Wednesday Editor’s Pick: The Magnificient Ambersons (1946)

by on October 19, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Oct 26 at 1:00, 4:10, 7:20, 10:30 and Thurs Oct 27 at 1:00, 4:10 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

Film Forum keeps rolling out the hits in their Bernard Herrmann festival (thru Nov 3). Although we can always summon some prerequisite enthusiasm for Citizen Kane screenings, we are most hotly anticipating Welles’ followup, horribly mutilated by the studio but still – by hell or high water – a masterpiece.


As Andrew Sarris cheekily proclaims:

I much prefer it to Citizen Kane. So sue me.


Francois Truffaut, who allegedly referred to the film as his “Bible”:

If Flaubert reread Don Quixote every year, why can’t we see The Magnificent Ambersons whenever possible?


Essential Reading reminder: Dan Callahan’s Alt Screen feature on the film’s master composer.

Dave Kehr for the Chicago-Tribune:

There have been few darker days in the history of movies…


The 88-minute “Magnificent Ambersons“ that survives today is a ruin, but it is a magnificent ruin. Even in its shattered form, the film remains a work of immense beauty and power, blending an epic social vision with an acute and intimate personal tragedy. “Ambersons“ is a film of great warmth, humor, and nostalgia; at the same time, it is absolutely terrifying in its vision of human spitefulness, isolation, and waste.




The visual plan that Welles and Cortez devised for “Ambersons“ relies on a mottled, chiarascuro lighting that isolates pools of brightness within oceans of textured shadow–exactly the kind of effect that is most vulnerable to indifferent printing (and which, on television, comes across as sheer mud). In one of “Ambersons`s“ most devastating moments, Isabel (Dolores Costello) has just received a letter from her lover that threatens to bring their relationship to an end. Welles begins his shot with Isabelle moving toward a large window in a darkened room, her figure reduced to an inky black silhouette by the sunlight that streams in behind her. Isabel turns from the window and walks toward the camera, into the deep shadows of the room. But as she moves into the darkness, Cortez brings up an oblique, half-light that dimly illuminates her features–she becomes a shadow with a human face. In the last frames of the shot, Isabel looks up, and the pupils of her eyes suddenly capture two bright, white pinpoints of light, reflected from an unknown source. If movies are the art of light and shadow, this is one of the most pure moments the movies have achieved: Shades of light are translated, through the most natural and unobtrusive of metaphors, into shades of the soul.


Richard Brody for the New Yorker:

Welles’s film, from 1942—which followed closely on the heels of “Citizen Kane”—is one of Hollywood’s most infamously mutilated films, having been sliced down by more than a third by the studio, RKO, after an unsatisfactory test screening. Even so, what remains is great enough: another “Kane”-style epic, this one tracks a family’s fortunes as it invokes vast historical changes, and, with its narration by Welles himself and the story’s focus on a pair of male protagonists—the vigorous engineer (Joseph Cotten) who was, in effect, the virtual father of his century, and the arrogant young heir (Tim Holt) who breaks his widowed mother’s romance with the visionary—the director splits his identity into bourgeois genius, decadent aristocrat, and artistic consciousness. It’s even more Joycean than “Kane,” and even more heartbreaking.



Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Hacked about by a confused RKO, Welles’ second film (from the novel by Booth Tarkington) still looks a masterpiece, astounding for its almost magical re-creation of a gentler age when cars were still a nightmare of the future and the Ambersons felt safe in their mansion on the edge of town. Right from the wryly comic opening, detailing changes in fashions and the family’s exalted status, Welles takes an ambivalent view of the way the quality of life would change under the impact of a new industrial age, stressing the strength of community as evidenced in the old order while admitting to its rampant snobbery and petty sense of manners. With immaculate period reconstruction, and virtuoso acting shot in long, elegant takes, it remains the director’s most moving film, despite the artificiality of the sentimental tacked-on ending.

Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

Orson Welles’s second feature is in many ways his most personal and most impressive, but of his Hollywood films it’s also the one most damaged by insensitive reediting (like the sublime and personal Don Quixote is among his independent features); in his absence RKO cut the movie by almost 45 minutes and tacked on a few lamentable new scenes (including the last one). For the most part, this is a very close adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s underrated novel about the relentless decline of a wealthy midwestern family through the rise of industrialization, though Welles makes the story even more powerful through his extraordinary mise en scene and some of the finest acting to be found in American movies (Agnes Moorehead is a standout). The emotional sense of America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is so palpable you can taste it.



Pauline Kael in 5001 Nights:

Welles achieved some great sequences of family life-intense, harrowing squabbles. Tim Holt plays the arrogant mother-fixated son who falls from the American aristocracy to the working class; Dolores Costello, the fragile blond beauty of the silent era, is his soft, yielding mother; and as the nervous, bitter hysterical-spinster aunt, Agnes Moorehead is uncannily powerful, in a hyper-realistic way. (It’s a classic performance.) With the amazing old Richard Bennett as the family patriarch, Joseph Cotten, Anne Baxter, and Ray Collins. The film wasn’t completed in the form that Welles originally intended, and there are pictorial effects that seem scaled for a much fuller work, but even in this truncated form it’s amazing and memorable.



