Chimes at Midnight (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) has been difficult to see under any circumstances for at least the last three decades. It suffered from distribution issues during its original release (a woefully misguided pan by New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, an old-school moralist at sea in the era of new visions, essentially sunk it American release) and has been in legal limbo thanks to competing claims of ownership for decades. Original 35mm prints had issues with image and sound mixing and timing and surviving prints were worn and degraded over time. After years of negotiating and gathering materials, the film was restored in 2015. The re-release was a revelation and the first time that many Americans had the opportunity to finally see the film that Welles had called his favorite (admittedly he had said that about more than one of his films over his career, but Chimes did hold a special place in his heart). Welles called Falstaff “the greatest creation by Shakespeare” and said of the film: “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I would offer up.”
Keith Baxter was a struggling young Welsh actor when Orson Welles tapped him to play Prince Hal in the 1960 stage production of Chimes at Midnight in Ireland. Like Welles’ earlier Five Kings, this massive production brought together elements of numerous Shakespeare plays, in particular Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II, to chronicle the education of a king, and like the earlier production is was commercial failure. But Welles was still determined to make his production. As Baxter related in a 1988 interview, “on the last night, coming back to England, he [Welles] said to me on the ship, ‘This is only a rehearsal for the movie, Keith, and I’ll never make it unless you play Hal in that, too.’” Welles was true to his word and Baxter, in his first major screen role, starred opposite Welles in a cast that included John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau and Margaret Rutherford.
Mr. Baxter, now eighty-two years old and a grand old man of British and American theater, was in New York City to introduce the American debut of the new restoration if Chimes at Midnight on Friday, January 8. Before the event, he granted a few interviews. “Ask me whatever you want to ask,” he said with a bright enthusiasm as our phone conversation began.
Sean Axmaker: You starred as Prince Hal in the 1960 stage production of Chimes at Midnight with Orson Welles in Ireland. You were the only member of that production (besides Welles) to appear in the film. Was there any change in the way that you played Hal and in the relationship between Hal and Welles’ Falstaff between the stage production and the film a few years later?
Keith Baxter: Well not really, you know. The thing is that Welles discovered me when I was out of work, washing dishes, so it was a wonderful opportunity to play on the stage with him. And, how can I explain? He really loved me and I really loved him. I don’t mean in any sexual sense. I mean because he’d given me a whole opportunity to play a wonderful part with a great actor instead of washing dishes and being out of work. So of course I felt a tremendous debt towards him. And he was wonderful to act with. He didn’t direct the play in Dublin, it was directed by an old friend of his who had discovered him when he was a teenager in Ireland [ed. note: Hilton Edwards]. Because when we started rehearsing Welles wasn’t there for two weeks, he was in Paris working on his film of The Trial, so we rehearsed without him and then he arrived. And of course we were all mightily… not in awe of him, well yes, in awe of him, whatever, and it was quite clear that he liked acting with me and I was a source of light.
[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]
Gold joins On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in support of the thesis that Peter Hunt is going to make one hell of a fine picture some day. The property itself is distinguished only in its preposterous anachronism and the fact that some bestseller by Arthur Hailey or Irving Wallace hasn’t provided the impetus for bringing it to the screen in this day and age. There’s this crusty, cigar-puffing old mineowner in South Africa (Ray Milland) whose grandson-in-law, a Doctor of Economics (Bradford Dillman), is getting set to knife him in the back by creating a natural disaster that will put his and all the neighboring gold mines out of business, thereby trebling the value of the world’s remaining goldfields. In this Dillman is the agent of an international financial syndicate (headed by Sir John Gielgud) who don’t mind drowning a thousand mineworkers, or even blowing up each other, if it will have a favorable effect on the stock exchange. The general manager who’s been in on the plan gets himself killed in an accident, fercrineoutloud, and so Dillman decides he must (1) promote the greatest threat to his endeavor, the supervisor of Underground Operations (Roger Moore), to the general managership and (2) divert said greatest threat’s attention during the key phase of the plan by throwing his own scrumptious wife (Susannah York) at him.
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
Gold is a big potboiler of a movie, filled with action, violence, gore, and adultery. It’s a genre piece, fraught with convention and predictability. It has no characters, only cartoon people whose actions are as unsurprising as their motivations are unlikely. And I enjoyed the hell out of it. The credit is due largely to Peter Hunt who, on the basis of only two films, may already lay claim to being one of the finest action directors around. Hunt had his apprenticeship as editor of several of the James Bond movies, and he has brought a skilled action-editor’s grasp of pace to the director’s chair. During the whole of Gold he gave me one minute out of 115 to sit back, temporarily bored, and say to myself, “This really isn’t very good.” And I’m not one to argue with 99.13 percent success.
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
There’s an air of bad faith, not unlike the scent of bathroom deodorizer, about Murder on the Orient Express. I’m as fond of “production values” as the next fellow, maybe fonder, but I don’t wish to be force-fed them by a soulless dietitian who knows what I as a consumer ought to want. That’s the way Sidney Lumet has directed this film, and all of Geoffrey Unsworth’s filtered lyricism, all of Tony Walton’s art-deco design, all of Richard Rodney Bennett’s tongue-in-jolly-good-show-cheek music can’t convince me that Lumet gives a tinker’s fart about the Orient Express, the old Hollywood, Grand Hotel, or the artificial but scarcely charmless business of working out an Agatha Christie red-herring mystery.