The Magnificent Ambersons (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
How did it take so long for the sophomore feature from Orson Welles to finally get its Blu-ray debut?
I don’t need an answer, I’m just thrilled that it’s finally here, and in such a beautiful edition.
The magnificence of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is apparent from the first frames of the film. Welles sketches a vivid, idealized portrait of American life in the late 19th century in a brilliant montage that sets the time, the place, and the culture in a series of postcard images and comic snapshots. While Welles narrates (in his glorious authorial voice with an understated warmth and familiarity) the changes in fashion through the years,the images introduce hopeful suitor Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten in his star-making performance) and disappointed heiress Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) and Welles effortlessly segues from exposition to story. The mix of silent movie-like compositions and imagery, striking montage, and radio drama narrative that introduces the world eases into a graceful, glorious long take that sweeps us into the “now” of the story: a ball at the Amberson Mansion, a place frozen in the past of those opening scenes, where social convention and grandeur are upheld for no reason other than tradition. It is beautiful, a portrait of wealth and culture out of touch with the world outside, and unconcerned with it. At its peril. Just as the fashions and conventions of society constantly evolved in those early montage sequences, so does industry and culture and life itself in the upheaval of progress in the 20th century.
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
It takes chutzpah to monkey with Orson Welles, even for the best of reasons, and without a doubt this unprecedented revision of Touch of Evil was undertaken with the best intentions. While I can quibble with a few details, the result is a remarkable success. Forty years after the fact, producer Rick Schmidlin and Oscar winning film and sound editor Walter Murch have given Welles his due and made Touch of Evil into the film he wanted to make.
[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]
Richard Fleischer’s new film is a science-fiction-horror-mystery. The horrors are ecological: pollution, overpopulation, welfare as a national way of life, objectification of human beings. The mystery is the murder of Simonson (Joseph Cotten), head of the Soylent Corporation (from “soy” and “lentil”), producer of the world’s food supply: wafers that come in red, yellow and green. Charlton Heston is Thorn, police detective assigned to investigate the murder. Technically and dramatically much weaker than most slick science-fiction films, SoylentGreen is still more realistic on one terrifying point: the ecology will deteriorate, through misuse and overuse of plant and animal life as well as overpopulation, much sooner than human technology and architecture will advance to accommodate it and create the oppressive-but-neat world of domes, interplanetary travel and multi-leveled cities that characterize most movies of the s.f. genre. The world of SoylentGreen is a fetid, overcrowded, overheated mass of sweaty bodies, clothed in rags, living in abandoned cars and tenement stairwells, shuffled about by steam shovels when they become uncontrollable. Only the rich and those employed or owned by the rich have room to live in comfort, real food to eat, clean clothing and running water.
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.)
Too Much Johnson, the Orson Welles film (or rather film project) that was long thought lost (the last print was reportedly destroyed in a fire in Welles’ Spanish home in 1970), was found a few years ago and restored. It’s not a feature or even a short, per se, more of an experiment shot to accompany a production of the theater farce “Too Much Johnson,” but at least the first section plays just fine on its own as a tribute to silent slapstick comedy with Joseph Cotten doing Harold Lloyd antics and Buster Keaton chases as a serial philanderer pursued by a jealous husband. The film was unfinished but mostly complete and you can watch both the workprint and a “reimagined” version with the outtakes removed at the National Film Preservation Foundation website. An HD version of both are available through the subscription streaming service Fandor.
I wrote an essay on the film for Keyframe: “This would all be interesting but academic if it wasn’t also entertaining and Too Much Johnson is a hoot. The prologue was designed to open the play, introduce the characters and situations, and set the racing pace for the stage scenes with a wild slapstick chase through the streets of New York to the ship that carries the story to Cuba. It plays just fine on its own (with an assist from intertitles added by NFPF), like an open-ended Mack Sennett farce that races through German Expressionism and Russian Formalism on the way to the docks. The subsequent sequences, both much shorter and apparently incomplete, are not as self-contained or coherent but they do feature some eye-opening moments for Welles fans.”
The third wave of Amazon Prime Instant Video Pilot Season shows will be available to sample on Thursday, August 28. As in previous waves, Amazon has made the pilot episodes of five new shows available to all Amazon customers (you don’t have to be a Prime member to watch them), and they will decide which shows move forward to full series based on audience feedback.
This time through, they have enlisted some interesting directors to create for the small screen. Whit Stillman heads to Paris for The Cosmopolitans, a continental romantic comedy, David Gordon Green (director of Pineapple Express and HBO’s Eastbound and Down) stays home in New Jersey for Red Oaks, a coming-of-age comedy set in 1985 (it’s produced by Steven Soderbergh), and Jay Chandrasekhar offers the sitcom Really, about a tight-knit group of married couples in Chicago. Each of these are in the half-hour format.
There are also two hour-long shows: Marc Forster (World War Z) takes the helm on Hand of God, starring Ron Perlman as a judge of dubious morals who goes vigilante after receiving messages from God, and writer / producer Shaun Cassidy delivers Hysteria, with Mena Suvari as a neurologist faced with virtual virus spread through social media.
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the slapstick stylings of Orson Welles, the boy wonder of Broadway!
Not exactly how we think of Welles, is it? We know he had a rich career both on radio and on the New York stage before he made Citizen Kane, but the few comedies he made were far outnumbered by the dramas and the thrillers and the literary adaptation. Yet after his first attention-getting success with Voodoo Macbeth for the WPA, Welles took a sharp turn to farce with his follow-up, Horse Eats Hat, which also had the honor of presenting Joseph Cotten in his first starring role.