J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

A pretty sensational movie. The film language is more fluid and adept than Kane‘s, the expressionist lighting is more rigorously modulated. The astonishingly choreographed Christmas ball that serves to introduce the major characters is arguably the greatest set piece of Welles’s career.

Detailing the decline of a wealthy family and the much deserved “comeuppance” delivered its scion, Georgie Minafer (Holt, with an uncanny resemblance to the young, petulantly entitled George W. Bush), The Magnificent Ambersons is unusually somber for a Hollywood movie. What American secrets are being hidden here? The Amberson mansion is a miniature Xanadu, with Welles’s camera relentlessly craning up or prowling around its gloomy grand staircase. Filled with dark nostalgia for the artist’s Midwestern boyhood, Ambersons may be Welles’s most personal film—he would maintain that Tarkington had based the character of the automobile inventor (Cotten) on his own father.

Welles had adapted The Magnificent Ambersons as a radio play two years before (assigning himself the role of Georgie), and not even Kane made more effective use of dramatic sound. Again, and with greater subtlety, there are Welles’s trademark overlapping dialogue and his construction of aural “deep space,” a brooding Bernard Herrmann score, and the clever deployment of a naturalistic Greek chorus. Most remarkable, however, is the voice. The Magnificent Ambersons is the lone Welles feature in which the maestro does not grace the screen. Still, he is overwhelmingly present in the insinuating invisibility of his tender, omniscient narration. The movie is haunted by Welles’s voice, by his youth, and by a sense of a lost America that he would never again visit—and mainly by its own lost possibilities. It might be unfolding in his mind’s eye—or inside the snow globe Kane dropped.



Peter Bogdanovich
interviews Welles:

PB: The influence of radio is very apparent in Ambersons.

OW: The narration, you mean? I’d like to do more of it in movies.


PB: Using a narrator who is not a participant?

OW: Yes, who just comes out and tells the story. I like that very much.


PB: It’s supposedly uncinematic.

OW: I think words are terribly important in talking pictures.


PB: The script for Ambersons is one of the tightest ever written. For instance, the prologue establishes all the characters in three or four situations, sets up the period and the customs of the era, all within the first few minutes.
OW: I don’t like to dwell on things. It’s one of the reasons I’m so bored with Antonioni — that belief that, because a shot is good, it’s going to get better if you keep looking at it. He gives you a full shot of somebody walking down a road. And you think, “Well, he’s not going to carry that woman all the way up that road.” But he does. And then she leaves and you go on looking at the road after she’s gone.


PB: You wrote the script for Ambersons alone?

OW: Yes. Quite a lot of it on King Vidor’s yacht off Catalina. And the rest of it in Mexico. With Molly Kent, the script girl from Kane, doing the secretarial work on it — best script girl that ever existed. Then we rehearsed it — longer than I’ve ever rehearsed anything in movies. It was a relatively small cast, and everybody worked very hard. I think we were five weeks — not on the set or anything, no movements, just rehearsing. And then we recorded every scene, for reference, so we could listen to the way we’d decided that it ought to sound like — even if we were going to change our minds, you know, later.


PB: The opening prologue has a slightly mocking tone mixed with nostalgia.

OW: I think we tend to look back on the immediate past — the past that isn’t history but still a dim memory — as being faintly comic. It’s an American attitude. I remember my own parents looking at old pictures of themselves and laughing.


[…]You see, the basic intention was to portray a golden world — almost one of memory — and then show what it turns into. Having set up this dream town of the “good old days,” the whole point was to show the automobile wrecking it — not only the family but the town. All this is out. What’s left is only the first six reels. Then there’s a kind of arbitrary bringing back down the curtain by a series of clumsy, quick devices. The bad, black world was supposed to be too much for people. My whole third act is lost because of all the hysterical tinkering that went on. And it was hysterical. Everybody they could find was cutting it…


Listen to the podcast of Bogdanovich in conversation about the film with David Kamp here.



Tamara Tracz for Senses of Cinema:

This film is magnificent. It isn’t an obvious magnificence, despite the flamboyance of its visual style. It doesn’t surprise me that the film tested badly. I imagine that even as Welles intended it, it would still have failed commercially. Its darkness was out of step with the expectations of its audience and its subject was not commercial – this is not a film about a love story. Not a love story between George and Lucy nor one between Eugene and Isabel. It is not even the more complicated and dangerous love story between George and Isabel, mother and son. The real heart of the film lies beneath these more obvious subjects, addressing them where necessary in order to talk about and show other things – about the complex dynamics of family life, and about the unstoppable passage of time.


