and one that invited even further disaster—foreign invasion. Given that Elizabeth was childless, the political issue of succession must have been on many minds at the time the plays were first performed. Legitimacy plagues Henry IV throughout the plays because he has none according to traditional notions but somehow hopes he can pass it on, if only he can retain the crown against those grasping for it. What further troubles him is his son’s behavior and he worries that Hal’s misconduct might be related to his own lack of legitimacy, as “the hot vengeance and the rod of heaven” to punish him for his past “mistreadings” (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:8-13). It is why sleep eludes him even to the end.

Without legitimacy he must use his own wits to defend the throne. And it is here that occurs what Hugh Grady calls the “Machiavelli moment.” In this respect as well I will defer delving into his particular take on this, which is convoluted (one would think from his analysis that Shakespeare wrote plays and poetry only because Venn diagrams had not yet been invented) and steeped in turgid academic prose. But what Grady points to is obvious from much of Shakespeare’s political dramas. A stereotypical view of Machiaelli’s thought (in crudest form; namely, that the prince is justified in doing whatever is necessary to remain in power) can be found throughout the works. E.g.: “policy sits above conscience” (Timon of Athens, III:ii:89). “Conscience is but a word that cowards use, / Devised at first to keep the strong in awe. / Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!” (Richard III, V:iii:310-12). In the two Henry IV plays, however, we see Shakespeare first working out the implications.

It is uncertain whether Shakespeare read The Prince. Since it was not translated into English until 1640, if he did read it, it would have had to have been a French or Latin translation. If he did not read The Prince, he may have encountered him through a French pamphlet which grossly caricatured Machiavelli’s writings and slandered his person. Or he could have encountered the concepts of Machiavelli from Marlowe in Tamerlane (1577-78) or The Jew of Malta (1589), in which Machiavel is the Prologue speaker. But even if he had been ignorant of all the foregoing, Shakespeare would undoubtedly encountered talk of the concepts at the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside or wherever else Shakespeare drank. After all, the techniques themselves were not innovative; Machiavelli’s genius was in cataloging them, and showing how a treacherous prince best used them (like the first modern business leadership book, which in fact it was). By 1540 Cardinal Pole had said that the ides of Machiavelli had already poisoned England and would soon do likewise to all Christendom (although Pole perhaps was referring to Machiavelli’s writing on democracy and republicanism, which Machiavelli preferred, than his writing on treacherous court politics, which Pole himself was an adept).5

The Henry IV plays (and later Henry V) are strikingly reminiscent of advice from The Prince. When Henry first confronts his son, he lectures him on how he had maintained the throne, and his advice seems to come from Chapter XVIII of The Prince (In What Way Princes Must Keep the Faith), namely that a prince, even if he did not possess appealing virtues, should pretend to have them by clothing himself in them:  “I stole all courtesy from heaven, / And dressed myself in such humility / That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts (Henry IV, Part One, III:ii:50-52). By contrast, like the “skipping king,” Richard II, Hal had been mingling “his royalty with cap’ring fools . . .” and “Enfeoff’d himself to popularity,” (lines 63 & 69), behavior which diminishes authority. Moreover, in the “latest counsel / that ever I shall breathe” Henry warns Hal that despite all the “peril I have answered” to make Hal’s reign “a more fairer sort,” dangers still lurk. So Hal must make Henry’s friends, “their stings and teeth newly ta’en out,” Hal’s own (Henry IV, Part Two, IV:v:182-83, 186, 200, 205). As for policy, Henry recommends foreign war: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels, that action hence borne out / May waste the memory of the former days” (lines 213-15). What could be more platitudinously Machievellian than foreign war to manipulate domestic authoritiy? It certainly did wonders for the popularity of Presidents Bush (père and fils). And it appears strikingly similar to the technique described in Chapter XXI of The Prince (How a Prince Should Act in Order to Gain Reputation). But the plays’ most treacherous use of an ends-justify-the-means act (which is the common, though not altogether accurate, understanding of “machiavellian”) is by Prince John of Lancaster, the son Henry is most proud of. In the second Henry IV play, having sent an emissary to the rebels before battle to seek their terms, in IV:ii Prince John arrives and appears to agree on everything with Mowbry and the Archbishop. When the rebel leaders then disband their army, Prince John has them arrested and sends them to their execution. That feat of bad faith, which even shocks us in this time of targeted assassination, torture, unlimited drone strikes, terrorist attacks, apparent immunity for homicide by police offices, not to mention massive secret government surveillance, goes beyond anything found in Chapter XVII (Of Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether it is Better to be Loved or Feared).

Welles recognized this machiavellian undertow in the court. He told Marienstras that Shakespeare “couldn’t do otherwise” than to justify Prince Hal “in all sorts of ways” because Hal was “an official patriotic hero.” But he maintained that Shakespeare portrays Hal ambiguously. This answer deserves full quotation:

[Hal] loves Falstaff, but he prepares a betrayal necessary from a Machiavellian point of view. I’m speaking of the Machiavellianism, that of the real Machiavelli that we know and who is so far superior to the one Shakespeare judged to be so sly. Hal is certainly a great Machiavellian prince. He loves Falstaff, and, still, is ready to betray him from the get-go.

It is the “love/necessity” dichotomy that drives the film in a way that it does not drive the plays. Where does this “necessity” come from? As Welles puts it: “How could he have forced the respect of the English court and the people if he had kept vulgar acolytes as his play-mates?” And yet Welles sees “this kind of betrayal is still an infamy, even if it’s a Machiavellian necessity.”

Maybe I can push this point a bit further in analyzing the film. Certainly by the end, Prince Hal/King Henry V has become the “that terrible creature, a great man of power” as Welles described him to Bogdanovich. And Hal had the kernel of that in him from the start when he “has a beady Welsh eye on future dignity and glory.” And certainly Welles directs him according to that conception: “Here is a complicated young man with a curious, rather spooky internal coldness. And there’s also the charm, the comradely joie de vivre—all part of his vocation, the basic equipment of Machiavelli’s perfect prince.” But what makes the drive and the ultimate infamy logical is that first, Hal knows what he must do when he becomes the “perfect prince” and yet evidently abhors what he will become. If we follow the story beyond where the film ends we find that Henry V will execute not only the conspirators against him but also the foot soldiers he made prisoners who followed them. He will then lay siege (in effect) on Katherine in as inept a suit as you are likely to witness. The only way he “wins” her is because she is already his prisoner. Official patriotic hero or not, he becomes something that we moderns cannot like.

Falstaff watches Hal rejoin the army after Shrewsbury just as Hal drops his cup of sack.

Falstaff watches Hal rejoin the army after Shrewsbury just as Hal drops his cup of sack.

