Friday, April 27, 2012

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

USA, 88 minutes
Directors: Orson Welles, Fred Fleck, Robert Wise
Writers: Booth Tarkington, Orson Welles, Jack Moss, Joseph Cotten
Photography: Stanley Cortez, Jack MacKenzie, Orson Welles
Music: Bernard Herrmann, Roy Webb
Editors: Robert Wise, Jack Moss, Mark Robson
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Agnes Moorhead, Tim Holt, Anne Baxter, Ray Collins, Richard Bennett, Erskine Sanford, Donald Dillaway, Orson Welles

I found myself surprisingly put in mind of F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby the last time I looked at The Magnificent Ambersons. It's not just the similar title constructions—in the case of Ambersons the adjective appears mostly offered with at least irony, if not sarcasm, unlike the intermeshed and more complex layers of meaning intended for Gatsby. The Magnificent Ambersons is based on Booth Tarkington, of course, so as with not just Gatsby but also Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and many others it also consorts in a certain ideal of the turn-of-the-20th-century Midwestern American idyll, rendered more caustically by H.L. Mencken as the "booboisie." I also thought the lovely overboiled language of Welles's voiceover narration occasionally strayed into Fitzgeraldian realms. And of course there's a number of incidental touch-points in their parallel stories of lifelong love for a woman cruelly denied.

But the paradox is that whereas The Great Gatsby may arguably be a very nearly perfect work of art, The Magnificent Ambersons is famously only the smoking hulk of whatever it might have been. It's known at least as much for being the movie "they took away" from Welles and wrecked as anything else. Here's what Wikipedia has on what happened and specifically what was lost. Look at the movie, read it, and weep. That's how things work around here apparently. RKO execs slashed away some 40 minutes of footage from Welles's early cut and reshot the ending. They monkeyed with everything—the story, the music, the photography. They say a copy of that early cut was shipped to Welles in Brazil, where he was already at work on his next project, but it has since never turned up. The cut footage moldered for a time in a vault but eventually was destroyed to make room for more important things to store there, perhaps Oscars®.

What's left remains so tightly wrapped in the legends of what might have been that it's actually hard to get a bead on it. Well, for me, anyway. It's currently ranked at #51 on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, fallen a bit since I drew up my own list to work from. It's been as high as #36, making Welles only one of two directors with three titles in the top 50, with Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil (Fellini is the other director, or was). There's also a fourth movie, The Third Man, in which Welles had an outsize impact. That's an impressive amount of respect and it reflects the importance he can still claim in the history of cinema. [Ed. note: Hitchcock also has three titles in the top 50: Vertigo, Psycho, and Rear Window.]

So, yes, there's an awful lot to like in the 88-minute version of The Magnificent Ambersons. Some of the sequences, such as the early ball scenes, are elegant, with lots of graceful camera motion and editing and an acerbic resonance between all that gracefulness and the onscreen chatter. I love it when George Amberson Minafer (played sharply in a pugnacious, muscular performance by Tim Holt) declares his ambition to be a yachtsman. It happens in a tight close-up immediately before dipping and dancing nimbly into the far background. It's a funny, beautiful moment. Never mind that it was one of the most hacked-at pieces in the whole thing. Wikipedia again: "Welles said that the ball sequence, in its original form, was the greatest technical achievement of the film. It consisted of a long take. It had a continuous, carefully choregoraphed crane shot that winded up the three floors of the mansion to the ballroom on the top floor. Various characters conversed and moved in and out of the frame as the camera wove around them."

The performances, mostly from Welles's stable of Mercury regulars, are uniformly outstanding. Joseph Cotten remains his typical soft-spoken, slightly bruised everyman good guy and Anne Baxter somehow lights up every scene she's in, especially when she's laughing. But the last time I looked Tim Holt and Agnes Moorhead keep pilfering the film away from everyone else in set pieces of their hot-headed fits of indignation and anger. Moorhead has a way of making her voice go strangely strained and ragged and disconcertingly passionate in her most intense scenes that is subsequently hard to get out from under one's skin. A scene late with her breaking down entirely and screaming stays with me. And Holt as the petulant insufferable prig and petty tyrant who forces his prejudices on everyone simply because he can, a luddite fool with a sense of privilege and entitlement so visceral it leaves a bitter taste in one's mouth, is even more indelible, and unforgettable.

As always, Welles is a breathtaking natural at setting up scenes and then getting the performances that quickly establish and move his characters, showing them in action nakedly engaged with the world. The last time I looked I really noticed the scene where George is eating in the kitchen after his father's funeral. His aunt Fanny Minafer (played by Moorhead) comes in with strawberry shortcake for him. He's such a pig, shoveling the food in as fast as he can and talking in his imperious way all the while, and it's all right there, his relationship with Fanny too (and his father), in that compact little throwaway moment.

It's incidentally great, without even seeming to make the effort, on the period of American history in which it's set, the Midwest when the "horseless carriage" was beginning to burgeon as an industry. It casually yet expertly deals with the profound issues raised and the displacements it made. In one of the picture's best scenes, George attacks Eugene Morgan (played by Cotten) by mule-headedly insisting that the automobile is "a useless nuisance." Eugene ruefully allows that the changes already coming as a result of cars, and now virtually unstoppable, may not ultimately be for the best. His sad conciliatory gesture towards George looks even more prescient now than it could have in 1942, emphasizing both the gravitas of Eugene and the frivolousness of George.

But, yeah, then there's the matter of the mess. The rhythms of it are violently lurching and unsteady, languorously lingering on charming moments only to blackout to boisterous scenes moving with dizzying speed through time. Critical information is dropped all too casually, dropped into the welter and thus easily lost in the slipstreams. The adopted style of the picture is brisk and fairly elliptical—it's Welles—but especially towards the end it starts to play for me like the experience of accidentally falling asleep in front of a movie and waking and now you're lost and don't know how much you missed. It's definitely garbled, even as the visuals and the sheer confidence of it lose little of their startling impact and luster. It's beautiful in many little moments. And thus it's absolutely worth seeing, even if no one is ever going to come away from it entirely satisfied: the greatest ruined movie ever made.

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