There is no film record of Horse Eats Hat or any of his stage comedies and, though he had developed a few proposals for screen comedies, no producer ever took him up on them. So apart from a few cheeky supporting roles, a couple of TV appearances and fragments from unfinished projects, the record shows Orson Welles as a grand artist of serious subjects and baroque tastes.
That alone is reason enough to hail the discovery, restoration and presentation of the long-thought-lost Too Much Johnson, a tribute to the silent slapstick shorts of Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. It is an unfinished project in its own right but is nonetheless complete enough in this “The Films Reimagined” form to reveal a side of Welles so rarely exhibited to the public. That it was made three years before Citizen Kane makes it an invaluable find, a glimpse of the artist exploring the new medium of film with a natural affinity for the possibilities inherent in cinema. But that’s a matter of historical scholarship. What matters to the rest of us is that Too Much Johnson is funny, clever, cheeky, inventive and genuinely accomplished, which makes it worth watching on its own modest yet playful merits.
Despite the efforts of such fans as Clint Eastwood, who produced two documentaries on the director, and Martin Scorsese, Budd Boetticher is still a name known mainly to film historians and fans of classic westerns. Boetticher made some of the greatest, purest, most austere westerns of all time: Seven Men From Now (available from Paramount), The Tall T, Comanche Station, and Ride Lonesome (the latter three in a box set from Sony and Scorsese’s The Film Foundation). But like any successful director of the era, Boetticher made a lot more than just westerns. Yes, he did direct three bullfighting dramas (talk about a specialized niche), but he made war pictures, adventures, youth dramas, mysteries and crime pictures. Two of his best crime films arrived almost simultaneously via MOD earlier this.
Between his big studio breakthrough at Universal (where he made nine pictures in two years, most of them westerns) and his first of seven pictures with Randolph Scott, Boetticher directed The Killer Is Loose (MGM Limited), a 1956 crime drama starring Joseph Cotten as a police detective whose wife (Rhonda Fleming) is targeted by an escaped criminal looking for payback. Wendell Corey is superb as the soft-spoken bank teller turned robber who becomes twisted by revenge and pretty much slips over the edge of sanity. Boetticher’s biggest strength is efficiency and restraint, creating a camaraderie in the police squad room and a sense history between Cotten and his partner (Michael Pate), and he’s at his best building tension through dialogue and stillness that builds to a sudden burst of action. When Corey takes his former sergeant (John Larch) hostage, he never looses that quiet, deliberate composure, calmly reasoning his way to murder and executing his sacrifice without hesitation. Boetticher punctuates the gunshot with one of the great images of explosive violence: a shattered milk bottle. The sudden explosion shatters the tension of the deliberately measured scene and the burst of white milk against Larch’s black suit gives the sound a striking visual dimension.
The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (Warner Archive), Boetticher’s last film before he headed to Mexico for an eight-year odyssey, came out in the mini-boom of low-budget prohibition-era gangster films with second-tier stars of the mid-fifties to early-sixties, like Pretty Boy Floyd and Machine Gun Kelly and Al Capone with Rod Steiger. Ray Danton stars in the 1960 production as the real life dancer turned urban thug and mob killer Jack “Legs” Diamond, who made his name terrorizing other criminals in New York City, essentially running a protection racket aimed at the disorganized crime in a city yet to get mobbed up. What Boetticher brings is a smoothness, charm and brazen arrogance to anti-hero, building a film around a brazen villain with nary a hero in sight. As presented in the film, he’s not so much fearless as a rabid dog of an opportunist, driven by pure cussedness and arrogance and protected only by the belief that “The bullet hasn’t been made that can kill me,” a mantra he comes to believe after surviving so many shoot-outs. You know that’s going to last in a gangster film with the phrase “rise and fall” in the title. Karen Steele is somewhat blank as Alice, his dancing partner turned oblivious lover who spends the film with a wide-eyed expression of gullibility and surprise and, once she tips to the truth, drowns her misery and guilt in bootleg liquor. Elaine Stewart is far more convincing and interesting in a smaller role as a sultry but soiled showgirl discarded by Legs. And then there’s Danton in perhaps the best role of his career. He oozes cheapness and insincerity even at his most charming but becomes pure rage and drive when he pulls out his guns and starts blasting his competitors, wading in with no hesitation like he’s got nothing to lose. That’s part of the obligatory irony of his fall: it’s only when he starts losing it that he loses his cool and his fearlessness. Released in a fine-looking “Remastered Edition” in an anamorphic master (the case claims it is 1.85:1 but it’s actually 1.77:1, a minor difference but one worth noting for purists).
The Halliday Brand (MGM Limited) is neither a crime picture nor a Budd Boetticher film but I shoehorn the inclusion of this 1957 western because of star Joseph Cotten, who plays the eldest son of frontier lawman Ward Bond, and the late fifties low-budget sensibility. Both Cotten and Bond are too old for their roles, at least for the flashback story that shows how Bond’s racist streak and brutality turn his son into an outlaw guerilla. It begins with the old man on his death bed trying to make peace with his past, but it turns out prejudice and retribution are thicker than blood. It was one of the final features by B-movie veteran Joseph H. Lewis, who made a couple of film noir classics (Gun Crazy and The Big Combo) but never made the leap to big studio assignments. Always one to find creative solutions to budgetary challenges, he effectively creates a lynch mob scene out of off-screen crowd sounds, shadows across set walls, feet clumping up a staircase, and even more evocatively tells the story of the aftermath with a simple, suggestive image loaded with emotional pain. But his heart doesn’t seem to be in the rest of the film. He dutifully plays out the hand this production deals him and cashes out with a draw.
[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. Read More “The Magnificent Ambersons”