- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2004

During 75 years of talking pictures, just three actor-directors — Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles and Kenneth Branagh — have made a concerted effort to reconcile Shakespearean theater with popular filmmaking. Mr. Welles (1915-1985) began thinking of himself as a Shakespearean prodigy and budding actor-manager while in prep school near Chicago in the late 1920s. He’s the subject of a career retrospective at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre; two of his Shakespearean productions, “Macbeth” (1948) and “Othello” (1952), are among the selections.

This convenience is diminished somewhat by the absence of the third Shakespearean movie in the Welles collection, “Chimes at Midnight,” also known as “Falstaff.” Filmed in Spain in the winter of 1964-65, it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966. Released theatrically in the United States a year later, it proved an art-house curiosity rather than an art-house triumph. However, it has grown more precious in retrospect, so much so that it seems shortsighted of Hollywood peers not to have nominated two of the performers for Oscars when they were eligible in 1967: Mr. Welles for his Falstaff and John Gielgud, a magnificent Henry IV.

One of the gratifying things about the Welles cycle is that it improved as the filmmaker persisted in competing with Laurence Olivier as a cinematic Shakespearean. Mr. Welles approached the movies with a far more dynamic, even ravenous, affinity for the camera. However, the prestige of the Olivier films of the 1940s, “Henry V” and “Hamlet,” left the makeshift Welles versions of “Macbeth” and “Othello” at a decisive disadvantage when they were new.

The disadvantages were magnified when critics listened for comparisons. Mr. Welles placed a sometimes maddening faith in his ability to patch together a soundtrack of ill-matched readings. Disembodied voices became a recurrent defect of his piecemeal shooting methods. His own sonorous voice defied concealment, so it’s easy to detect him dubbing subsidiary characters whenever he thinks it expedient to bridge a gap in the fractured sound recording. For example, you hear him dubbing Rodrigo in “Othello” before he has a scene as the Moor.

The box-office disappointments of “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons” in the early 1940s, when Mr. Welles was the boy wonder of show business, had not derailed his potential as a leading man. He also retrenched as a director by getting into the thriller swim with “Journey Into Fear,” “The Stranger” and “The Lady From Shanghai.”

The success of Mr. Olivier’s “Henry V” had created a Shakespearean incentive for the first time since the middle 1930s, when “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet” had been hits for Warner Bros. and MGM, respectively.

Mr. Welles’ “Macbeth” ended up haplessly wedged between “Henry V” and Mr. Olivier’s “Hamlet,” the Academy Award-winning movie of 1948. Mr. Welles financed it on a modest budget of $700,000 at Republic Pictures, identified with Westerns but susceptible to occasional novelties. There was some horse riding and fighting in “Macbeth,” of course.

Mr. Welles rehearsed his cast by arranging to stage a production at the University of Utah. This work-in-progress was then transposed to a Republic soundstage, where the severely cut text seemed to petrify on a craggy, fog-shrouded setting meant to simulate the grounds of Macbeth’s castle. The good moments are as transitory as distant flashes of lightning. One suspects Mr. Welles would have been happier isolated on a fake mountaintop, declaiming in solitude while backstage thunder and lightning punctuated his reveries.

“Macbeth” proved oddly suffocating while wedded to a soundstage. “Othello” was all over the place — or the Mediterranean, to be exact. Mr. Welles spent about three years shooting scenes with disparate casts in disparate locations, counting on his virtuosity to cover all blunders and inconsistencies once the footage was sorted out in the editing room. The fitful odyssey is very enjoyably chronicled by Micheal Mac Liammoir, Mr. Welles’ Iago, in a memoir titled “Put Money in Thy Purse.”

It appears that Mr. Welles may have replenished the “Othello” fund by anticipating the Bialystock-and-Bloom gambit of selling far more than 100 percent of the budget to multiple backers. Republic made back its investment on “Macbeth” despite fretting about the commercial prospects and delaying a New York debut for more than a year.

It may be impossible to retrace the cash flows that kept “Othello” afloat. Mr. Welles repeatedly postponed production in order to play roles in other movies: “The Third Man,” “Prince of Foxes,” “The Black Rose.”

It appears that “Chimes at Midnight” was better organized. The production was confined to Spain, with interiors shot in a converted warehouse near Madrid. Belatedly, Mr. Welles got around to recruiting a substantial ensemble of British actors. Their skills in pivotal roles — Mr. Gielgud as the king, the young Keith Baxter as Prince Hal, Norman Rodway as Hotspur, Alan Webb as Justice Shallow — reinforced the central performance.

Orson Welles was an irresistibly oversized and touching Falstaff. In a somewhat alarming way, he had grown into an exemplary movie Shakespearean, still operating a bit raggedly but surrounded by a company that could do him proud.

EVENT: Revivals of the Orson Welles Shakespearean films “Macbeth” and “Othello”

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre as part of the series “The Films of Orson Welles.” 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring

WHEN: “Macbeth” Sunday at 4 p.m. and Wednesday at 8:55 p.m.; “Othello” Monday at 3 p.m. and Wednesday at 7 p.m.

ADMISSION: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors 65 and olderPHONE: 301/495-6720

WEB SITE: www.afi.com/silver

VIDEO EDITIONS: “Macbeth” on Republic Pictures Home Video, “Othello” on Image Entertainment DVD, “Chimes at Midnight” on Arthur Cantor Film/Video Collection

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