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.
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.)
The legend of Orson Welles looms so large it overtakes the man, a legend partly engineered by Welles himself from his beginnings in the theater. Welles was the enfant terrible of Broadway, the Depression-era hope of American Theater, the radical genius of radio. He came to Hollywood in grand style and on his own terms, a display of egotism so great that the Hollywood establishment turned up its nose and waited for his comeuppance. And he got it three times filled and running over, as far as they are concerned.
Welles completed only fourteen features in his lifetime, five of them Hollywood productions (it’s hard to consider the Republic-backed Macbeth, 1948, a studio film) and only one of those, Citizen Kane (1941), completed to Welles’ satisfaction and released in its intended form. It has been so longed hailed as “the greatest film ever made” (Sight and Sound and American Film Institute polls made it official for a time) that it’s become a dry truism. Along with its creator (and let’s face it, Pauline Kael was simply wrong: this is Welles’ creation), the legends surrounding the film have long overshadowed the actual production. Above all, Welles was a showman and Citizen Kane a three ring circus of cinematic ingenuity, a startlingly entertaining blend of dime store melodrama, historical biography, detective story, political drama, storytelling confabulation and plain old theatrical flourish. It has a cinematic brio and love of expressive possibilities that you rarely see from directors coming to the movies from the stage, but it also is a terrific piece of storytelling. Welles brought an understanding of power of sound design from the radio and applied a sophisticated, layered soundtrack and a pioneering piece of dramatic composition by Bernard Herrmann for the score. Stunningly designed to appear bigger and more lavish than its budget would support, brilliantly lit and shot by Gregg Toland with a creative invention that pushed the envelope of motion picture photography, Citizen Kane is a vital, exciting moment of American cinema brought back to life with every viewing.
[Expanded from a piece originally published on Greencine in 2003]
“And now I’m going to tell you a story about a scorpion. A scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked a frog to carry him. ‘No,’ said the frog. ‘No, thank you. If I let you on my back you may sting me, and the sting of a scorpion means death.’ ‘Now, where,’ asked the scorpion, ‘is the logic of that?’ – for scorpions always try to be logical – ‘If I sting you, you will die—I will drown.’ The frog was convinced and allowed the scorpion on his back but just in the middle of the river he felt a terrible pain and realized that after all the scorpion had stung him. ‘Logic!’ cried the dying frog as he started under, bearing the scorpion down with him. ‘There is no logic in this.’ ‘I know,’ said the scorpion, ‘but I can’t help it – it’s my character.’ Let’s drink to character.” – Orson Welles as Gregory Arkadin in Mr. Arkadin
The legend of Orson Welles looms so large it overtakes the man, a legend partly engineered by Welles himself from his beginnings in the theater. Welles was the enfant terrible of Broadway, the depression-era hope American Theater, the radical genius of radio. He came to Hollywood in grand style and on his own terms, a display of egotism so great that the Hollywood establishment turned up its nose and waited for his comeuppance. And he got it three times filled and running over.
Welles finished only 14 features in his lifetime, five of them Hollywood productions (it’s hard to consider the Republic backed Macbeth, 1948, a studio film) and only one of those, Citizen Kane, (1941) completed and released in its intended form. It’s has been so longed hailed as “the greatest film ever made” that’s it’s become a dry truism. With the AFI imprimatur stamped like some official seal, its reputation is in serious danger of becoming the least seen masterpiece around, and with its creator (and let’s face it, Pauline Kael was simply wrong: this is Welles’ creation) the legends surrounding the film have long overshadowed the actual production. Above all, Welles was a showman and Citizen Kane a three ring circus of cinematic ingenuity, a startlingly entertaining blend of dime store melodrama, historical biography, detective story, political drama, storytelling confabulation, and plain old theatrical flourish. Years ahead of its time in its layered use of sound and score (a pioneering piece of dramatic composition by Bernard Herrmann), stunningly designed, and brilliantly shot by Gregg Toland with a creative invention that pushed the envelope of motion picture photography, Citizen Kane is a vital, exciting moment of American cinema brought back to life with every viewing.
[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”