Welles is able to dramatically show the transformation from the fun-loving, comradely friend of the guileless Falstaff to that terrible creature by drastically cutting the Henry IV plays and rearranging the sequences. He makes the battle of Shrewsbury the turning point in Hal’s view of himself—the point where Hal has reluctantly decided that he must now change. Welles then cuts out all the “backsliding” on this resolution that Shakespeare’s Falstaff scenes in Henry IV, Part Two constitute and which disrupts this story arc. And while Hal gives hints even before Shrewsbury what the “necessity” will cause him to do, Welles portrays him as genuinely affectionate towards Falstaff and reluctant to truly harm him (by, among other things, drastically cutting the most vicious “gag lines” Shakespeare has him direct at Falstaff and by the way he has Hal protect Falstaff from the sheriff’s men). All of that takes place before Shrewsbury. In the scene after the battle, however, Falstaff celebrates the virtues of wine, which all take including Hal. But we see the resolution forming in Hal’s face, and he turns, leaves Falstaff and drops the cup of sack on his way to rejoin the army. Falstaff’s smile disappears; the metamorphosis has begun. By cutting scenes inconsistent with that change from the film, Welles remains faithful to the story arc as he conceives it.

In the scene with Poins that shortly follows, Hal broods over his situation. He despises himself for his desire for “small beer” and wonders what the world would think of him if he weeped over his father’s imminent death. Poins tries to advise him like an equal, but Hal cuts him off and insults him, mindful of his imminent “glory.” Sensing the change, Poins retreats, signifying his subordination: “Go to, I stand the push of your one thing that you / will tell (Henry IV, Part Two, II:ii:35-36). And yet Hal is still able to treat the young page he gave Falstaff kindly and promises to visit his master. The last scene that Hal and Falstaff have together, before the rejection, is one of unstated regret and nostalgia. When Hal is gone, Falstaff becomes old and thinks of his mortality. After a parting that breaks Doll’s heart, Falstaff leaves to visit Shallow, who, an old man himself, is filled with thoughts of his associates who are are now “dead, dead …” Falstaff sees himself in the vanity of Shallow, but tries not to accept what has happened between himself and Hal. In the same scene when he learns Henry has died and his friend is now king, he comes alive, convincing himself there is something to live for. He assures all around that he will take care of them.

We last see Falstaff as he disappeares under arches having half-heartedly assured himself that “I shall be sent for soon.” Henry IV, Part Two, V:v:92-93).

The rejection comes soon after. It is brutal and humiliating. It strikes deep within us watching it. Welles’s portrayal of Falstaff is one of memorable impact. He shows surprise, horror and devastation all at once without speaking and barely moving. When he leaves the procession, he is hounded by Shallow, who now is only interested in recovering as much of the money he loaned Falstaff as possible. Falstaff wanders slowly off, to disappear among columns (which reminded me of the mirror scene at the end of Kane—a death march of sorts), and assures Shallow in a tired and unconvincing voice, “Sir, I will be as good as my word. This that / you heard was but a colour.” Shallow replies prophetically, “A colour that I fear you will die in, Sir John” (Henry V, V:v:89-90). The sad self-deception, rendered as if by rote, that Falstaff will be as good as his word is shortly exceeded by Ralph Richardson’s epilogue over the lonely funeral procession for Falstaff as the words of Holinshed about Henry V are recited, including that he left “… no friendship unrewarded …” All encomiums are lies.

As we see the lonely end of Falstaff we fully understand the “terrible creature” Hal has become, for we have seen him enter the castle that Henry left, with its stone floors, empty walls and dark corners, filled by no friends or family, only courtiers whom he must police and military with pikes who serve as the “knife in hand” a prince must have (see The Prince, Chapter VIII). Then we see that Henry is setting off to engage in the war in France just as his father had advised.  The two, the new king and the old knight, were bound to part, because what Hal must become is so repellant to what Falstaff always was.

All that is left after the battle: legs which struggled in the mud with the last twitches of men trying to survive are now still.

This is the way the world ends: All that is left after the battle: legs which struggled in the mud with the last twitches of men trying to survive are now still.

That Shrewsbury was the turning point is quite logical, especially as Welles depicted the battle. It is a brutal, unglamorous slaughter where men confront each other face-to-face with barbaric arms that hack and pound and tear. In the end there is nothing but body parts slowly dying, making sucking noises in the mud. It is, as Welles intended, a modern war. It is the inevitable result of the modern state, the state guided by “policy,” using the techniques Machiavelli catalogued.

Vincent Canby, as he usually did, was able to hone in on the essence of Welles’s achievement:

Chimes at Midnight carries an astonishing emotional kick that seems to grow each time I see it. Shakespeare really isn’t supposed to be so moving in this day and age. Yet this film has a way of creeping up on you … Shakespeare doesn’t get much better than that. Nor does Welles.”

Perhaps the film is not really Shakespeare in some “authentic” sense. But it really is the only way I have seen to solve the Prince Hal problem, and it is a stunning emotional rendering of plays that are described as merely “historical.” (The distant past as present, and both as nightmare.) The conclusion one reaches on seeing the film again is that this is the way we must view the events, even if it was not how they wanted to see them a couple of centuries ago by those who had, fortunately for them, not become as “modern” as we have. In some ways as they used to say, the personal is political. (That phrase was current in the days when the struggle was to liberate the political from antiquated, and in some ways Freudian, concepts.) What Welles seems to be saying is that the political overwhelms the personal, because the state has become so efficient and rational, perfecting Machiavelli’s Renaissance findings. As a result, now Falstaff must be a tragedy, not a comedy, because “Jesu, the days we have seen.”


1Incidentally, Jacques Ibert wrote the music for René Clair’s 1928 film of the French farce The Horse Ate the Hat, a theatrical performance of which Welles produced for the Federal Theatre Project in 1936. [Return to text.]

2Rosemary Gaby’s modernized version of this passage is as follows:

Thus were the father and the son reconciled, betwixt whom the said pickthanks had sewn division, insomuch that the son, upon a vehement conceit of unkindness sprung in the father, was in the way to be worn out of favor. Which was the more likely to come to pass, by their informations that privily charged him with riot and other uncivil demeanor unseemly for a prince. Indeed, he was youthfully given, grown to audacity, and had chosen him companions agreeable to his age with whom he spent the time in such recreations, exercises, and delights as he fancied. But yet (it should seem by the report of some writers) that his behavior was not offensive or at least tending to the damage of anybody, since he had a care to avoid doing of wrong, and to tender his affections within the tract of virtue, whereby he opened unto himself a ready passage of good liking among the prudent sort, and was beloved of such as could discern his disposition, which was in no degree so excessive, as that he deserved in such vehement manner to be suspected. In whose dispraise I find little, but to his praise very much, parcel whereof I will deliver by the way as a metyard whereby the residue may be measured. [Return to text.]

3One example of this concerns Henry IV. In Richard II, Richard prophesied that Northumberland, having betrayed him to Henry would soon betray Henry (V:i:55-68). Henry IV later reminds Warwick of the prophecy given at a time when the king says “God knows” he (Henry) had no intention to ascend to the throne at the time (Henry IV, Part Two, III:i:62-75). The problem is that the prophecy of Richard (a scene of Shakespeare’s invention) took place after Henry had ascended his throne (Richard was on his way to the Tower of London when he makes the prophecy) and neither Richard nor Warwick was present when the scene took place. [Return to text.]

4Both Shakespeare and Holinshed are confused on the issue of Edmund Mortimer. While it was true that the brother-in-law of Hotspur’s wife married the daughter of Welsh rebel Owen Glendower (in Welsh, Owain Glyndŵr), it was his nephew, also named Edmund Mortimer, who was the Earl of March and whose pretension to the throne the Percys supported in their revolt against Henry. [Return to text.]

