The Magnificent Ambersons

This piece dates to a program note written for a Welles series in 1986. I was a co-founder, with Tom Keogh, of a nonprofit called Seattle Filmhouse, and we brought a few notable critics (Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Thomson among them), as well as Welles’ hard-working latterday cinematographer, Gary Graver, to Seattle to talk about the movies and the life. The note on The Magnificent Ambersons was meant to be read in close proximity to seeing the movie, of course, and reads that way. – Robert Horton

There are films that creep up on you, and there are films that astonish from the first frame. The films of Orson Welles may do many things, but they do not creep, and almost all of his movies begin with a striking image or sequence. None begins more beautifully than The Magnificent Ambersons; in this beginning is the word, Welles’ voice (his only presence as an actor in the movie), which starts its rolling rumble even before the fist image appears onscreen. “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873,” he says, and the screen is still black until a gorgeously-appointed mansion emerges, looming majestically, dominating and defining the lithograph-like composition of the shot—as, indeed, the Amberson mansion and all the rich and sad meaning it embodies will seem to dominate and define and even obliterate the family it houses. Welles’ voice is rich and sad too, with that first line setting a nostalgic tone: listen to the rhyming sounds—magnificence, Ambersons, began—and consider the name Amberson itself, golden and preserving but also smoky, dark, fading, like the amber Sun or the amber son. (Kudos to Booth Tarkington, author of a novel that was partly based on Orson Welles’ father, for the canny choice.)

Welles’ melancholic narration carries us through the opening minutes, an extraordinary sequence that dexterously introduces us to the story and characters (the word “exposition,” with its connotations of clunkiness, is inadequate here). The toy-box methods of Citizen Kane are still in use, as Welles dazzles us with his playful unspooling of the film’s key elements; his narration even breaks in to the dialogue of those bystanders who comment on the Ambersons. The suggestions of youth and vitality are strong, and not just around that brattiest of spoiled brats, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt); even Eugene Morgan’s crash through his bass violin is a comic moment, especially as Welles sets up the shot—Eugene (Joseph Cotten) scurrying up to the camera, the better to tumble loudly in the foreground—and as Welles misleads us with his narration, preparing us for “that prettiest of all vanished customs, the serenade,” only to be followed by the crash. Yet this moment will irrevocably alter, in a tragic way, the lives of the characters. Those busybodies on the street are fruity and comic (Fanny Minafer, you may notice, is among them), but later in the film the gossips and their perceived impact will help kill the last hope of Eugene and Isabel (Dolores Costello).

The vitality of the Ambersons needs to be established, because much of the rest of the film—especially following the shimmering ball and sleighride scenes—charts the family’s decline, and the encroaching darkness that swallows the family whole. The ball sequence, “the last of the great long-remembered dances,” is magnificent, and all the more so because while it displays the beauty of genteel manners and morals, it also shows that the time for such things is slipping away.

The seeming suspension of time also looms in the returns of Eugene, who has been gone—eighteen years have passed, “or have they?”, as Jack Amberson (Ray Collins) asks. Welles’ technique itself conjures the passage of time; those long, sinuous shots that weave through corridors and up staircases and across rooms are the actual embodiment of time passing. Unlike the cut-cut-cut of most movie scenes, these long takes show us events in real time—actors are a little older when the shot is over. In keeping with this scheme, which is really a movement toward death (as we will see as the film progresses), darkness overtakes the house when the ball ends. The guests leave and the family prepares to retire, their figures passing through great pools of darkness—in Stanley Cortez’ exceptional photography, we see some of the most intense blacks ever captured on film. Inky suggestions of suspicion, uncertainty, and mortality swim in these pools, as well as the “ancient recollections” that have been stirred by Eugene’s return.

As George and Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) walk the darkened hall to her door, they hold the first of their extraordinary conversations. Fanny’s words are casual and defensive, as she explains that people should note the presence of an eligible bachelor “without having to make a to-do about it.” The phrase is casual, but her voice rises into a pinched hysteria, which George snottily imitates. But then she savagely mimics him—and we recognize that Fanny, who had just appeared furtive and puny in a hallway shot that Isabel dominated, is in fact a bitter force to be reckoned with. (For all the movie’s visual bravura, these precise vocal effects remind us of Welles’ extensive experiences in radio.)

It does no disservice to the film’s many charged conversations to say that those between George and Fanny are the most astounding. Their scene in the kitchen, shot with a single long (four-minute) take during which the camera moves only slightly, has a behavioral rhythm that is unlike anything else in American cinema. George is wolfing down strawberry shortcake and milk, while Fanny is both gently maternal—a longed-for mode she will never actually fulfill—and insinuating. “It’s a little odd,” she says meaningfully, although George is not bright or suspicious enough to understand what she implies about Isbael and Eugene. This scene captures Fanny’s pathetic neurosis as well as her frailty, and it also captures the kind of intimacy one may find in an after-midnight kitchen conversation. Welles claimed that this scene was shot without a script, although the actors had rehearsed and improvised the dialogue many times; perhaps this accounts for the peculiarity of their cadences.

Jack Amberson enters the kitchen and alters the spell, the scene ending on Jack’s dreamy observation that Fanny doesn’t have much “except her feelings about Eugene.” The cut that follows is startling, landing with the harsh clang of metal being hammered in Eugene’s horseless carriage. This scene will be another long, fluid take, as Eugene shows his work to Isabel and Fanny. We can see, as their figures shift through the frame, that Eugene is subtly favoring Isabel through sheer body movement; then when they pause and Eugene tries to remember some old fragment of poetry—presumably from the days of serenading Isabel—Fanny becomes psychologically and spatially blocked out of the new courtship between Eugene and Isabel. When the shot ends, three heads of equal size line up across the screen, with Eugene between the two women—but Fanny’s hat, pitched sharply on the side of her head, creates a bold vector that separates her from the other two. She seems to be the only person who senses this. (She’s often in that position of awareness.)

As The Magnificent Ambersons goes on, the scenes of darkness and death become predominant. They are among the most memorable in Welles’ cinema: the funeral of Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway), which ends on Fanny’s face and a terrible realization; Jack’s discussion with Eugene and Lucy about Isabel’s declining health, all three figures inert, the camera immobile, and the lighting arranged so Eugene’s eyes are as black as pieces of coal; Isabel’s last scene, in which she is swarmed by lacey shadows, her hair down and girlish (the only time we have seen her that way since her early appearance at the window, also surrounded by lace curtains, at the moment Eugene fell through the bass violin); the final scene of Major Amberson (Richard Bennett), a close-up of his dying face played over by flamelight from the fireplace, as he prepares to, as Welles’ narration puts it, “enter an unknown country where he was not even sure of being recognized as an Amberson.”

The Ambersons and the importance they attach to their name (“But you’re my mother—you’re an Amberson”) continues the obsession with identity that began in that darkened screening room in Citizen Kane, with the reporters asking who Kane really was. The crushing moment for George Amberson Minafer comes after he has received “his comeuppance,” and he finds himself alone in a growing city that blackens the landscape of his youth; and the final blow is not his downfall itself, but Welles’ voice telling us that all those who had fervently wished for the brat’s comeuppance “had forgotten all about it, and about him.” In this film about memory—from a director who was then all of 27 years old—the final tragedy is that one may be forgotten.

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  1. […] [Originally published on The Crop Duster] […]

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