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The Magnificent Ambersons

[Originally published on The Crop Duster]

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

‘The Magnificent Ambersons’

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.)

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Videophiled: John Ford’s ‘My Darling Clementine’ on Criterion

MyDarlingClemMy Darling Clementine (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), John Ford’s sublime reinterpretation of the Wyatt Earp story and the Gunfight at OK Corral, rewrites history to become a mythic frontier legend and one of the most classically perfect westerns ever made.

Henry Fonda plays a hard, serious Wyatt Earp leading a cattle drive west with his brothers when a stopover in the wild town of Tombstone ends in the murder of his youngest brother. Wyatt takes up the badge he had turned down earlier and tames the wide open town with his brothers (Ward Bond and Tim Holt), waiting for the barbarous Clanton clan, led by a ruthless Walter Brennan (“When you pull a gun, kill a man!” is his motto), to give him an excuse to take them down. Victor Mature delivers perhaps his finest performance as gambler Doc Holliday, an alcoholic Eastern doctor escaping civilization in the Wild West and slowly coughing his life away from tuberculosis.

Ford takes great liberties with history, bending the story to fit his ideal of the west, a balance of social law and pioneer spirit. Though the film reaches its climax in the legendary gunfight between the Earps (with Doc Holliday) and the Clantons, the most powerful moment is the moving Sunday morning church social played out on the floor of the unfinished church. As Earp dances with Clementine (Cathy Downs), Fonda’s stiff, self-conscious movements showing a man unaccustomed to such social interaction, Ford’s camera frames them against the open sky: the town and the wilderness merge into the new Eden of the west for a brief moment. It’s a lyrical ode to the taming of the west when manifest destiny was an unambiguous rallying cry. Ford’s subsequent westerns became less idealistic.

Along with the 97-minute release version, Criterion has included a new HD transfer of the 103-minute pre-release version (which was also on the earlier DVD), which features footage cut from the release version as well as alternate scenes and other minor differences (such as alternate musical cues). The differences are illustrative of the differences between Ford’s artistry and love of communal atmosphere and 20th Century Fox boss Darryl Zanuck’s efficiency. Ford’s preview cut (which is not a director’s cut) is more open and lanky, always responsive to the community around him, and quieter (he resists burying scenes in orchestral scoring). The release version is tighter, more dramatically pointed, scored more emphatically, and features new shots inserted into Ford’s scenes. It’s a companion, not a replacement, for as we may mourn the loss of Ford’s sensitive and subtle moments, the release version is still the Ford masterpiece. It just got some help from Zanuck, who pared Ford’s loving background to strengthen the characters at the core.

my_darling_clementine_04_blu-ray__My Darling Clementine has been released in multiple editions on DVD by Fox. Criterion has created a new 4K digital master from the 35mm nitrate composite fine-grain held by the Museum of Modern Art for the Blu-ray debut and DVD upgrade. The previous DVD edition looked very good. Criterion’s release looks amazing, crisp and clean with a rich gray scale. The 103-minute pre-release version is an HD master which has not gone through the same digital restoration and shows scratches and grit but otherwise looks mighty fine in its own right.

Criterion has packed this edition with supplements. New to this release is informed and informative commentary by John Ford biographer Joseph McBride (who provides historical and production background as well as critical observations), the 19-minute video essay “Lost and Gone Forever” by Ford scholar Tag Gallagher (one of the best practitioners of this relatively new form of critical analysis), and a new interview with western historian Andrew C. Isenberg about the real Wyatt Earp. Carried over from the Fox DVD is the 40-minute documentary “What Is the John Ford Cut?” with UCLA archivist Robert Gitt, comparing the versions, commenting of the differences, and filling in the gap with production details and studio records.

First among the collection of archival supplements is the 1916 silent western short A Bandit’s Wager, directed by Francis Ford (his brother) and starring John and Francis. This is not a restoration and shows a lot of wear and tear but this transfer is stable and shows great detail, and it features a bright piano score by Donald Sosin.

Also features excerpts from the TV programs David Brinkley Journal (on Tombstone, from 1963) and Today (on Monument Valley, from 1975), the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1947 starring Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs, and a fold-out leaflet with an essay by critic David Jenkins.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

The Magnificent Ambersons

[This was a program note for the October 12, 1971, showing of The Magnificent Ambersons in the University of Washington Lectures & Concert Film Series “The Cinema of Orson Welles.” It begins with continued commentary on Citizen Kane, shown the week before—an essay located here.]