5Although Machiavelli was not published in English until 1640, long after Shakespeare’s death, it was published in French in 1553, in Latin in 1560 and in Italian in 1594. (See De Pol, in Citations, below.) There were several manuscript translations of other Machiavelli works at Cambridge. Arte della Guearra had been translated into English in 1570 and others later. See Weissberger, below, who also discusses Gentillet, the French pamphleteer who depicted Machiavelli as a murderer, and whose Contre-Machiavel had been translated into English in 1577. As for Marlowe, who had attended Corpus Christi College, where interest in Machiavelli first showed itself, see Bawcutt, below. For the quotation from Cardinal Pole (in a letter from John Leghe to Henry VIII’s Privy Council) see Weissberger. [Return to text.]


Tracy Alexander, “A Note on Falstaff,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly Vol. II (1944),  pp. 592-606.

W.H. Auden, “The Prince’s Dog,” The Dyer’s Hand (New York: Random House, 1962), pp. 182-208.

George Barker, The True Confession of George Barker (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1965).

N.W. Bawcutt, “Machiavelli and Marlowe’s ‘the Jew of Malta,'” Renaissance Drama, New Series, Vol. 3 (1970), pp. 3-49.

Peter Bogdanovitch and Orson Welles, This is Orson Welles (ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum) (New York: HarperCollins, c1992).

A.C. Bradley, “The Rejection of Falstaff,” Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1909), pp. 247-273.

Vincent Canby, “‘Chimes at Midnight,’ Welles’s Own Shakespeare,” New York Times, June 19, 1992, p. C15.

Allan G. Chester, “Introduction to the Second Part of King Henry the Fourth,” William Shakespeare: The Complete Works; The Pelican Texts Revised ed. by Alfred Harbage (Baltimore, Md: Penguin Books, c1969), pp. 703-05.

T.P. Courtenay, “Shakespeare’s Historical Plays Considered Historically—No. IV,” The New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 54, Part 3, p. 42 (1838).

Peter Cowie, Ribbon of Dreams: The Cinema of Orson Welles (South Brunswick, N.J.: A.S. Barnes, 1973).

Roberto De Pol (ed.), The First Translations of Machiavelli’s Prince: From the Sixteenth to the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2010).

David Ellis, Shakespeare’s Practical Jokes: An Introduction to the Comic in his Work (Lewisburg, Pa: Bucknell University Press, c2007).

Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Strutures in Shakespeare’s Drama (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1985).

Mark W. Estrin, Orson Welles: Interviews (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, c 2002), including

Interview by Kenneth Tynan, originally in Playboy (March 1967);

Interview by Richard Marienstra, from French television series in December 1974, published in Positif (July-August 1998).

Interview by Leslie Magehy, from an interview filmed in Las Vegas in 1982 for the BBC program The Orson Welles Story, which aired in May 1983.

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams trans. by James Strachey and Anna Freud with Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, [1953]) [from the complete works of Freud 1901-02].

Sigmund Freud, The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious trans. by Joyce Crick (London: Penguin, 2002) [original German publication in 1905].

Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (n.p.: Boni and Liveright, 1920).

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents trans. by James Strachey (New York: Norton, 2005) [original German publication in 1929].

John Gielgud (with John Miller), Acting Shakespeare (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c1991).

Hugh Grady, “Shakespeare’s Links ot Machiavelli and Montaigne: Constructing Intellectual Modernity in Early Modern Europe,” Comparative Literature, Vol.  (Spring, 2000), pp. 119-142.

Hugh Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet (Oxford: Oxford Universikty Press, c2002).

Andrew Hadfield, Shakespeare and Renaissance Politics (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2004).

Norman N. Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., c1964).

Ernest Kris, “Prince Hal’s Conflict” (1948), collected in Ernest Krist, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (New York: International University Press, 1952). pp. 273-88.

Henry Jaglom, My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles edited by Peter Biskind (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt Books, 2013).

Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965).

J.I.M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare: Some Recent Appraisals Examined (London: Longmans, Green, 1949).

Valerie Traub, “Prince Hal’s Falstaff: Positioning Psychoanalysis and the Female Reproductive Body,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 40 (Winter 1989), pp. 456-474.

Kathleen Tynan (ed.), Letters of Kenneth Tynan (New York: Random House, 1998).

L. Arnold Weissberger, “Machiavelli and Tudor England,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 42 (December 1927), pp. 589-607.

Philip Williams, “The Birth and Death of Falstaff Reconsidered, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. VIII (1957), pp. 359-65.

Chimes at Midnight

The Final Masterpiece of Orson Welles Can Be Seen Again

Chimes at Midnight Poster

Poster accompanying 1967 release of Chimes at Midnight. As usual, US distribution policies worked at cross-purposes with Welles’s vision for his work.

It is likely that if you, like me, did not see Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’s tribute to Jack Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s great comic-tragic characters, when it was released in the United States in March 1967, you would not have ever seen it in a cinema, since it has been tied up in litigation between its Spanish producers and the Welles estate ever since. Fortunately the film has been re-released and is showing until January 12 at Manhattan’s Film Forum, and thereafter will make its way through art houses around the country.

[Update 1/12/16: The New York Film Forum has announced that the film will be held over for another week. There will be five showings daily through January 19.]

In 1967 I would not have been prepared to appreciate the film, even if I had lived in a place where the film was shown. Since then having seen all of the rest of Welles’ output, I can now put it in perspective. By the time Welles made Chimes at Midnight, he had made at least five or six of the very few films that belong among the classics of world cinema: Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Othello (1948), Touch of Evil  (1958) and The Trial (1962). Of these films, only three escaped the ravages of the Hollywood. Kane was a fluke. RKO Pictures so lusted after the head of New York’s Mercury Theatre, that they caved to the demands of Welles when he demurred. Because Welles sought artistic control rather than more money, RKO agreed and allowed Welles to make a masterpiece. When it was finished RKO realized that William Randolph Hearst would use his might to squelch the film and maybe the studio itself, and RKO cowered before might of the Hearst newspaper chain and limited Kane‘s distribution. Studios would not make the mistake of giving directors artistic freedom again, and The Magnificent Andersonand Touch of Evil were mutilated, one to make a point, the second out of sheer vulgarity. The other two of Welles’s masterpieces, Othello and The Trial, avoided the problem by avoiding the studio system altogether, although Othello suffered from such lack of ready money that it took years to complete, requiring Welles to employ imaginative shots to cover for actors who missed the one or more of infrequent shootings.

Chimes Publicity Shot

“As fat as butter” (Carrier describing Falstaff, Henry IV, Part One, II:iv:496). Welles in publicity still. (Peppercorn-Wormser Film Enterprises: Photo: Mary Evans/Alpine Films.)

