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.) Continue reading

1942 Ten Best Movies

The best film of 1942 is The Magnificent Ambersons, the second feature directed by Orson Welles. It is probably the most famous of all wrecked films, having been cut from an original length of nearly two-and-a-half hours to 88 minutes, including the addition of new scenes shot without Welles’ participation or consent. That the movie is this wrecked but still great leads fans of the film to imagine what it might have been, but all we have is what it is now, and that’s enough. I will post something longer about the film tomorrow.

The failure of Ambersons spreads out in other interesting ways throughout the decade: Welles had to struggle to get his career going again (you want to play the “imagine” game, try imagining what Welles might have done in the Forties if he’d had a hit in 1942, instead of a snafu that ended his business with the studio that gave him free rein to make Citizen Kane). Ambersons also exerts a ghostly presence in the films produced at RKO by Val Lewton, whose low-budget horror unit utilized the elaborate set that Welles left behind.

And speaking of Lewton, his unit’s first offering came in 1942: Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur. Cat People is one of my favorite films, and creates a spell like few others (except maybe Lewton pictures such as I Walked with a Zombie and The Seventh Victim). Its financial success probably justified the building of the Ambersons sets on the same studio lot, but that didn’t help Welles any.

The rest of the year is marked by war, including the sophistication and boldness of To Be or Not to Be and the glory of Casablanca (which was seen by limited audiences in ’42 but is often credited as a 1943 picture) – films distinguished by their timeliness. The Magnificent Ambersons, however, is timeless. The ten best movies of 1942:

1. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)

2. To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch)

3. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)

4. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur)

5. Gentleman Jim (Raoul Walsh)

6. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges)

7. The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder)

8. In Which We Serve (Noel Coward/David Lean) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)

9. Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock)

10. Road to Morocco (David Butler)

I have a soft spot for the Hitchcock title; it’s not one of his top-tier films but it has some real doozies in it. Road to Morocco, the third of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope comedies, I argue for because it seems to help define a certain kind of escapist wartime movie – and I happen to like Hope and Crosby together, and this is probably my only chance to sneak a Road picture on to a Top Ten list. And if you’ve never seen Gentleman Jim, well, you have to seen Gentleman Jim, an Errol Flynn vehicle both boisterous and tender.

Just missing: Bambi, a circle-of-life Disney feature that trumps The Lion King; two George Stevens comedies, Woman of the Year and The Talk of the Town; and The Glass Key, with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, a tough pre-noir.