One of Charles Foster Kane’s least sympathetic moments occurs in the 1929 scene wherein, in a single long, deep take, he listens to the conditions under which Walter P. Thatcher’s bank will take over his newspaper holdings, signs the agreement, and settles back to indulge in a little reverie.  We have commented how Kane, though economically “bust” and inclined to regard this new arrangement as a reversion to the days when he received an “allowance,” still enjoys a certain ascendancy over Thatcher simply in being able to move through the conspicuous space of the scene while Thatcher sits cramped and breathless in the foreground.  They are both much older than the day Thatcher came to take Charlie Kane out of the snows of yesteryear; and if Thatcher was “always too old” to be called anything but Mister, Kane is catching up.  Kane extends tentative congratulations to himself: “You know, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” The remark is directed at Bernstein on the other side of the frame, but it is Thatcher who responds: “Don’t you think you are?” Kane smiles and jovially concedes: “I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.” Thatcher goes on in all sincerity: “What would you like to have been?” And Kane’s eyes turn to steel as he slams the book of life on Thatcher: “Everything you hate!” It is a complex moment because Kane is implying, after all, that he has turned into something like Thatcher himself (as Thatcher’s portrait on the wall of the memorial library will shortly thereafter be replaced, in the same area of the screen, by Kane’s portrait on the wall of Bernstein’s office), and so this insult functions much like the slammed “w e a k” elsewhere in Citizen Kane.  But on the most direct level Kane, whatever his motives and lifetime of justification, is betraying a conversational trust with someone who offered a rare moment of openness—someone, furthermore, who already has two legs in the grave.

For a young man who was 25 when he began Citizen Kane and had completed The Magnificent Ambersons within another year or so, Orson Welles certainly is obsessed with time, age, and death.  Pauline Kael has remarked that the actors in Kane convey a strong sense of artifice: we know they have completed their turns within the given shots; there is no illusion of the characters’ lives going on offscreen.  Although her intention is merely to reinforce her point that Kane is a playful, “shallow masterpiece,” she puts her finger on a key reason for its depth: lives do reach completion in the film.  When Thompson closes Thatcher’s journal; when the camera pulls away from Bernstein saying—of old age—”It’s the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don’t look forward to being cured of,” and from Susie saying “Come around and tell me the story of your life sometime”; when Jed Leland is led away into the shadows of death (or worse, the old-age “heaven” suggested by the camera’s rise at the beginning of the sequence)—we have a tremendous sense of lives summarized, distilled, nothing left to be said that could possibly matter.  Even within the episodes, people die symbolically: Susie not only “dies” onstage but so does the character she plays in the opera, and Susie will attempt suicide; the Chicago Inquirer staff speculates whether the reunion of Kane and Leland mightn’t be dangerous, and Bernstein goes in to find Jed slumped on his typewriter.  And things die: the skylight looks broken at Susie’s nightclub the second time and the sign isn’t lit; we see the alternate Inquirer headlines lifted off the press and a second later FRAUD AT POLLS! lies tromped and forgotten in the gutter.  And Rosebud, identified poetically if not realistically with the quintessence of Charles Foster Kane, “ages” in a single terrible moment—as the whole film may be considered a single terrible moment—consumed in the furnaces of Xanadu.  It is consistent to see the column of smoke rising to heaven, the snow-white ashes of Rosebud carried off into the blackness of the unborn film, as the last instance of the movie’s taking leave of a now-extinguished character.  Yet I have suggested that Kane or at the very least his alter ego narrates the movie.  That the annihilated Rosebud/Kane ascends to heaven and that the camera/Kane descends back outside the fence are not incompatible, no more than the fact that the movie fascinates us with the myriad suggestions of a life and concludes with a bald statement that no real knowledge of—NO TRESPASSING on—such a life is possible.  This visual benediction conveys a kind of self-regret and self-awareness not unrelated to the verbal stab at Thatcher in 1929.  Welles’s instinct seems to be that media itself is inherently sentimental (even Thatcher can become the “grand old man of Wall Street” once unobjectionably dead).  It is a notion to keep in mind as we approach Welles’ second feature film.
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