Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons is often thought of as a tragic masterpiece, one that could have been even greater had RKO not unforgivably destroyed 45 minutes’ worth of its original footage and Welles not been distracted by the filming of his unfinished documentary It’s All True. Yet The Magnificent Ambersons is a classic in spite and because of its limitations. Both a fluid and hobbled work about the hobbling of a family and an aristocratic way of life, the film shows a deepening of the cinematic imagination that Welles displayed in Citizen Kane, as its flamboyant formalism expresses the characters’ interior longings while also embodying the very fancifulness that separates the Ambersons from the arising technological society of the early 20th century. Like most Welles films, The Magnificent Ambersons essentially predicts its own demise, and dramatizes a struggle to flourish—to create beauty—in spite of monumental opposing forces.
In the ongoing tradition of privileged artists, Welles was eaten up with a contradiction throughout his career. He longed for a world of caste systems and chivalry and ornate customs that compose in themselves a living art. Welles was to the manor born and he revered the beauty of it, yet he also understood the classist hypocrisy of Victorian and Edwardian cultures, which pivot on fetishizing old money and depend on social inequality. And perhaps it’s because of the failure of The Magnificent Ambersons and It’s All True that Welles came to invent the persona of the traveling rogue with rarefied tastes who’s somewhat of a pauper existing on the margins of the Hollywood machine. Such a real-life character, Welles’s most enduring creation, could in effect be rich and poor simultaneously in flattering proportions.
The mythology of Welles’s struggle to create art is so rich and alluring for critics that one can lose sight of how his films might function for people who expect to see mere movies. For roughly 50 minutes, The Magnificent Ambersons plays as a devastating gothic parable, wedding the prose of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning source novel with two incarnations of Welles’s formalism. In the film’s most beautiful moments, we see the aesthetic that Welles was actively honing at the time, which involved deep-focus compositions and flowing tracking shots that serve as a visual equivalent to Tarkington’s haunting, poignantly ornate 19th-century-style verse.
A sentence of approximately 50 words for Tarkington might be, for Welles, a long shot following the snobbish antihero, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), as he argues with his neglected spinster aunt, Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), inadvertently pushing her to reveal her suppressed longing for automobile pioneer Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), while unearthing Eugene’s own tortured love story with George’s mother, Isabel (Delores Costello). Such moments, which are often set on the winding staircase of the faltering Amberson mansion, allow the actors to sustain agonizingly prolonged emotional crescendos, alternating outbursts with cowering withdrawals, particularly Moorehead, who gives one of the subtlest, most ironic, and heartbreaking performances in American cinema.
Other portions of The Magnificent Ambersons anticipate the formalism that Welles would later develop as an eccentric globe-trotting genius who cobbled films together out of footage shot over years. The montage of the Amberson mansion that opens The Magnificent Ambersons, as well as vignettes in which George behaves badly as a spoiled young boy, are shot in a gauzy haze that’s at odds with the lushly prismatic ballroom scenes or the astonishing moment where we see adult George’s face in reflection, as he looms over a landscape that’s inhabited by a dejected Eugene. And other images, such as close-ups of gossiping faces, are clearly shot on isolated sets and exist separate from other planes of action. These fissures in the film’s aesthetic and internal sense of reality are born from production issues, which are vividly discussed in the supplements included in this Criterion Collection Blu-ray, but they establish a precedent for how Welles would later deliberately shatter form as a way of turning his scarce resources into a creative boon.
When people dream of the Magnificent Ambersons that might’ve been, they may be undervaluing the film that is, falling prey to the sort of false nostalgia that destroys the Ambersons. The brutal cutting of the narrative by RKO executives actually achieves a daring emotional effect: As the Ambersons fall apart, so does the film itself. The second half of The Magnificent Ambersons is rife with tragedies that come out of nowhere, born symbolically from George’s meddling in Eugene and Isabel’s tragic non-romance. The delirious rapture of Welles’s direction gives way to brittle fragmentation, with the performances offering a structural through line, including Welles’s own vocal performance as the narrator, who rues for a faded with way of life with a barely repressed yearning that speaks for all of the Ambersons, and for anyone, namely everyone, who’s suspected themselves to be born in the wrong time.
The softer whites of the image are occasionally shrill, but that’s nitpicking, as this 4K restoration of The Magnificent Ambersons is positively transformative and gorgeous. The foregrounds, middle grounds, and backgrounds of the images have equal crystal clarity, allowing one to fully appreciate the virtuosity of Welles’s cinematic imagination. The interiors of the Amberson home are rendered in crisp compositions that elaborate on character relationships while proffering a world so rarefied it resembles a self-enclosed biosphere. (This disc underscores just how influential Welles was to filmmakers such as Alain Resnais and Wes Anderson.) Blacks are velvety, especially the poetic shadows, and facial textures are intensely tactile. The monaural soundtrack may be less ostentatious of a show pony than the disc’s image, but it offers a much sharper soundscape than prior editions of the film, most evidently in the presentation of dialogue. Now, dialogue complements the compositions to illustrate the characters’ relationships with one another in the frames, intensifying the film’s already considerable spatial specificity.
