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All's well that is Welles

Some of the best of the last at the HFA
By A.S. HAMRAH  |  November 24, 2008

CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT: The swiftest and most unconventional of Shakespeare adaptations.

“Orson Welles the Unknown” | Harvard Film Archive | November 29-December 1
The late work of Orson Welles — some of which is screening this weekend at the Harvard Film Archive — really means everything he did after 1950 or so, the post-Hollywood period that began less than a decade after Citizen Kane. In other words, it begins when many other artists are just getting started, when he's in his mid 30s. Maybe that's the cost of precocity. Or maybe, as Falstaff says in Part One of Henry IV, "Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it." Most of this work is scattered; much of it is incomplete. Welles went his own way, and he's still paying the price.

Welles plays Falstaff in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1965; November 29 at 7 pm), the magisterial yet ever-youthful film he created by combining and cutting down five of Shakespeare's plays plus texts from Holinshed's Chronicles. He made it well into his late period, but he was only middle-aged when it came out. Chimes is a great work by a man concerned only with youth and old age. Keith Baxter's Prince Hal and Welles's Falstaff are like the young Kane and the old Kane Welles played himself 25 years earlier.

In Germany, they treat their great filmmakers right. There is a foundation dedicated to preserving and distributing Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films. The Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung preserves work by the director of Nosferatu and Sunrise and also films by other great directors of the classic period. In the US, there is no foundation doing this for Welles. The scattered fragments and the hard-to-find works, in all their various cuts and versions, should be collected and preserved in one place. What is the NEA for if not to fund this?

Under the auspices of the Harvard Film Archive and the Goethe-Institute Boston, Stefan Drössler, director of the Munich Film Museum, is bringing "Orson Welles the Unknown" to the HFA. The line-up includes three of Welles's least-available features and two evenings of fragments from unfinished works and rare programs he made for TV.

Chimes at Midnight is swirling, fast-moving, as if the cinema were being whipped. It seems Russian, like Tarkovsky and Eisenstein, or made in Hong Kong, dubbed like a sword-and-sandal epic, or as if the sound were coming from a radio in a different room. All the characteristics of Welles's late style, which we can now see for what they are rather than as flaws, achieve apotheosis in this swiftest and most unconventional of Shakespeare adaptations. In retrospect, Welles's strange and brooding OTHELLO (1952; November 30 at 3 pm), with its peculiar editing style featuring characters cut in from another dimension, seems like a study for Chimes. Shot, like Chimes, in a black-and-white that's instantly recognizable as Welles's, it appears here in its 1992 restoration, which adjusted the sound to make it more normal, to make the actors seem less dubbed.

No Welles fan will want to miss Drössler's "UNFINISHED WORKS" program (December 1 at 7 pm), which features scenes from fragment films like The Deep (a thriller Welles started in the late 1960s), The Other Side of the Wind, and The Dreamers. One of those last two (I don't even remember which) has an erotic scene set in the front seat of a moving car that is so unexpected and original — and yet so much of the time of its shooting, in the early 1970s — that it makes you want to liberate the rest of the footage from that project and start in on a rough cut yourself.

Related: Sweet smell of skill, Review: Me and Orson Welles, Buñuel continues to delight, confound, and shock, More more >
  Topics: Features , Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Orson Welles, Orson Welles,  More more >
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