In The Overlook, A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.
A man’s voice, a melodious baritone, is heard over the black void of the screen. “The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873,” it announces, backed by harps and violins that bring to mind the Looney Tunes version of the pearly gates. The voice from beyond is Orson Welles. He continues: “Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their midland town spread and darken into a city.” An image fades in slowly, a view of a big house in black and white, the corners of the frame darkened by a vignette to resemble a tintype photo in motion. Even if you haven’t seen the movie before, you will recognize much in these next few minutes, which have been echoed through film history by generations of movie-mad directors. This is the granddaddy of time-and-place-setting expository montages: the beginning of The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles’ sublime (though much meddled with) follow-up to Citizen Kane, adapted from Booth Tarkington’s Pultizer Prize-winning novel.
The Magnificent Ambersons had its disastrous first preview screening in Pomona, California, on March 17, 1942, or 75 years ago this past Friday. This is a dark but significant anniversary, because the Pomona preview and a similar one that happened in Pasadena two days later were the only times that Welles’ initial, 131-minute version of Ambersons was shown to the public. It was then reworked without his input; he was in Brazil at the time, working on It’s All True, an omnibus project that eventually fell apart. The deleted footage was ultimately destroyed, and the only version of Ambersons that survives today is an 88-minute cut that includes a number of reshot scenes that Welles did not direct. His saga of a faded era has itself been partly lost to time, coating its bittersweetness with an additional layer of meta-melancholy. Film history is funny that way, writing its own poetry. And the kicker is that The Magnificent Ambersons is still masterly. It’s the movie that all other films about families in decline are measured against.
Welles’ great films all perform magic tricks: the tracking shot in Touch Of Evil, the funhouse climax from The Lady From Shanghai, the collage of Shakespeare texts in Chimes At Midnight, the misdirection of F For Fake. But Ambersons has at least two. The first is that it’s a work of terrific wit that pokes fun of the mores and fashions of a bygone era (the story spans about 40 years, ending in the early 1910s) but is also deeply sensitive; I’d rank it with the similarly personal Chimes At Midnight as one of Welles’ most emotionally sincere films. The second involves Welles’ use of nostalgia. The decline of the moneyed Amberson family happens against a backdrop of creeping modernity, and the rich sense of place and time that Welles conjures in the early sections ends up haunting Ambersons as the 19th century itself disappears. He enchants the viewer into following him deep into a film about disenchantment.
There are many marvelously complex performances in Ambersons, but I’ll mention the best only in passing—namely, Joseph Cotten as the widower Eugene Moran, and Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny and Ray Collins as Uncle Jack, both Shakespearean in conception. What I’d like to discuss instead are these tricks that were so integral to Welles and his showy art. The wunderkind of American film, theater, and radio seemed to hold the opinion that stories were best told wistfully—that every story was also about a story being remembered. One had to draw the audience into a narrative as though leading them through the vestibules of a great house, like Citizen Kane’s Xanadu or the Ambersons’ Victorian mansion, the prototypical Wellesian castles of memory. These are like the Roman method of loci or the memory arts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, elaborate mnemonic tools that used an imaginary space to retain information. It was often a palace or a theater.
Welles was an artist with range, so there are exceptions: Touch Of Evil, for example. But if there was such a thing as a collective theme in his body of work, it’s memory. It inspired his greatest ingenuity as a storyteller—from the rich flashback structure of Citizen Kane to the sleight of hand of F For Fake—and drove many of the characters he played in his own films, preoccupied with the past or afraid of being forgotten. Perhaps it’s to be expected that a man who reached the peak of success and notoriety early and spent much of the rest of his life fighting would be obsessed with lost time, but Welles was wistful from the beginning; his career was more like a self-fulfilling prophecy. He was 25 when he filmed Citizen Kane and 26 when he made The Magnificent Ambersons, and both films seem profoundly wise because they are preoccupied with the process by which time turns us into loners, gradually displacing reality with memories.
Like Kane, Ambersons is a film of bold and confident experimentation, especially with long takes and darkness, which seems to overtake the frame more and more in the final section, to the point that it sometimes looks like a jar of ink has been spilled across the frame. At first, it bustles; from the Greek chorus of townspeople to the scenes of late-19th-century social life at the Amberson household, the screen is packed with characters. Then it settles into parlor rooms and around kitchen and dining room tables. At last comes loneliness, a series of solitary figures in dim or abandoned spaces, concluding with a montage of factories and shabby boarding houses before the fade to black and the haunting dolly shot that signal the start of the reshot ending that Welles had no hand in. Perhaps this is why the scene of the reception at the Amberson house—a tremendous sequence, which ran as a single uninterrupted shot before it was recut—feels so pivotal to the whole film. Kane pictured life as a treasure trove in which the most valuable object would seem meaningless to anyone else. In Ambersons, it is a party in which the guests trickle out one by one, until you find yourself alone.