Welles was able to obtain Spanish financing for Chimes at Midnight, if Bob Mandello has it right, by use of deception. He lied to the Spanish producers promising that he would develop a version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. He had no intention to do so and instead filmed Shakespeare’s version of the origin of the Lancaster House, by focusing on Falstaff. Filmed mostly in castles in Spain, Welles operated with an economy that even the most impoverished of independents today would find chafing. It is a tribute to the esteem in which Welles was held by actors that he was able to assemble an international cast of stars: Sir  John Gielgud played Henry IV, Keith Baxter was used to play Hal (later Henry V) as he did in Welles’ 1960 stage version of the Chronicle plays, Jeanne Moreau acted the part of Doll Tearsheet, Margaret Rutherford played the matronly keeper of the bawdy inn Mistress Quickly and Fernando Rey, not long after his role in Viridiana, played the cool conspirator Earl of Worcester, head of the Percy rebellion against Henry. Repertory actors Alan Webb played Shallow, Norman Rodway was Hotspur, Tony Beckley played Ned Poins and Michael Aldridge played Pistol. Welles had his daughter Beatrice play his page.

The Days We Have Seen

Shallow: “Jesus, the days that we have seen.” … Falstaff: “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” (Henry IV, Part II, III.ii. 214 & 209-10.) Welles and Alan Webb.

Much of the actors’ attraction to Welles must have arisen from his close attention to the craft of acting and his respect for actors themselves. Janet Leigh once expressed her surprise on finding out that the first two weeks of work on Touch of Evil would be spent on rehearsal, with no shooting, an approach rare enough. But Welles also solicited the opinions of the actors, which created the feeling, according to Leigh, that the entire ensemble was engaged in creation. Much of this was the result of having headed up a successful theatre company of talented players. When he came to the movies, his films would help express the actions, feelings, prospects and limitations of the characters; the viewpoint of the camera would be an extension of set design. Directors who started with film tended to see actors as simply another prop, albeit moving ones, for the spectacle to be exhibited was “moving pictures.” Since cinema began without sound, theater experience for either actor or director was something beside the point. Early movies, say those of D.W. Griffith for example, emphasized crowds and massed movement. When people were alone or encountered another, the acting was filled with histrionics. When “talkies” became established, directors still treated actors as part of the scenery. Soon framed close-ups with cuts between speakers became the standard way of showing conversation.

Tim Holt

Wide shot in The Magnificent Ambersons: Young George Miniver (Tim Holt) learns to become the center of the universe. Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) listens as George’s parents (Dolores Costello and Don Dillaway) fail to give him their full attention.

Welles almost never used close-ups, and particularly avoided them in dialogs. From the very beginning, Welles usually filmed actors, even in conversation, in medium wide shots. Some of the most dramatic scenes in his movies (Kane in front of the mirrors, Fanny in the background making breakfast with George Miniver and Jack Amberson in the foreground eating breakfast, all sorts of shots of Hank Quinlan and so forth) were wide shots and even long shots. After he and cinematographer Gregg Toland perfected the use of deep focus, he was able to show characters acting in various depths of field. In that way movies became three-dimensional in the same way stages were. And thus theater actors were more important to him.

Quinlan and Grandi

Wide shot in Touch of Evil: Quinlan (Welles) confronts Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). In a world suffocating with corruption, a man’s bearing showed his rank in the pecking order.

The dramatic camera shots perfectly fit the kinds of stories Welles preferred to tell. They involved larger-than-life characters, usually with substantial flaws but notwithstanding the flaw they were portrayed sympathetically, as figures whose actions result in a crisis or turning point for a number (sometimes a large number) of people. Even minor characters, such as Fanny Amberson, though insignificant to most people, were treated with such empathy that even though she brings on a great tragedy, we still recognize her humanity. A self-professed “romantic” (of the early 19th century variety), Welles never attempted quiet personal moments, unresolved ambiguity or divided intentions. His characters could be stopped (and usually were), but only by countervailing forces, not failure of will.

The other aspect that sets the films of Welles apart was their reliance on dialogue. Welles never worried about letting his characters talk, so long as the talk was literate. This is another carryover from the theater. This one, however, seemed to violate everything about cinema even then, and now it would be considered daring, if not suicidal, to make a movie that did not have regular visual scenes that aroused, excited, titillated or shocked the viewer. I pass this over without comment; perhaps it is simply another symptom of our passage to a pre-rational, pre-literate stage. But all of this brings us to Chimes at Midnight.

Revolted Mortimer!

Henry (Sir John Gielgud): “No, on the barren mountains let him starve. / For I shall never hold that man my friend / Whose tongue shall ask me for one penny cost / To ransom home revolted Mortimer.” (Henry IV, Part I, I:iii:88-91.) The long shot shows the king’s icy domination over the volatile Hotspur (Norman Rodway), whom he nevertheless prefers to his own son.

I'll be friends with thee

Doll: “Come, I’ll be friends with thee, Jack; thou art going to the wars, and whether I shall ever see thee again or no there is nobody cares.” (Henry IV, Part II, II:iv:64-66.) Jean Moreau and Welles.

Welles laid claim to the War of Roses plays in the late 1930s before Hollywood was a prospect for him. In April 1938, at a “Shakespeare birthday luncheon” at the Waldorf Astoria, Welles announced that his Mercury Theatre Company in connection with the Theatre Guild would mount a “marathon” two-night production of “The Five Kings,” an abridgment of both parts of Henry IV together with Henry V (shown the first night) along with Henry VI and Richard III the second night. The 22 year old Welles (in his typically sententious manner—a relic of his history of being considered a prodigy) claimed that it was his intention to restore the plays which had been “lost to the living theater.” Welles promised it would be “a cavalcade of the fifteenth century.”

Welles-Julis Caesar

Photo of production of Julius Caesar in 1937. Caesar (Joseph Holland) far right, Brutus (Welles) second from the right, Publius (Joseph Cotton) far left, and Cassius (Martin Gabel) third from the left. From: The Holloway Pages.

The announcement was made just as Welles was riding his first wave of acclaim. It had been two years since he put on the all black “voodoo” Macbeth for the Federal Theater Project. He had directed a number of other noteworthy plays including Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and The Second Hurricane (with score by Aaron Copland). He was a famous national radio actor in a variety of plays and his Shadow detective series. By the Spring of 1938, the Mercury Theatre was in its first season and was performing four plays simultaneously, two in different theaters on the same block. Welles’s daring Julius Caesar, condensed to one act, done in modern garb and presented as the story of a modern totalitarian, electrified the newspaper critics. John Mason Brown of the New York Post (November 12, 1937) was perhaps the most ecstatic, suggesting that the play was more than entertainment, rather something vital and contemporary in the context of sinister world events:

Something deathless and dangerous in the world sweeps past you down the darkened aisles at the Mercury and takes possession of the proud, gaunt stage. It is something fearful and ominous, something turbulent and to be dreaded, which distends the drama to include the life of nations as well as of men. It is an ageless warning, made in such arresting terms that it not only gives a new vitality to an ancient story but unrolls in your mind’s eye a man of the world which is increasingly splotched with sickening colors.”

Welles and his partner in Mercury John Housman cut the run of Julius Caesar short (to the dismay of the box office manager who believed it would sell out indefinitely) in order to produce new plays. (For all his devotion to personal myth-making Welles always employed it to create the best production of the stories that interested him rather than money-making.) Surprisingly, the next play, Thomas Dekker’s Elizabethan comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday, proved even more successful to newspaper critics. Brook Atkinson declared that the regular replacement of works (regardless of the continued demand) was the sign of a healthy company. (It is also of advantage to the newspaper critic.) As for the play itself, Atkinson proved he was firmly among the Welles boosters, calling it “the funniest jig of the season and the new year has begun with a burst of theatrical hilarity.” He even provided a pedestrian marketing plug: “everyone who loves a good time will want to see it.”


