Orson Welles’ career is the stuff of legend – wunderkind Hollywood golden boy with Citizen Kane, then losing most of his subsequent films to studio interference, and eventually finding it impossible to raise enough money to even complete the films he wanted to make. By 1965 when he made Chimes at Midnight, the funding came from Spain and Switzerland, and the film barely got a release in the US. Even before becoming a big shot Hollywood actor/writer/director, Welles was already a noted Shakespearean scholar and actor, and in the late 1940s, his film output shifted to Shakespeare as well, with versions of Macbeth and Othello. He’d long intended to do a Falstaff story, combining the five plays featuring the characters – a stage version called Five Kings hadn’t quite gotten off the ground as early as 1939, then he staged it in 1960, when it was also unsuccessful. Undaunted, he focused on a film version, which became Chimes at Midnight (sometimes known as just Falstaff). Unlike many of his projects during his later career, Chimes at Midnight was finished, and finished pretty much according to Welles’ wishes.
Upon initial release, the film was dismissed by critics, but it has since gained a reputation as one of Welles’ greatest films – Welles himself felt it was his best work. Rights issues have plagued the film, however, and it’s been very difficult to see in any kind of decent quality (it is watchable on YouTube). Rumor has it that the print screened at TCM Fest (courtesy of Filmoteca España) will soon make its way to DVD/Blu-ray, which would be great. As of now, though, the people who saw it at TCM Fest have probably seen the best version of it since its original release.