The Magnificent Amberson
s rides the balance between this lament for a lost past and the powerful excitement of progress. The automobile destroys a sense of time and decorum but the Ambersons only find grace and true stature when the progress that the automobile tows behind it arrives and flattens their midland town. They grow bigger as their world grows smaller. In his book The Magnificent Ambersons – A Reconstruction, Robert L. Carringer posits the theory that Welles saw in George a kind of alter ego and this is why he chose not to play him in the film. It seems to me that Welles isn’t so much George or Eugene (who Welles claimed was based on his father Richard Welles) but a combination of them both, a man longing for a lost past but entranced by the mechanical magnificence (in this case the filmic apparatus) of the future.



Richard T. Jameson for The Parallax View:

Although Booth Tarkington and not Orson Welles provided it, the name ‘Amberson’ might serve as this film’s “Rosebud.” The name is so perfectly apt, containing the very color of time yet simultaneously suggesting preservation from time (though only of relics). The essence of the Ambersons and of Ambersons is mortality. In the first of several sequences in which the harsh, sporadically interrupted fall of light seems to have the power to rot flesh, Major Amberson and Jack discuss George and his inclination to melancholy. The Major refers to his own failing fortunes and asks, “What does he think I’m made of?” and Jack replies, “Gold.” The Amberson wealth is a near color-rhyme for their name, and Jack will later philosophize: “Life and money both are like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks: you don’t know where they’ve gone or what the devil you did with either of them.” Life and gold both seem related to the frequently harsh light of that sun which glares into the Major’s coach and into the carriage bringing the dying Isabel home from the station and onto Fanny as she sits by the cold boiler in the half-empty mansion, the sun on which the Major muses after the death of Isabel and just before his own: “It must be in the sun. There want anything here but the sun in the first place. The earth came out of the sun, and we came out of the earth; so whatever we are….” Firelight flickers on his face as he mumbles these incoherent yet so suggestive lines; and though the light has shown the Major frequently to disadvantage, we feel the finality when it fades away, leaving him to the darkness from which the film too came.


There are many such symbolic deaths in Ambersons: Eugene begs Isabel, “Don’t strike my life down twice, dear”; George tries to impress Lucy with the likelihood that they will never see each other again, and Isabel worries that she might not see her father once more; she is progressively swallowed up by shadows; George is “forgotten” and last seen (aside from his form on a stretcher) as a shape of unfathomable blackness by Isabel’s bed, an organic sector of private pain like Charlie Kane. The town dies as it grows: “it befouled itself and darkened its sky.” And indeed Welles originally ended his film with a shot of Eugene looking back at Fanny in the doorway of the mansion, now itself a boardinghouse, while the skyline of an industrial city loomed over it.



Stephen Farber for Film Comment (Summer 1971):

Though Welles never appears in The Magnificent Ambersons, his presence as narrator is crucial to the conception of the film. THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS contains the most beautiful, pertinent use of narration I have seen in movies. The narration is not used simply to provide information; it adds to the sensuous atmosphere of the film. The language itself, eloquently spoken by Welles, has a rich, lyrical quality that seems to belong to the aristocratic past; its literary cadences are part of the vanished courtly style that the film mourns. But in an even more important sense, the narration calls attention to the nostalgia that is the film’s subject as well as its dominant mood. We are constantly aware of a voice reflecting on the past, wistfully Invoking its mysteries. From the very start the hushed but intense tone of Welles’ narration suggests the recreation of a child’s fairy tale. The storyteller, the dreamer who calls up the past for us, haunted by the world he brings to life, becomes a character we want to evaluate along with the others. We want to test his voluptuous nostalgia against what we see, and within the film nostalgia is criticized rather than celebrated. For the characters who cannot break the spell of the past- George and Isabel and Aunt Fanny- are doomed, while Eugene Morgan, who comes from a background similar to theirs, has found a way of accommodating himself to the future. He seems freer, healthier, more mature than any of the Ambersons, and he will survive.


It’s too simple, then, to say that The Magnificent Ambersons is no more than a film of nostalgic reverie, but there is no denying the melancholy intensity with which the film dwells on the Ambersons’ decline. Some of the Gothic scenes of decadence and old age in Kane have a self-conscious, theatrical quality that seems slightly adolescent. But I don’t think that is any longer true in The Magnificent Ambersons. The scenes of Isabel’s death, Major Amberson’s death, the parting of George and Uncle Jack in the railway station, Aunt Fanny going hysterical in the empty old house, George’s last walk home are unusually sharp, poignant moments. One cannot account for the film’s distinctive qualities by saying that Welles was simply being faithful to his source, what is inescapable in watching the film is the graceful, persuasive feeling he has for the material. This film contains some of the strongest, most haunting and desolate images in all of Welles’ work.


But how does one explain this obsession with ruin and decay in a man of 26, who seemed to the world to be the most youthful and vigorous of artists, the “boy genius”? The scenes of death in The Magnificent Ambersons seem to transfix the young Welles. Is this the famous “self-destructiveness” of the Welles legend, evidence of a morbid, irresistible attraction to decadence? I don’t know the answer to that question, and clearly the sources of any artist’s work are extraordinarily complex. I can only describe what is on the screen: that, among great films, The Magnificent Ambersons is the one you remember for the sad, lush, seductive poetry of death.


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