This expansive and detailed supplements package offers varying perspectives on how The Magnificent Ambersons influenced Welles’s subsequent career, and was shaped by historical events such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Many familiar Welles authorities have been recruited here, from film historians Simon Callow and Joseph McBride, who turn up in interviews filmed in 2018 exclusively for this edition, to filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who speaks with Welles in archive conversations that were recorded for Bogdanovich’s essential book This Is Orson Welles.
Unsurprisingly, these supplements focus quite a bit on the gutting of The Magnificent Ambersons by RKO, and on the fall from grace that Welles suffered after the controversy of Citizen Kane and the mixed preview screenings of The Magnificent Ambersons. Callow, McBride, and Bogdanovich are passionate and intelligent critics, all with personal connections to Welles, and their words here contextualize this film as the troubled masterpiece it is.
More surprising are the new video essays by scholars François Thomas and Christopher Husted, which respectively track the shifting cinematographers (including Stanley Cortez and Jack MacKenzie) on the film and the various versions of Bernard Herrmann’s score that resulted from studio meddling. These pieces use intimate, specific examples of scenes both present and lost to illustrate the film that The Magnificent Ambersons is and could have been.
Two audio commentaries, a vintage one from 1985 with scholar Robert L. Carringer and a 2018 track with scholar James Naremore and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, offer stories of the film’s making as well profound analyses of Welles’s aesthetic. Carringer is particularly engrossing when discussing the freedom that the elaborate sets accorded Welles in terms of fashioning revolutionary choreography, while Naremore and Rosenbaum underscore the subtlety of the actors’ performances, most notably in “the spoon scene,” in which Joseph Cotten’s character speaks tranquilly and empathetically while telegraphing his anger with the violent rubbing of a spoon.
These indispensable commentaries are complemented by the inclusion of two Mercury Theatre radio plays, from 1938 and 1939, respectively: Seventeen, an adaptation by Welles of another Booth Tarkington novel, and The Magnificent Ambersons, both of which are referred to often in this package and show the evolution of Welles’s preoccupation with the author. Odds and ends round out a veritable cornucopia for Welles junkies, such as the filmmaker’s 1970 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show and a booklet that’s rich in wonderful writing by authors and critics Molly Haskell, Luc Sante, Geoffrey O’Brien, Farran Smith Nehme, and Jonathan Lethem. This booklet also includes an excerpt from an unfinished memoir by Welles.
Criterion continues its heroic restoration of Orson Welles’s lost and unappreciated masterpieces with this extraordinarily beautiful presentation of The Magnificent Ambersons.
Anyone unfamiliar to Theo Angelopoulos’s work could start chronologically, or they can simply skip to his Landscape in the Mist and leave it at that. 1995’s Ulysses’ Gaze is considerably more evocative than the Greek director’s fatuous Eternity and the Day though it’s nonetheless laughably pretentious. This tediously paced epic traces a country’s political upheavals and one man’s misplaced nationalism. “A” (a clueless Harvey Keitel) must find three lost reels of films produced by two brother-filmmakers in 1905 and located somewhere in the Balkans. Ulysses’ Gaze is mindful of the protagonist’s staunch need to capture and liberate a myth. Angelopoulos’s signature elliptical flourishes are on full display here. During the film’s opening scene, “A” discusses the Manakis brothers’ works with a former assistant of the two men. Are they occupying the same space or have “A” and the old man met at a bridge that spans the space and time continuum, Angelopoulos seems to ask. There are many such elegiac moments in Ulysses’ Gaze but all feel calculated and beleaguered by their own weight. In one of the film’s most haunting sequences, an army of soldiers butts heads with a pack of townsfolk carrying umbrella. Their confrontation creates a wall between “A” and a lone female wanderer. There is no doubt that we are in the presence of greatness, but Angelopoulos’s compositions are so calculated they leave no room for spontaneity. (Curiously, Angelopoulos made a stink at Cannes when his film lost to Kusturica’s far superior Underground.) A statue of Lenin is taken apart and transported down a river. Though the sequence serves to shed light on the looming presence of communism, the scene goes on for what seems like the duration of the October Revolution. Not surprisingly, the film’s most effective scene is also its least pretentious. Angelopoulos stunningly recounts the protagonist’s entire family history via one long shot composed of moving snapshots from his many New Years festivities. The entire film reeks of Angelopoulos’s delusion of grandeur: he fancies himself a poet first and a filmmaker second. Regardless, he’s been making the same like since 1991’s The Suspended Step of the Stork. Don’t be surprised if Angelopoulos’s next picture finds Willem Dafoe playing some a cheese-maker travelling through Pompeii and contemplating the political and social importance of gouda.