Welles in character as Captain Shotover from Heartbreak House on cover of Time, May 9, 1938.

The announcement by Welles of the proposed Henry plays was shortly followed by more acclaim. In May 1938 Time published a cover story on Welles. In the breathless prose the magazine used for unreflective puff pieces the article highlighted the 22-year-old’s extravagant lifestyle (large house, driver and limo, his “Falstaffian” appetite), swooned over his success (“the brightest moon that has risen over Broadway in years”) and contributed to his mad scientist reputation (“Welles is Caesar (not Brutus) where stagecraft is concerned, and in his own opinion ‘pretty dictatorial'”). But at this very time the Mercury Theatre was facing an existential crisis. Welles’s Caesarism was destroying the morale of the members (some of which simply quit). More importantly, the company was facing a financial crisis caused by its latest project. When the group took on Heartbreak House to close the season, it had to deal with the demands of the rights holder and author, George Bernard Shaw. For the first time it had to pay royalties and comply with the stage instructions of an outsider who demanded real (and expensive) sets rather than the “gimmicks” the company got away with in its revivals. And because Welles could not impose his own concepts on the text, he felt compelled to hire genuine Broadway actors, who were much more expensive than his own crew. The considerable additional expense squeezed the finances of the group and put into doubt whether it could go forward. And so both Welles and Houseman delayed plans for the next season (including postponing the start of Five Kings), which resulted in more actors quitting.

Five Kings-1

Welles as Falstaff and Burgess Meredith as Prince Hal in Five Kings. From: The Holloway Pages.

As would become a commonplace over Welles’s career, a deus ex machina saved the day. CBS Radio offered the Mercury Theatre a deal for nine one-hour radio dramas, which would become Mercury Theatre on the Air. When that engagement ended in September it was renewed until December. And then the company obtained a permanent sponsor and the show became known as the Campbell Playhouse, which would last until Welles moved to Hollywood. The weekly demands of a new radio play postponed preparation for Five Kings so repeatedly that most considered it abandoned. But the most troubling  factor was what seemed to be the inability of Welles to stir himself to attend to the details of theatrical production until things had descended to a crisis. It was what happened with the Mercury Theatre’s production of Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death, which opened in November 1938.

Five Kings-2

Hotspur (John Emery): “… men of your nobility and power did gage them both in an unjust behalf … to put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose, and plant this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke.” Five Kings, I:ix (from Henry IV, Part I, I:iii:170-174). MacGregor Gibb (as Northumberland, middle) and Eustace Wyatt (as Northumberland, right) (Lilly Library, Indiana University, from Richard France, see below.)

Welles and Houseman could be counted on for selecting a timely and often forgotten play. But if you look back on the whole of Welles’s career, this play seems a very odd choice. Late in life Welles boasted that he was a Romantic and an “enemy” of modern times. (Just as, he said, Falstaff was an enemy of his own modern times.) Welles was drawn to stories that involved large personalities, with grand themes and usually operatic plot lines. Danton’s Death, though written in 1835 during the height of European Romanticism, was anything but Romantic. Büchner’s Woyzeck, written two year later, would show that he was decades ahead of his time and thoroughly imbued with modernist sensibilities. Although less daring than WoyzeckDanton’s Death looked decades into the future. The latter play, therefore, simply did not have any resonance with Welles. More problematic, however, was that Welles had no concept, no “gimmick,” to apply to it. The essence of Welles’ theater direction was always in staging and choreography. He was not particularly an actor’s director. But with Danton’s Death he had no grand concept to push and so he seems to have lost interest.

The lackluster piece marked the turning point for many newspaper critics, some of which were already fed up with the adulation of the 23 year old. (Perhaps it also had something to do with the brouhaha caused by the Mercury Theatre of the Air’s radio production of World of the Worlds the previous week.) The Brooklyn Eagle-Examiner (Nov. 6, 1938) ran the headline: “Orson Welles does Büchner’s Danton’s Death Over to a Little thing of his Own, Enjoying Life as a Boy Prodigy” (only in all caps). John Mason Brown, the Post‘s critic who gave the breathless review of Julius Caesar said (Nov. 5, 1938) Danton’s Death was too “arty” and “too self-conscious for comfort.” It was panned for being slow and episodic. Edward Watts of the New York Herald-Tribune (Nov. 3, 1938) deprecated the staging: “Every movement is made as if it were artistically precious, and it manages to achieve not a rhythm that seems appropriate to the French Revolution but rather one that indicates a belief on Mr. Welles’s part that everything he is doing is significant.” Even Brooks Atkinson had doubts. He called Welles an “erratic genius” and criticized Welles’s action saying “[h]is eccentric phrasing … sacrifices meaning to apostolic sound.” In a second comment a week later Atkinson was more prophetic:

“Plays have to give way to his whims, and actors have to subordinate their art when he gets under way, for The Shadow is the monarch of all he surveys. It is no secret that his willfulness and impulsiveness may also wreck his Mercury Theatre, for he is a thorough egoist in the grand manner of the old-style tragedian.”

Five Kings would fulfill the prophesy.

In the first place, the concept was hubris reified. The idea of putting on three Shakespeare plays (that at best clock in at near 4 hours each) and parts of four others in two nights was problematic at best. When it was announced, it was simply a wish, because Welles had not even outlined the script yet. Nor would he get to it until pressed. But the idea was not to isolate one theme or idea of the plays, but rather to simply condense them all. This was inherently problematic. But it interested the moribund Theatre Guild from whom Houseman arranged fairly generous support.

Master Planx 1 & 2

Two of James Morcom’s master plans for the stage with rotating device. There were also three battlefield plans. From Richard France (see below).

Second, the “gimmick” that Welles came up with to tie everything together (and perhaps speed things up) was a revolving stage. In addition to the stationary aprons the stage would hold a 28-foot circular palette, rotated by an electric motor, with wooden curtains behind that would allow stage hands to change scenes. The sections marked off by walls had doors or gates to allow actors to move from one scene to another.  The concept may have worked well in a permanent theater setup, but the production was intended to tour several cities before opening in New York. Only an incurable optimist would believe that this mechanism (which was the central feature of the set) would work flawlessly, and no thought was given to a back-up plan. The revolving stage also impacted rehearsals because the build took up most of the time allotted for them.

But the main problem was the disinterest shown by the procrastination of Orson Welles himself. He delayed in producing a script. (In the end only the first night’s production was ever written, making the affair more like Three Kings). He arrived very late for rehearsals and wasted time while there. The problem was compounded by casting a kindred spirit in Burgess Meredith as Hal. The two encouraged each other to carouse both on and off the set. The two often missed rehearsals entirely.

Simon Callow described the problem as a combination of all the foregoing:

Five Kings-3

Falstaff (Welles): “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” (Five Kings, I:xix, from Henry IV, Par ii, III:ii:209-210). Edgar Kent (as Shallow, left) and Fred Stewart (as Silence, left). From Richard France (see below).

