It was Orson Welles' favourite among his own films and many critics bracket it alongside Citizen Kane as his masterwork, yet 1965's Chimes At Midnight has been impossible to see for many years.
This is why there is such fervour among Welles' devotees about plans to screen the movie in a "brand new, never-seen-before restoration" early next month as part of Picturehouse Cinemas' "Screen Arts Festival".
The film is Welles' sprawling adaptation of Shakespeare's history plays, his "lament for Merrie England" as he called it. He gives arguably his finest screen performance as Falstaff. Like many of Welles' films, Chimes At Midnight was made on the hoof. It's a full-blown epic shot in the director's customary improvisatory style, but on a modest budget – one reason that it has subsequently proved so hard to see. The rights issues have proved so complicated that no one – until now – has fully untangled them.
The money ran out during shooting, leading Welles to turn to Harry Saltzman for help. When Saltzman pumped in a reported $750,000 (£465,000) so it could be completed, he received worldwide distribution rights (excluding France and Spain, which belonged to Spanish producer Emiliano Piedra). Saltzman gave his rights to another company, which was taken over. Piedra died in 1991 and Saltzman in 1994. Litigation soon followed as to exactly who owned what and Chimes At Midnight disappeared from film screens. When a major Welles' retrospective was held at the Locarno Festival in 2005, the organisers had to secure permission from Saltzman's widow Adriana for a one-off screening of a very bad print. Now, it appears that the film has been liberated. David Buttle of British distributor Mr Bongo, working with Dolores Piedra (the Spanish producer's daughter), is the person behind the new British screenings.
"I've been in touch with her (Dolores) since 2006," he explained. "It has taken her that long to sort out the legal aspect of it."
When Welles' films are revived, no one knows who might emerge to lay claim to the rights or to complain about not being consulted. But at least audiences can now savour Welles' magnificent performance.Reuse content