DVD of the Week – Review of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

by NIR SHALEV

The Magnificent Ambersons is Orson Welles’ second masterpiece, following his surprising commercial flop Citizen Kane (1941). This film is far less flamboyant, contains a more stark visual style, and borrows strongly from Eisensteinian dramatic compositions and editing techniques, which is a very good thing.

The film is narrated by one of its main characters, Eugene (Joseph Cotton) and he begins the story in the year 1873. He mentions that the Ambersons are a very wealthy and popular family and we watch, via montage as he attempts to serenade the fair Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello). But at the time he is drunk and fails, and every courtship attempt afterwards, for years is a no go. Eventually Isabel marries another man and has a son, George. George is presented as a truly rotten, spoiled brat; he beats up anyone that speaks negatively about him or his family. Everyone in town utterly hates George, even at his tender young age and wishes that one day he gets his comeuppance.

Time goes by and George (Tim Holt) is nearly 22 years of age. He meets Lucy (Ann Baxter), Eugene’s daughter and attempts to woo her but he’s not so far off from Eugene with his mother back in the day. But eventually word spreads that not only had Eugene been in love with Isabel but that he might still be in love with her, and George is angry because he dislikes Eugene and loves Eugene’s daughter.

So begins the fall of the great Amberson name. We witness the decline of the family and it begins with the death of George’s father. We witness the degradation of George’s character as he sinks into an even more loathsome type but through a stroke of genius in Welles’ screenplay, we witness the majority of the happenings through George’s perspective because he’s the only character that’s truly in need of redemption. The only concern is whether that will ever happen.

The film’s visual style is a stark black and white that utilizes many close-ups of many different types of faces. Like in a stage play, characters address the audience directly at times. As mentioned above, those are Eisensteinian close-ups and editing techniques but after Citizen Kane Welles had nothing to prove because he’s basically written the book on filmmaking for generations to come. With The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles takes a far more straightforward approach to dramatic storytelling and can be instantly recognized as an actor’s director.

There is a sequence where George and Lucy are riding a carriage in the main streets of the town and are conversing with one another. The sequence goes on for several minutes and is displayed in one, astounding take. At first the camera frames them in profile and then slowly moves inwards a bit to provide a three-dimensional look. Then, whenever George says something characteristically rude the camera, while still following them lowers itself a bit in order to frame George in a low angle shot, making him appear more sinister. Then the camera goes back to shoulder height for a bit, then it drops low again, and then the scene is done. On the visual language of film the positioning of the camera means something and something different every time that it shifts in a certain direction, or changes height, or pitch, or what have you. But Welles had managed to tell an entire story with the camera and George’s dialogue while the camera hovered alongside the carriage and that’s just one great example of why Welles is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

This is a great American film and great feat of compositional storytelling and editing, though heavily steeped in Soviet expert filmmaking techniques. Welles’ style and storytelling structures are inimitable, or damn near impossible to copy and his screenplay for The Magnificent Ambersons is as terrific as the film’s direction, the performances of the entire cast (also co-starring Agnes Moorehead), and the cinematography.

This film now comes to DVD for the first time but only as a special add-on to the 70th Anniversary Special Blu-ray Edition of Citizen Kane. I’m certain that given time the DVD will be released for sale separate from a packaged deal- and hopefully, one day with special features!- and also on Blu-ray. Even though this is the studio-butchered version of Welles’ final cut (tragically, the only version extant), it is a masterpiece in its own right and the DVD release is a cause for celebration.

Lastly, I hear rumors that the Criterion Collection is scouring the globe for all or any missing footage and that they might release the film as part of their collection if they can piece the original masterpiece back together. Well, here’s hoping for the best!

New releases this week: 35 and Ticking, Another Earth, Bill Cunningham New York, Hesher, Incendies, Meek’s Cutoff, Thor

2 responses to “DVD of the Week – Review of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

  1. Strike another title from the “I can’t believe that’s not on DVD yet” list.

    This is a special hometown favorite, based as it is on Booth Tarkington’s very fine novel (for which he won the Pulitzer) dramatizing the social, economic, and physical evolution of Indianapolis around the turn of the century. The Ambersons’ once-tony neighborhood is a thinly fictionalized version of Woodruff Place, the city’s first suburb and now part of the inner city, which survived decades of urban decline before being rescued by pioneering urban renewal homesteaders- and is a fashionable address again!

    Apropos of nothing except it might interest you, my neighborhood is named for Tarkington; his former house is about a mile from mine.

    • Heh. I knew that the novel had to be truly great in order for Welles to adapt it into a film and for the actual location to have great historical significance. But you know that I’m not the type to inject actual history into my film reviews, no matter how impactful it may be. And I never compare books to their film adaptations, that would just be silly. 0_<
      But what you wrote above is definitely interesting. :O)

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