The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

As only his second feature, Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) invites frequent comparison with the first, Citizen Kane (1941).  Both films depict the decay of the powerful and privileged, a favourite topic for Welles. Both were initially box-office flops but are now revered as outright Wellesian classics. Both, to a degree, are overrated. Tim Holt plays the lead, George, a bratty only-child who yearns for his mother Isabel’s unequivocal love. The town community desire his comeuppance. But mother-son relations are complicated by a third presence- Isabel’s lost love Eugene (Holly Martins).  Once a feckless young romantic,Eugene returns as a successful businessman, proliferating the automobile industry in America.  Eugene is not only a threat to George’s control over his mother, but represents industrial change jeopardising the Ambersons’ idyllic existence.

Ambersons is a lumbering film, if I am being honest, undeserving of the frequent comparisons with Kane. It suffers for several reasons. Tim Holt plays irritating and pampered to the point of alienation. He’s great in that he almost plays the part too well and his comeuppance couldn’t come soon enough. Contrast this with the similar recklessness of young Charles Foster Kane; captivating due to Welles’ magnetic screen presence, despite the character’s priggish adolescence. Welles had played George in the Mercury Theatre production of Ambersons, and even toyed with taking on the character for the screen. However, Holt doubtlessly brings a childlike selfishness that Welles’ authoritarian style could never deliver.  Nonetheless, it’s distancing, and not in a good (yea, that must be intentional) way.

Simultaneously, there are all the expected Wellesian trademarks: deep focus cinematography, long-takes and numerous dolly shots. But the full effect is squandered by clumsy editing. The decisions made in the cutting room are just plain odd. There are miss timed fade-outs; awkwardly placed or incomplete scenes; and poor spacing that ruins the illusion of time passing.  The blame for this final cut is endlessly debated.  Some accuse RKO Pictures who demanded that the original cut be reworked; others berate Editor Robert Wise who managed the re-cuts and re-shooting; or alternatively, Welles himself, side tracked with other projects in South America, and absent for the majority of the post-production.  As ever with such issues, it’s probably a combination of them all.  But, whatever Welles’ final vision, this surely isn’t it. The original version, 131 minutes, was hacked to a meagre 88 minutes and given a hopeful but unsatisfying ending.  Furthermore, the changes were irreversible as additional footage was destroyed making Ambersons the most mutilated picture since Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924).

Ambersons best scenes involve Welles as omniscient narrator – what better position of authority? We open with his voice-over lecturing on the height of aristocratic narcissism: a commentary on the evolution of fashion over the years. The setting is the interior a lavish manor. The camera remains static and totally observant of these materialistic parasites, viewing younger Eugene through a mirror. Now take the narration towards the end.  A dolly shot introduces movement (like a car in motion): we’re outside, walking the streets of the town sprawling into a city, lost in a spaghetti mesh of iron facets that fade in and out. The scene coincides with George’s last walk home to the Amberson mansion; he faces mundane employment to avoid harsher economic realities. The camera tilts upwards, reflecting George’s point of view, as he traces the labyrinth and intricacies of the booming town, dwarfed against this imposing environment. This is his comeuppance.

At least it should have been had the studio tampered ending not devastated these ideas. In a peculiar last scene that tracks Eugene and Aunt Fanny down a hospital corridor, the camera zooms in for a close-up on Fanny, thus emphasising her redemption, counteracting Georges’s comeuppance. In fact, it negates George altogether, as we’re flippantly told about his supposed happiness (despite, I should mention, being hit by a car.) One can only presumable Fanny was considered the most sympathetic character in the re-write. It’s an ending that feels like time being called in an exam as you abruptly scribble down a sloppy and hopefully neat conclusion. If anyone remembers Spielberg’s War of the World (2005) you’ll know what I mean. All things said, the picture shows all the hallmarks of being cut, chopped, dismantled and ultimately sabotaged beyond repair.

~ by pointonfilm on June 18, 2012.

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