The last piece I wrote for Movie Poster of the Week in 2015 was about Doctor Zhivago. Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, which competed against Zhivago at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival (they both lost out for the Grand Prize to Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman and Pietro Germi’s The Birds, The Bees and the Italians) was actually filmed next door to Zhivago in Spain in late 1964 and early 1965. In Peter Bogdanovich’s book of interviews with the director, Welles talks about a conversation that takes place next to a fireplace:
“That scene was originally to have been shot in the skeleton of an orchard with poor little black trees in the snow... We moved indoors for it because we couldn’t get the snow. David Lean, making Doctor Zhivago next door to us, took off for Finland with a company of thousands chasing snowflakes. But I found an old house.”
Zhivago’s budget was $11 million. Welles’s was only $800, 000 and he could only make the film under the pretense of making an adaptation of Treasure Island at the same time.
Chimes at Midnight, which is currently playing in a pristine restored version (on DCP) at New York’s Film Forum, has been notoriously hard to see for the past 50 years, mostly because of rights issues (it was a Spanish-Swiss co-production), It was Welles’ favorite of his own films, and may well be his masterpiece. Because of the vagaries of its distribution (it was released in the States by a an arthouse-exploitation company called Peppercorn-Wormser, Inc.) I am not sure where and when the film became known as Falstaff rather than Chimes at Midnight, but the US, French, Belgian and German posters all refer to it that way. Welles first played Falstaff at the age of 23 in 1938 in a Mercury Theater adaptation of a number of Shakespeare’s History plays called Five Kings. When he revived the project in 1960 in Belfast and Dublin as Chimes at Midnight, he was 45 years old and had grown into the larger-than-life character. It would be his final appearance in a theatrical play.
The posters for the film naturally make much of Falstaff’s outsized character, none more so than the US one sheet where he towers like a giant over Jeanne Moreau and Margaret Rutherford and the armies of the Battle of Shrewsbury. Which makes it all the more significant that, for Janus’s re-release, the artist Sterling Clinton Hundley went in the other direction, diminishing Falstaff—the most poignant and put-upon of Shakespeare’s great characters—behind the newly crowned Prince Hal and a flag-bearing foot soldier.
Film Forum is following its run of Chimes at Midnight with a series of Shakespeare films called Stratford on Houston, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. Readers might be interested in another piece I put together a couple of years ago on posters for Shakespeare adaptations.