Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Magnificent Ambersons

The schedule for the TCM Festival (April 2010) is full of familiar films, but its special appeal is the chance to experience pristine, restored titles under the conditions in which they were meant to be seen. Case in point: of the several times I've seen Orson Welles' second, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), none has been in a theatre. The spanking new print came courtesy of Warner Bros, who now own the RKO movie archive. It's still the 88-minute version butchered by the studio from a 132-minute preview print, re-cut while Welles was in South America. The excised footage was reputedly dumped in the ocean in the '50s, but there are rumors of a full-length work-print received by Welles in Brazil. The differing attitudes of the era toward the lasting value of film are hard to forgive in what was indisputably the greatest crime ever committed against cinema.

Welles claimed Ambersons was better than Citizen Kane, though in the absence of palpable proof, he would, wouldn't he? But it's easy to believe: to the seemingly instantaneous mastery of the medium he now adds real living, breathing people, as opposed to the borderline caricatures of Kane, whose whole life stories are laid before us through perfectly-judged performance and direction. Adapted from the Booth Tarkington novel, it concerns a wealthy mid-western family whose fortune declines in parallel with the growth of early twentieth-century industry and technology. It's fundamentally an elegy to the past, both American and otherwise; times lose their simplicity and youthful love thwarted becomes a permanent scar of regret and melancholy.

Much of the first hour remains unmutilated, with a fantastic montage introduction that has the townsfolk going about their business and filling us in on the family in the course of their normal everyday nattering. Built around a towering staircase which proves to be endlessly cinematic (Welles had the greatest eye for architecture in cinema), the opulent Amberson mansion starts as a capacious symbol of the family's magnificence, monetary and social, but as death, sadness and financial ruin encroach, it gradually transforms into a gloomy mausoleum around which the remaining family members rattle mournfully (no surprise that it's shot through from the start with prison-bar balustrades and engulfing shadow).

The course is set for a slow, pitiful decline, but the less said about the last half hour the better. The beautifully layered aesthetic texture and careful pace - perfect mise en scène, in fact; no wonder the studio didn't get it - are rudely ruptured by swathe-like cutting. Insult is added to injury by new scenes (including the final one - oh, the tragedy!), shot without Welles, horribly lit and supremely inelegant in their cramming in of dialogue detail. The only saving grace is the wonderful Agnes Moorehead; her tragic spinster aunt Fanny emerges as the true heart of the picture. The abrupt shift in tone and rhythm of the final third is horrible and if any of Welles' poignant vision remains, it's entirely down to her quietly heart-wrenching performance.

d/p/sc Orson Welles ph Stanley Cortez ed Robert Wise pd Albert D'Agostino m Bernard Herrmann cast Joseph Cotton, Dolores Costello, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Anne Baxter, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Richard Bennett
(1942, USA, 88m, b/w)
posted by tom newth at

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Blogger Roly Allen said...

Would love to see that. You should go and see Toy Story 3. I'd be most intrigued to see what you make of it.

September 2, 2010 at 1:45 AM  
Blogger tom von logue newth said...

i hate it when people tell me to see animated films. i hate it even more when i actually do.

September 2, 2010 at 9:42 PM  
Anonymous alesum said...

Fantastic post. It was exactly what I was looking for. Nice and concise.

October 16, 2010 at 11:46 AM  

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