Orson Welles did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Sir John Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight.
Orson Welles's history with Shakespeare, in and outside of film, seemed often to reinvent the work of the bard through his own vision. That was found in his adaptation of Othello, where he built the central suspicion of the lead around the concern of his lack of attractiveness compared to wife, on stage his Macbeth with an all African American cast, his anti-fascist examination of Julius Caesar, really his film version Macbeth was by far was his least impressive adaptation perhaps because of how straight forward it was, his most daring work though was perhaps here through his turning John Falstaff into a lead while dramatically reworking texts into an altered narrative. Whereas as with Othello and Macbeth Welles was a rather atypical choice for the roles, it must be said Falstaff is a role Welles seemed born to play. A man of excess, a man tempted for glory, a man not opposed to go on long philosophical pondering of one matter or another. This should be a role made for Welles, and well it very much is. This match of man and role does not disappoint as evident from his very first scene where the young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), awakens the old Knight whose purse has been stolen by another member of their group.
In the very awakening of the man Welles reveals the wholly brilliant fashion he will approach the part of Falstaff, which is pivotal in a realization of the nature of this man. Physically here this is perhaps where Welles most accepted his weight in a role as there is no attempt to hide it, in fact there seems to be the attempt to embrace it fully. Welles walks in a most fascinating way actually in that he doesn't lumber but rather has this grace. A grace though that should not exist from a man of his size yet can only be within a man of his size. When he awakens from that slumber he gets up in a way that is fitting of both a knight and a buffoon. There is that proper gait of a knight, however with the silliness of a fool that seems so natural to everything that Welles finds in this role. His whole manner is of a sheer perfection in the realization of the strange role that Falstaff fulfills in this world. It is widely evident from even a single glance that he is a fool, after all the first thing he does is fail to find what is stolen from him, however the foolishness is not in the way it would be for any man. Falstaff is of a different sort than all that and this is within the Welles carries himself with this grandeur that is worthy of a greatness, a greatness Falstaff though is not worthy of.
Falstaff's life is in a way an entirely of hypocrisy validated through his companion of the young Prince Hal, which is contrast to the rest of his entourage that is made up of thieves, whores, other lowly sorts who all congregate within a dank little tavern. The key though to Falstaff is the way the man presents himself. Welles's fantastic here, and perhaps gives his most overtly charming performance as Falstaff. Welles brings an inherent joviality within the man that exudes off of him in such a pleasant way. Welles even speaks the words themselves without distance, creating a real familiarity with the knight through every word. As the prince Hal does, it becomes very easy to love Falstaff as there seems only the most splendid of hearts within the man and through Welles's portrayal of it. There is an excessive abundance of warmth and a considerable playfulness in every moment. Welles in this way creates the greater appeal to the thievery and whoring that Falstaff encourages since it seems all but a game. A game with a most simple man to follow into every act given how disarming Falstaff is even when he charges group of men with his sword in order to rob them.
The truth of it is that Falstaff though is no ordinary buffoon but only because of only his own way of creating a certain delusion. Welles does not make this any simple creation of a delusion as it is part of Falstaff's very being. Again there is that grace which Welles captures so effectively and takes even further whenever he is called upon to for his particularly ramblings on the value of being an corpulent fool essentially. Welles in every word speaks with such unshakable pride. There is not a hint of shame but in a way that does not deter one from accepting the man's declarations. Falstaff as he even mocks Hal's father Henry IV (John Gielgud) grants only a most endearing quality to the forceful spirit of the man. It is a marvelous thing perhaps in the way Welles is wholly without a hint of malevolence for even a moment, even if his sentiment may construed as such in some way. Welles captures the firmness of Falstaff's beliefs without question. Welles speaks with the same passion, same assurance, as Henry would eventually do when leading his men into battle, it just happens that what Falstaff speaks of is the desire to continue a life of great unimportance.
Eventually the world of the outside is thrust upon Falstaff and Hal, when the young prince is needed to help his father quell an uprising within the borders of England. This is no problem it seems for Falstaff in fact Welles is something truly special in portraying the Falstaff brims with a remarkable majesty as he goes about preparing for the upcoming battle. In his full armor he suddenly seems a man who was born to battle, a warrior poet if there ever was one and Welles again is careful to hold not a whiff of loathing within a man presenting himself prepared to take on all comers. Of course when the battle itself comes the great knight hides behind bushes for the majority of the battle only coming out to claim victory for the death of the enemy leader, actually felled by Hal. Hal doesn't stop Falstaff from the credit, and only seems slightly taken aback by this act. The thing is neither did I feel the need for Falstaff to be punished. Again Welles's portrayal of the lack of shame, and the full embrace of even this cowardice someone endears one to the knight all the more. It would seem wrong for the knight to shed blood, or to not be a coward. Welles gives understanding to the man, as he finds his appeal so naturally, as every moment he is exactly who he has always been and should be.
The glory of Falstaff is a short one though when the death of Hal's father requires the young wayward boy to become a man and finally embrace his destiny as king. This though leads the Hal to directly denounce Falstaff when the old knight attempts to continue his place as his mentor even as king. Welles is indeed heartbreaking in his reaction of confusion as Falstaff is rejected, but all the same there was a devious, a charming, yet still devious grin as he spoke of claiming his new rights as friend to the king. It is with this there is this duality of the character, but only in terms of other's perspective of the man. This is both as the viewer and as Hal sees him. Welles in his own place understand that Falstaff simply is who he is, and doesn't change except towards that final depression. The duality instead comes what should one take of the man. Are his lessons worthless, is he a bad influence, or is he a charming man whose teachings were worthwhile in some way. Well all of it is true and all of it can be true through Welles's outstanding performance. Welles grants the appeal unquestionably the man, even the appeal of his hypocrisy and most problematic qualities. Welles makes Falstaff the grand yet pathetic, or perhaps pathetic yet grand man he is. He embodies that one of a kind spirit. What is perhaps the greatest achievement of this is how Welles, without changing the man at any point, allows this pathos within the often comical by showing tragedy in losing this spirit, even while showing why that spirit must be lost. This is a wonderful performance by Orson Welles, giving one of the greatest cinematic Shakespearean turns by finding the complexity within a certain simplicity and giving a real power to the story of a buffoon.