“Welles’s one interest in Five Kings was staging it; without the turntable, he had no motive to work. Indeed, one of the problems Welles had increasingly to face in the theatre was that, denied the enormous resources of the Federal Theatre Project, his method of working without any plan, without even any tentative moves, of depending on the inspiration of the moment and what the other actors and the setting would offer him, was totally impractical. Only a fully subsidised European State Theatre could have provided him with what he wanted: the full set in the rehearsal room from the first day. So he stayed away, until the technical period, when he could really work on the set. Meanwhile the other actors struggled on as best they could. This was not very well at all.”

Perhaps it was the lavish budgets of Hollywood once he would discover them and their technical proficiency that kept bringing Welles back, even after he discovered Hollywood was not as enamored with him as the New York stage had been.

As the debut came closer the work became more frantic. It was not until close to the opening that Welles realized that his script needed to be pared down to get the performance under five hours. Because the trimming was within scenes (rather than eliminating some), it made the play more episodic, requiring stage changes (and rotations of the turntable) more frequent. In the end the crisis mentality created a disaster rather than the theater magic that Welles generally pulled off at the last minute.

The Boston premier from a technical viewpoint was a nightmare. The rapidly rotating rotary flung parts of the scenery into the audience. The narrator, who was supposed to disappear by walking through a door on the rotary, became so afraid of the device that he exited into the orchestra pit. And the show clocked at nearly 4 and a half hours, ending around 12:30. Bostonians, used to shows not nearly ready for Broadway, were not especially vicious. The AP report only complained that it needed to be trimmed more. By the end of the Boston schedule it had been trimmed to three and a half hours, but it was still not a triumph and critics were ready to pounce.

- their stings and teeth newly ta'en out

Henry (Gielgud), about to die, warns Hal (Baxter): “… all my friends, which thou must make thy friends, have but their stings and teeth newly ta’en out … ” (Henry IV, Part II, IV:v:205-206). Henry’s advice points out to Hal the rules of an entirely different life than that pursued by Falstaff.

The ambitious road tour was cancelled, and the production moved to Washington, D.C. where the critics were mainly interested in the internal politics of the show. The Baltimore stop was cancelled and finally it landed in its last road destination, Philadelphia, where the final indignities met it. The theater was not equipped for the electrical requirements of the rotating stage, nor could it be fixed in time. So the stage hands were required to push the thing around, at glacial speed. The stage itself was not a good fit for the rotating stage in any event and accommodating it compromised audience view. The critics were generally negative about all aspect of the production but the one review that had to have cut Welles the most was written in the Philadelphia Inquirer (March 21, 1939), which unfavorably compared Welles’s portray of Falstaff with Maurice Evens who performed the role on Broadway several years before. The critic went so far as to say that Welles had either “understudied or mis-studied his part.” Leaving no stone unturned the critic concluded that “To compare Orson Welles’s Falstaff to Mr. Evans’s Falstaff, John Emery’s Hotspur to Wesley Addy’s Hotspur, Burgess Meredith’s Prince Hal to Winston O’Keefe’s Prince of Wales or Mr. Welles’s course-keyed direction to the electrifying direction of Margaret Webster would be as unconscionable as it would be unkind.”

The show never made it to New York and the Mercury Theatre, at least as a playhouse company, ceased to exist. Welles would be off to Hollywood, for better or worse. But the one project he would not forget was Five Kings. Houseman thought that the reason he originally pursued it was because of his distaste for Maurice Evans: “Five Kings was never purely an aesthetic conception—it was conditioned in its conception and its execution by a desire to go Evans one better.” Half a century later Welles called Evans one of the “bums” to Peter Bogdanovich.

And so, once his affair with Hollywood was finally over, Welles returned to the Hal–Falstaff story with a production on the Dublin stage of Chimes at Midnight, which starred as Hal Keith Baxter as would his film five years later. Over the many years since the failed play, Welles’s conception changed drastically. And so did his plan for the drama. It was no longer to be a condensation of Shakespeare, it was to focus on Falstaff, who Welles came to view as the central tragic figure.

Inquire at London

Seeking his son, Henry (Gielgud) orders: “I would to God, my lords, he might be found. Inquire at London ‘mongst the taverns there; for there, they say, he daily doth frequent with unrestrained loose companions …” (Richard II, V:iii:4-7).

Chimes at Midnight is not really a filmed version of Shakespeare. The two Henry IV plays are mostly about royal succession. Falstaff is a (large) maguffin to explain why Prince Hal (the heir to the throne) is not loyal to his father. The Henry IV plays, like most Shakespeare “message” plays, have more than one relationship ostensibly or formally similar but inherently somewhat different. In the two Henry IV plays there are four Henrys, making two father-son relations: Henry IV and Prince Hal and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, the father of Henry Percy, called Hotspur for his volatile temper. The King despairs of his son, the Prince of Wales, because he is dissolute, spending his time with Sir John Falstaff, unlike Hotspur, who is zealous in putting down rebellions. Henry IV expressly wishes that Hotspur were his son. Hotspur’s father, Northumberland, proves to be unreliable. During the climactic battle between the Percys and the King, Northumberland fails to send his forces and as a result his son, Hotspur, is killed (by Hal, to tie up the other father-son parallels). The reason that all of this has more than passing interest than just another group of barbarians fighting for power, has to do with another Medieval type: the sanctity of kingship. Henry IV, with the assistance of the senior Percys, overthrew and killed Richard II.  If the divine right of kings meant anything, then Henry IV did not possess that sanction. And Henry through two plays agonized about it. That together with his errant son hounded him to death. Hal on the other hand is attracted to the dissolute Falstaff as a father figure, because Jack (as he is known) represents everything that Henry his father is not—unconstrained, irreligious, lacking in class-based or psychoanalytic restraints. Falstaff becomes a major figure in Shakespeare’s works because like Hamlet (and a few others in smaller ways) he is aware that the existing order is in disarray and that sanity lies in not taking part. Hamlet, however, has stakes in the status quo, at least enough to “fix” it. Falstaff has no stakes except Hal, who will likely become king. The likelihood is so important that Falstaff goes to war together with Hal to put down the Percys’ rebellion.  But he does it, not because he believes in the order of things, but for Hal.

Wherefore do I tell thee

Henry to Hal: “Why, Harry, do I tell thee of my foes, Which art my nearest and dearest enemy? Thou that art like enough, through vassal fear Base inclination, and the start of spleen,To fight against me under Percy’s pay …” (Henry IV, Part I, III:ii:122–126).

Exploring all this is why Shakespeare takes so much time in development. But because the lynchpin of the social order of medieval society (divine ordering of succession) has no interest to us, much of the drama in the historical plays escapes us. And Welles rightly (for us) dispenses with it. So the Shakespeare that survives is not the Renaissance Shakespeare willing to explore the essence of medieval social orderings (because we have long lost interest in that). It is rather a different Shakespeare. Welles converted Shakespeare’s Renaissance historical analysis into (as Vincent Canby noted) a Romantic novel, which focuses primarily on the psychological dimensions of the relationship between Hal and Falstaff with Falstaff as the central character. Other attempts have been made to “modernize” Shakespeare, including Laurence Olivier and Welles himself. But if one is interested in the Shakespeare of psychological verisimilitude (rather than, say, the expressionistic Shakespeare that is the essence of Macbeth or Lear). then Chimes of Midnight is the best of what is on film.

