Caught up with three movies over the last week or so, one online and the other two on DVD.
I discovered that Orson Welles' extraordinary movie, Chimes at Midnight, was available online for free. This is a movie he made in two sections over a period of several months, as finances allowed, and in which he used doubles for some of his actors when necessary, and which has an audio track that is often less than excellent. The film has no appearance of having been made piecemeal; the photography and editing have a surprising consistency, given their origins. Certainly the soundtrack is muffled at times, particularly amongst some of the younger actors, and even Welles can be hard to hear, but when it's good it's very very good.
Welles' performance is very much focused on the body - and of course he has plenty of reason for it to be so, given that many of the other characters spend a great deal of time insulting this obese man in an enormously wide range of language and metaphor. John Gielgud gives a marvellous performance, with every word clear as a bell. He moves very little, his regal status relying on the immense strength of personality Gielgud brings to the part. Keith Baxter, who had played Prince Hal in the onstage version of Welles' collation of Shakespeare's historical plays, swings from the skipping, laughing fool of a youth to the strong new King in the later scenes after going through a period of self-discovery.
Margaret Rutherford appears randomly throughout as Mistress Quickly, and eschews her usual slightly daffy screen personality in favour of a woman who knows what she's about and yet has a soft heart for her most recalcitrant customer. Jeanne Moreau is Doll Tearsheet, an odd piece of casting that doesn't quite work. (There's also some question as to whether it's Moreau speaking on the soundtrack, or some other actress.) There are a number of European actors in the movie apart from Moreau - Marina Vlady, Walter Chiari, Fernando Rey, Jose Nieto - and the film looks at times as though it isn't about English characters at all; the extras, for instance, are plainly European. The film was shot mostly in Spain, so even the countryside has a look of not being English either.
But this is a minor point, and ultimately irrelevant to Welles' wonderful interpretation of the various sections of Shakespeare's plays that are slotted together. Given a subject he was passionate about, Welles could make marvellous movies on the most meagre of budgets and under the most trying of circumstances. (Othello was even more of a struggle to put together - and was shot spasmodically over three years.) This movie veers between utter energy and comedy, and stillness and drama. The Boarshead Inn is a complicated series of rooms where people often bang their heads on the inappropriately set crossbeams, or run in under doors that aren't quite high enough, or come through openings in the wall up above other characters, or where a host of people suddenly appear out of nowhere. There's even a privy stuck in the wall in a dining room, with just a gate to hide the incumbent. The palaces, on the other hand, are huge, and dwarf their inhabitants. Gielgud often appears as a tiny figure on his throne, perched on a platform above forbidding stairs, and stuck between high and solid walls. The only light comes in from a window far above. And the battle between Prince Hal and Hotspur, and their armies, is one of the most horrific battle scenes filmed. It takes between eight and ten minutes (depending on who's counting) and becomes so sickening that I, for one, could hardly bear to watch it after a while. It seems to include hundreds of soldiers, but in fact there were only 100 - perhaps a 150 (the reports vary). The editing chops and changes endlessly as weapons fly and soldiers groan and there are horrible noises and bodies flung into the mud (and the occasional horse as well). Unpleasant as it is, this is superb movie-making.
And so onto another filmed play: The Browning Version. There have been at least two film versions of this play, and up to four television adaptations. In the version I saw, made in 1994, Albert Finney stars as Crocker-Harris, the late middle-aged teacher who is about to retire from a prestigious school position because of trouble with his heart. (There are hints that he's being pushed out, in fact.) He's unpopular as a teacher (he's nicknamed Hitler), and himself feels that he's failed his pupils. Yet his pupils do achieve under his teaching, and eventually appreciate his work with them. His wife is having an affair with another teacher (played by an American in this adaptation) and she is bitter about the way Crocker-Harris has disappointed her during their marriage because he gives into those who have power. A young pupil makes a break-through with Crocker-Harris on the day he is about to retire, and shows him that his work hasn't been in vain, although perhaps it could have been done better.
This 1994 version includes some 'obligatory' use of the F-word, as though that makes it more relevant to a new generation. The original script is not only completely opened out, scenes are shifted back and forth, and new characters and scenes included. Overall it works, and there's little sense that it's constricted to any one setting. Finney is excellent in his role, and makes the film worth watching. Ben Silverstone, as Taplow, also gives a top-notch performance, considering his inexperience.
And lastly, we watched Edward Scissorhands again. This relatively early collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp is an oddball but charming movie. Depp's performance is spot on, and the cast of suburbanites are a nicely varied group. Winona Ryder's hair is annoying, and you wait in vain for Edward to give her a decent haircut in the way he cuts and styles the hair of all the other women, but Ryder herself gives a winning performance. Alan Arkin provides a wonderfully laid-back husband to the an earnest (and slightly dotty) Dianne Wiest; even if he does seem a bit oblivious to some of the strange things going on about him.
The fairy story-cum-allegory is a bit heavy-handed towards the end, and you have to wonder why on earth Edward was ever given scissors as a temporary substitute for hands in the first place by his crazy inventor (Vincent Price - who else?). Still, there is some wonderful humour, and a warmth about this movie that isn't always obvious in Burton's movies.