Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Welles Brings "Falstaff" to Life

Cleveland Press October 9, 1967

"Falstaff" is Orson Welles' adaptation of several of Shakespeare's plays, mostly Parts I and II of "Henry IV", a bit of "Henry V" and quite possibly a few lines from "Merry Wives of Windsor." The adaptation is designed to present one play about the corpulent, fun-loving, wine besotted Jack Falstaff.

The film is wonderful and exasperating, the work of a genius, the reflections of an egotist, delicious utterances of great language and muddied speeches in other instances.

It is well-worth seeing but it is being sneaked into town for four wretched performances this Wednesday and Thursday, an entertainment ghetto not unlike Sunday afternoon on television.

Perhaps Shakespearean purists will be upset at the thought of tampering with the bard, but truly Welles has given us almost a new play, one in which Falstaff is the star. "Merry Wives" does not really count since the Falstaff of that was not as good as in "Henry IV."

THE SEAMS SHOW. IT IS UNEVEN. It has rough edges. But for all of the tape and baling wire that Welles undoubtedly used to hold it together it is an amazing and entertaining work.

For one thing, there is Welles himself. Not only years of acting, but years of eating and drinking as well have prepared him to play this ". . . amazing bundle of contrasts, liar without malice, this huge hill of flesh . . . that trunk of humors, that bolting hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack."

Just as his resonant voice dominates the soundtrack, so does his massive figure, bulbous nose and besotted bearing dominate the screen.

Welles does not portray Falstaff. He IS Falstaff.

"Falstaff" is a Welles production, directed and adapted by Welles and without doubt was edited and the pieces spliced together by Welles. It was shot in Spain, no doubt to save money since Welles has been notoriously unsuccessful in raising money for his own productions.

SPAIN IS NOT ENGLAND, but it does have castles aplenty and these Welles has used to full advantage. But Spanish players in bit parts have contributed to the muddy sound track.

No doubt Welles would have liked to have filmed at greater length. Instead the voice of Ralph Richardson reads from Holinshed's "Chronicles" to bridge the gaps and makes them more apparent.

Welles' black-and-white photography is sensitively used - swirling fog, clouds scudding along in a bleak sky, low angle shots to make certain characters further dominate a scene, the barrenness of a leafless wood in the snow.

The battle between the forces of King Henry IV and Henry Hotspur has been furiously and appallingly recorded on film for all of its horror, confusion and beastliness. And through it all runs the short, corpulent and cowardly figure of Falstaff dodging behind trees to save his skin.

John Gielgud is perfect as the aging King Henry. Keith Baxter Is a nimble yet conscience prone Prince Hal. Casting Margaret Rutherford as Hostess Quickly was genius and wonderfully touching is her speech as she describes Falstaff's death, taken from "Henry V.'

Jeanne Moreau is an odd bit of casting. She is a sensuous, sad and slatternly Doll Tearsheat.

WELLES EMPHASIZES the boisterous humor of the character -- the lies, the cowardly acts, the bragging. He fills his screen with unforgetable pictures -- heavily armored knights being lowered on their horses; the crowded, rough taverns; the massive Welles in his nightshirt being chased by the portly Miss Rutherford.

There is also sadness. Certainly the denunciation of Falstaff by the newly crowned King Henry V ("I know thee not, old man; fall to thy prayers; How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!") could not be more movingly done.

And at once, barely moving, the massive and wrinkled face of Welles betrays his own hurt.

If you happen to like Orson Welles, you will love "Falstaff."