To accomplish the conversion of the Renaissance Shakespeare discussing political matters of no interest to us to a Shakespeare of psychological relevance to our time required an extensive re-write. And Welles put together new dialogue spliced from several plays, created new scenes by cobbling together parts of unconnected scenes and slimming down the plot line by making the one battle shown (Shrewsbury) the pivotal event. You can get an idea of how Welles wove together fragments by looking at the following chart which gives the sources for the dialogue in the first few scenes of the movie:

Source Chart

If you go back to the original plays, you can see that Welles was indeed rewriting Shakespeare. Early in his Mercury Theatre career literary critics sharply denounced his tampering with Shakespeare. Mary McCarthy, then writing for the Partisan Review, said of Julius Caesar: “The production of Caesar turns into a battleground between Mr. Welles’s play and Shakespeare’s play. Mr. Welles has cut the play to pieces—turned Cassius into a shrewd and jovial comedian; Caesar into a mechanical, expressionless robot; Antony into a repulsive and sinister demagogue.” But of course any condensation requires the loss of something. The same was true in Five Kings when Welles was aiming at a shorter version but one still faithful to the themes and characterizations of Shakespeare. His approach to Chimes at Midnight was quite different. Falstaff would no longer be the witty vagabond who tempted Hal away from his duty. Falstaff would become the centerpiece. The palace intrigues and plots were cut down to a minimum, kept mainly to explain the choice to be made by Hal. Worcester is reduced to a petty plotter, but Welles uses Hollinshed’s words to justify it. Northumberland’s failure as a plotter, not to mention as a father, is not a part of the film. And Henry IV is portrayed as set upon by plotters with no probing of the guilt that comes with usurping the throne, regicide and his war against the rightful occupant, Hotspur’s bother-in-law Mortimer. Characters at the tavern are reduced and other minor figures are eliminated or only seen briefly.

The reduction of the political aspect could have been problematic because its complexity seems to require longer explication. But Welles pulls it off deftly by compressing dialogue which took place over a longer time in the plays into single scenes. The episodic nature (which plagued Five Kings) is thus avoided. And even more cleverly, scenes seem to anticipate the next (when Henry explains how his son frequents the taverns, the next scene is the tavern itself, for example).

Imitate the Sun

Hal: “Yet herein I shall imitate the sun …” (Henry IV, Part I, I:ii:195).

That is not to say that aspects are not enigmatic. The character of Hal is somewhat unbelievable. Hal is a type to make the exploration of succession and filial loyalty the centerpiece. Hals’s problem is to decide between the mincing morality of his compromised father and the “freedom” of Falstaff, who is beyond a conscience formed by a corrupt society (as all societies are). It would be easy enough to show the choice to be illusory. He is heir apparent and must do his duty to the kingdom. (Shakespeare’s Tudor audience would undoubtedly have agreed.) Nor is the fact that he spent his youth debauched surprising. It is not only monarchs who end up in powerful positions after a dissolute youth. What makes Hal’s character seem untrue to life is the secret resolution he articulates to continue his debaucheries so that when he ultimately reforms (when he becomes king) the people will marvel at the transformation, like the sun emerging from clouds (see Henry IV, Part I, I:ii:193-215). This is a problem in the original play, not one caused by Welles.

The resolution can perhaps be considered the rationalization of an egocentric. He is never shown to act empathetically toward anyone, and the film certainly plays up the mean-spiritedness of Hal. At the end of the movie we see that Hal (now Henry V) is utterly without feeling and perhaps that is the best way to tie up the character. Shakespeare cannot do so because he continues with Henry V, where Hal becomes the hero. How are we to avoid distaste for such a character?

A.D. Nuttall propounds the theory that Hal is like the “Friend” in the sonnets whom Shakespeare loves and whose unresponsiveness Shakespeare admires. He points to Sonnet 94, where he approves of his Friend’s ability to conceal his intentions and indeed says that being “unmoved” and “cold” imitates “heavenly graces”:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.

It is true that once he becomes king, Hal urges his followers to have their brow overwhelm their eyes like “a galled rock” (Henry V, III:1:12), but he is giving a war speech there. Maybe, however, the ability to control one’s countenance (which is another way of dissemble one’s intentions) is necessary for a king. Nuttal, however, has another explanation:

“If this were the nineteenth century I should now be permitted to speculate—to wonder whether Prince Hall was not founded on the beloved Friend, whether our difficulties with the prince may not arise from the fact that we, unlike Shakespeare, are not in love with him, that for us he gives light but not warmth, to wonder whether the rejected Falstaff, the myriad-minded, the genius with words, the messy, disordered man, might not be an ectype of Shakespeare himself, who in the sonnet made an intense effort to give praise to the other sort, to the beautiful, reserved man.”

However we explain Hal, and whether or not Falstaff was Shakespeare’s alter ego, it is clear that Welles invests Falstaff with all his own views. In the latter part of his life Welles often talked of disliking modern times. (Some of Welles’s narration in F for Fake, for example, elaborates on that feeling.) This is perhaps a common enough feeling among men after 50 especially if they believe they were not allowed the success they feel entitled to. But Welles had long felt that modern times had ruined more Edenic times where he belonged. After all, The Magnificent Ambersons, made in his mid-twenties, showed how a golden age had been overwhelmed by an uglier age of technology and base commerce. Welles makes Falstaff into a romantic who longed for return of Arthurian days.  The present days are an iron age compared to the once golden one.

Welles does not make up Falstaff’s idealistic nostalgia. There are a few hints in the play: In Henry IV, Part II, II:4:33 Fastaff enters singing “When Arthur first in court … .” More importantly in Henry V when his former friends are discussing whether he is in heaven or hell, Hostess replies that he is not in hell, but rather in “Arthur’s bosom” (II:iii:9-10). (Hostess confuses Arthur with Abraham in the parable (Luke 16:19-31), and it is clear that she sees Falstaff as the poor Lazarus, denied succor from the powerful in life, who ends in paradise in the afterlife.)

Welles took these ideas, enlarged upon them and made them the basis for his characterization of Falstaff. The concept corresponded to his own thinking at the time. The JFK administration was popularizing the notion of Camelot as ideal, and the assassination proved that it was a lost ideal. Welles himself (like Broadway and the JFK administration) got his concept of Camelot from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which he reportedly read at rehearsals of Chimes at Midnight.

Falstaff thus became in the film an idealist, with pure morals and the right view of how men should behave. But he was trapped in an unkind and corrupt age. Falstaff’s witticisms are not the empty chatter of a dipsomaniac but rather the currency he uses to accommodate himself to the times and its inhabitants. He holds himself in more esteem than others do (which makes him look foolish) but in this he is being true to himself who is out of place and out of time. That he is a small time highwayman does not make him a criminal in these times where even the greatest of men trade in the deepest crimes. That he lives in a tavern among thieves and prostitutes merely illustrates the degeneracy of the age.

Opening Scene

Opening scene with Falstaff and Shallow.

