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The Magnificent Ambersons

September 5, 2010

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Director: Orson Welles
Actors: Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, Anne Baxter

Synopsis: The dramas of the ill-fated Amberson clan.

Review: Though possessing a layman’s knowledge, at best, of the colourful and controversial post-production history of The Magnificent Ambersons, it is patently obvious that the studio-led butchering of Welles’ original cut has drastically compromised much of the film’s narrative coherence. The film has a gravity, scope and subject matter that would clearly have warranted a much longer running time than the paltry eighty-five minutes that passes for the regulation release we see today. Not that I slavishly laud the narrative imperative of cinema, but even the most amateur of film watchers would be able to detect the problematic and jarring discrepancies in the editing and plot structure that compromise the film’s dramatic integrity. That might not be such a problem in a more deliberately spare and esoteric film, but The Magnificent Ambersons posits itself as a dense personal, familial and social melodrama that positively requires time and space to draw out all the requisite themes. Where the narrative really stumbles is in the final-third, particularly as Tim Holt’s spoilt and tragically-flawed George Minafer is supposed to undergo his fall from grace (his mother dying, his long-term belle rejecting his marriage propositions, and his family status and wealth imploding) before a final act of penitence. Unfortunately, George’s repentance is sequenced so bizarrely late in the proceedings (literally the final scene) and kept off-screen, it seems incongruous and sullies the film’s intended climactic and thematic coup de grace.

Revealingly though, the reason one lingers on the flaws of The Magnificent Ambersons is because of the material’s undeniable potential. As Welles’ follow-up to the masterly Citizen Kane, it contains all that film’s amazing cinematic articulacy and virtuosity (depth of focus, dazzling long takes, gorgeous chiaroscuro cinematography, and a wry opening dramatic hook – in this case a third-person voiceover by Welles himself). Add to that its intended deconstruction of a whole social dynasty and epoch, rather than a single individual, and one can see why it promised so much. Maybe that’s why The Magnificent Ambersons actually serves as a more appropriate metaphor for Welles’ cinematic legacy than Citizen Kane, with its polar motifs of magnificence and decline, and its mythic off-screen baggage about a maverick project doomed by industrial and commercial interference. (September 2008)

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