Though mutilated by studio cuts and misunderstood at the time of its release, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, based on the Tarkington novel and set during the twilight of the 19th century, remains Welles's second great masterpiece.
Young George Amberson (Holt), the spoiled, insufferable scion of the wealthy Amberson family, is first seen, to the consternation of his neighbors, whipping his buggy horse through the streets of Indianapolis. Eugene Morgan (Cotten) is a struggling inventor who loves George's mother Isabel
(Costello), but loses her to the wealthy Wilbur Minafer (Dillaway). After an absence of several years, Eugene returns, now successful, having invented an automobile, an instrument of the future that many of the old school find repulsive, especially the haughty George. Wilbur dies, and Eugene, a
widower with an attractive daughter, Lucy (Baxter), attempts to rekindle his love affair with Isabel, but George interferes. This affects not only George's romance with Lucy, but also the fading Amberson fortunes.
Though more controlled, subtle and cinematically exciting than CITIZEN KANE, Welles's earlier masterpiece, it's a wonder that AMBERSONS survived at all. Alarmed by the negative reaction at the film's premiere, RKO president George Schaefer instructed then-editor Robert Wise to shorten the film
drastically. Welles had already cut it from 148 minutes to 131, but Wise hacked it down to 88, and a more optimistic ending was tacked on by a nameless studio writer and directed by Freddie Fleck. This presumptuous, dictatorial savaging of the film, according to Welles, destroyed "the whole heart
of the picture, really." Luckily, that's not quite true.
The film is so rich in innovative technique that it takes several viewings to note even the most essential elements. The "Welles sound" permeates every frame, with overlapping dialogue and a subtle control of volume and texture giving a natural feel to the words spoken (sometimes improvised in
group scenes) and sounds heard. In crowd scenes he allows a host of gossips to function as a Greek chorus in estimating the worth of the Amberson and Morgan families. At times the voices of the characters boom and bellow, while, at others, they are so hushed as to be barely discernible.
Many of the ideas initally used in CITIZEN KANE are refined in AMBERSONS, showing in split-second frames his people reflected in mirrors, highly glossed furniture, sometimes in a glare of light, most in half-shadow, as if the blackness of time were shutting out the light of the living. Through his
great visual gifts, Welles was able to express the true nature of the characters through their actions: Fanny (Moorehead, in the performance of a lifetime) peering over a railing to eavesdrop on those far below; George methodically spooning down strawberry shortcake in the famous kitchen scene,
indifferently listening to Aunt Fanny pour out her heart; a stunned Eugene at the front door of the Amberson mansion, which has been closed in his face by George, who stands behind the frosted glass panes; a dark shot of the dying, incoherent Major (Bennett); Fanny slumping against a long-unused
heater ("It's not hot!").
The look of AMBERSONS was modeled on the low-key lighting used by photographers at the turn-of-the-century, and Cortez's deep-focus lensing is arresting, dwelling upon scenes only Welles could have framed--notably, ten-minute soliloquies saved from tedium by the unique framing. Dolly and truck
shots keep the film fluid, and some crane shots capture the changing architecture from Victorian to modern, from resplendent to mundane, as Welles eloquently shows the passing of an age.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Though mutilated by studio cuts and misunderstood at the time of its release, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, based on the Tarkington novel and set during the twilight of the 19th century, remains Welles's second great masterpiece. Young George Amberson (Holt)… (more)