The blighted, barren and dark condition of the times is on view from the very first scene outside Shallow’s castle where Falstaff and Shallow walk among the leafless trees in dead of winter. Even high places are blighted, however. The palaces are dark, vacant and cavelike. Henry’s court is lined with silent soldiers showing the ever present danger to even the head of state. Henry is plagued by the fear of plots and rebellions and cannot count on his own son to aid him. The outdoors are barren of forests, instead soldiers’ pikes take the place of trees.

The elite of these times think of nothing but plotting for their own survival. Hotspur, whom Henry would fain have his son over Hal, thinks of nothing but military victory. He ignores his beautiful and playful wife, even avoiding her caresses, the quicker to be off to battle. Only the rabble know that there is no glory in war. When Falstaff goes off to muster troops for Henry’s defense, the men all seek to avoid it. But as in all corrupt times the poor must pay dearly for the folly of the powerful.

I'll canvass thee between a pair of sheets

Doll to Falstaff who threatens to do harm to Pistol: “Do, an thou darest for thy heart. An thou dost, I’ll canvass thee between a pair of sheets.” ( Henry IV, Part 2, II:iv:219-220).

It is only at the Boar’s Tavern that anything like congenial human intercourse takes place. And here Falstaff is clearly the king. Welles invests the character with gravitas even as he acts the clown. The performance is undoubtedly Welles’s revenge on Maurice Evans. Key to the atmosphere is the earnest goodness of Hostess, called Mistress Quickly, played by Margaret Rutherford. Jeanne Moreau’s Doll Tearsheet, erotic, young, attractive and fiercely protective of Falstaff, adds dimension to him, showing that he has qualities that evoke tenderness and devotion.

Falstaff as Henry

Falstaff (as King Henry): “There is a thing, Harry, which thou hast often heard of, and it is known to many in our land by the name of pitch. This pitch—as ancient writers do report—doth defile, so doth the company thou keepest.” (Henry IV, Part I, II:iv:403-406.)

But the central dynamic of the film is between Falstaff and Hal. Falstaff clearly loves him and while Hal never reciprocates Falstaff is not put off. In fact he ignores all the many hints that Hal will not repay the affection Falstaff has lavished on him. Falstaff sees Hal as something of a son and accepts him as he is, something that Hal’s own father is incapable of doing. In the play within a play Falstaff takes the part of Hal’s father Henry and lectures him the way his father would, except that he explains the virtues of Falstaff. When the two change parts, Hal as King Henry berates Falstaff. Falstaff as Hal pleads Falstaff’s defense and concludes by saying: “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” (Henry IV, Part I, II:iv:465.) To this, Hal replies: “I do, I will.” (line 466). It is a startling foreshadowing of what Hal intends, but the conversation is immediately broken off when an announcement is made that the sheriff and “a most monstrous watch” is at the door.  Earlier in the film a similar hint is dropped and again not picked up. When Hal at first refuses to rob a group of pilgrims on the next morning, Falstaff humorously prodding him says: “By the Lord, I’ll be a traitor then, when thou art King.” Hal replies coldly: “I care not.” (Henry IV, Part I, I:ii:144-146).

Falstaff earnestly believes in Hal’s loyalty and on occasion asks how Hal will act as king. Hal is always non-committal. So it is not a shock to us when Hal, made Henry V, betrays Falstaff. The moment is nonetheless stunning because Welles plays Falstaff with such joyous enthusiasm in his quest to pay obeisance to the new king. When he prostrates himself before his new liege, the heartless brutality of the rejection is so sudden and so cruel that it is devastating. And Welles perfectly expresses the devastation, which will soon lead to his death. The film ends with the death of Falstaff and the remembrances by his friends unlike Five Kings and so is more successful as a narrative.

I have omitted mention of the thing that is usually first noted when discussing Chimes at Midnight: the battle of Shrewsbury. The scene is rightly lauded for its look and its influence on later films which portray medieval hand-to-hand combat. It involved months of editing by Welles and turns out not only as a perfect visualization of such a battle, but also adds to the theme of desolate times. The battle takes place in a muddy lifeless slough. The intensity, violence, cruelty and hatred it conveys depict everything that Falstaff deplores about the age. It marks the break between Hal and Falstaff (although Falstaff does not know it or admit it to himself) since Hal has finally impressed his father by killing Hotspur and acclimated himself to the nasty, brutal and short life of the warrior king. (The last we see of him at the end of the film he is off to make war on the French.)

The movie is a deeply thoughtful conception of the characters created by Shakespeare. Unless you are of the group that find any tampering with the bard to be sacrilege, I think you will find it engaging. (Of course, one is  better prepared if he has at least a summary of the plots of the two Henry IV plays in mind; otherwise things may become murky.) It has the original cinematography and imaginative staging that one expects from any film by Welles, and the acting is uniformly of high quality, with especial efforts by Gielgud, Moreau and Rutherford.

After the run at the Film Forum the film is scheduled for national distribution and possibly a release on video disc. The restoration is not a 4K one, which I read would take several more years. It is instead a “DCP restoration,” which is a digital restoration of some sort and therefore avoided by purists. But we live in corrupt times just like Falstaff’s and we are unlikely to see real film (rather than a digital file) ever again. But to paraphrase Shallow, “Oh! the films we have seen!”

Update 3/8/2016: Further thoughts on Chimes at Midnight are found in Shakespeare, Freud, Machiavelli and Welles: The “Prince Hal Problem”


____, “New Drama Built upon Shakespeare,” New York Times, April 24, 1938, p. 41 (online; subscription required).

_____, “The Theatre: Marvelous Boy,” Time, May 9, 1938 (online; subscription required).

Associated Press, “Welles’s ‘Five Kings’ Cheered in Boston,” New York Times, February 28, 1939, p. 23 (online; subscription required).

Brooks Atkinson, “Mercury Theatre Adds Dekker’s ‘The Shoemakers’ Holiday’ to Its Repertory,” New York Times, January 3, 1938, p. 17 (online; subscription required).

Brooks Atkinson, “Mercury Going Up,” New York Times, January 9, 1938,  Section 10, p. [1] (online; subscription required).

Brooks Atkinson, “Mercury Theatre Reopens with Orson Welles’s Production of ‘Danton’s Death,'” New York Times, November 3, 1938, p. 28 (online; subscription required).

Brooks Atkinson, “Gotham Hobgoblin: Orson Welles Frightening Little Playgoers in ‘Danton’s Death,'” New York Times, November 13, 1938, Section 9, p. [1] (online; subscription required).

Peter Bogdanovitch and Orson Welles, This is Orson Welles (ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum) (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).

Simon Callow, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu (New York: Viking, 1996).

Vincent Canby, “‘Chimes at Midnight,’ Welles’s Own Shakespeare,” New York Times, June 19, 1992, p. C15 (online; open access).

Peter Conrad, Orson Welles: The Story of his Life (London: Faber and Faber, ©2oo3).

Richard France (ed.), Orson Welles on Shakespeare: The W.P.A. and Mercury Theatre Playscripts (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, ©1990).

Lawrence Langner, The Magic Curtain (New York: Dutton, 1951).

Mary McCarty, Sights and Spectacles (New York: Ferrar Strauss, 1956).

A.D. Nuttall, A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the Representation of Reality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).

,it is