Criterion Prediction #67: The Magnificent Ambersons, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Magnificent Ambersons
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead, Orson Welles (narrator)
Synopsis: George Minafer (Holt), heir to the reputed but decaying Amberson family fortune, objects to the rekindling of an old romance between his widowed mother Isabel Amberson Minafer (Costello) and a matured Eugene Morgan (Cotten), a wealthy automobile manufacturer. Meanwhile, the rising industrial age looms over the customs and culture that permeated the heyday of the Amberson fortune.
Critique: Sometimes the classics are the hardest to films to analyze, but this is more than a classic – it’s a masterpiece. We can anguish over the lost reels, and Welles’ truncated vision being the victim of parochial studio brass. But I’d like to think that information is common knowledge at this point, so, for now, we can leave the torches and pitchforks aside. Should we get the lost footage of The Magnificent Ambersons, then we can work our way to a “close enough”/final cut, but until then it is superb in its current state.
Welles is an enigmatic figure in film history, an exceptionally charming boy genius turned rotund charlatan outcast who maintained a maverick spirit despite years of exile thanks to a system that was a few decades behind his ingenuity. It’s nearly impossible for me to declare a favorite Welles film. It’s a testament to Welles’ talent as a director because all of his films are distinctly exceptional. While Citizen Kane is always at the tip of the tongue, its closest successor is The Magnificent Ambersons.
At times a thoroughly-romanticized window into the past drenched in modern stylistic flair – not as punctuated as Citizen Kane, years before the robust expressionism in the likes of Chimes at Midnight or The Trial – The Magnificent Ambersons is as enigmatic as the big man himself. It might not have the visual bravado of Kane, but it bears the best of the director’s aesthetic resume; there’s the recurring suggestion of theatrical blocking in the films various compositions, yet the mise-en-scene is never stoic or stagey.
Recurring players like Cotten, Moorehead and Collins exchange of dialogue is parried like blows in a boxing match, crossing and overlapping but every line connects with its target. Impresario of radio and theater Welles’ transition to motion pictures is still a marvel with over half a century removed.
As time went on Welles’ self-styled reputation became more mysterious his work bears a personality close to his creative core. There’s a despondent affection for the cloistered atmosphere and busy fashions of yesteryear in The Magnificent Ambersons, after all: “They had Time for Everything.” On the flip side, the film more poignantly acknowledging the fleeting train of economic and social progress. The Ambersons’ legacy and ensuing obsolescence are most effectively bookended by the dissonant voiceover by Welles’ unmistakable timbre; perhaps my inclinations are deluded by hindsight, but the whimsical narration is one of the films biggest strengths.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Every once and awhile I think, “why don’t I have The Magnificent Ambersons on Blu-ray?!” only to realize that it doesn’t actually exist for average consumers in North America.
RKO’s library was sold to the Japanese IVC group for overseas distribution, and their region free Blu-ray has been tempting in my lesser moments – the information on it indicate it’s limited in the features department, and sporting a subpar transfer. However, there’s hope that Ambersons will get the Criterion treatment after all. They recently put out Cat People (another favorite RKO title), which came out seven months after the IVC Blu-ray. Let’s hope that Ambersons has the same fate, given the films shared history it seems like it could work out as such.