The Magnificent Ambersons

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Another post that was deformed by formatting errors, that i’ve had to re-post.

I’ve been on a bit of an Orsen Welles binge as of late, having watched Macbeth (1948), The Magnificent Ambersons, Citizen Kane, and Touch of Evil in short succession to one another (although i had watched Kane and Evil previously). Naturally i’ve decided to spew forth my haphazard thoughts about them and have decided to set my sights on Welles’ second film as my first victim…

 

THE STORY

With the arrival of the Automobile, America is changing. However the Amberson family isn’t, and through a series of bad decisions and deaths, their legacy and standing dwindles down in tune to the second-hand of the clock ticking ever forward.

 

THE GOOD

This film is wonderfully acted. Everyone from Joseph Cotten’s bright-eyed Eugene, Tim Holt’s incredibly selfish George, Anne Baxter’s charming and lovely Lucy, and Agnes Moorehead’s hapless Aunt Fanny’s decent into grief-stricken madness are clearly giving it their all. A film containing performances of this caliber are text-book examples of how important good acting is to the movie making process. As their memorable scenes make up for the lightning quick pace of the film, and the over abundance of names to remember by being exactly that: memorable.

The production design is also something to marvel at as well, while it is a bit unclear as to how much time has passed since the beginning of the film to its end (at least to me) what is clear is how much the slow and unstoppable march of time has changed things; clearly better for many but clearly bad for many more. The streets of the town get larger, the buildings get taller and this is paired with the Amberson house feeling more empty and barren of any life or happiness as the clock continues to tick. As such the film’s moral can be taken as a cautionary tale of the necessity for the acceptance of change.

 

THE BAD

The film bizarrely enough feels like it’s too short but at the same time almost too long. Whether this is a result of the film missing an hours worth of itself, or the editing overall is unfortunately lost. The film barrels straight ahead through its story like a herd of rampaging buffalo, and the characters are in danger of being lost in the dust. It is only their aforementioned superb performances that keep the drama alive in the story.

The pacing also manages to damage other aspects of the film as well; while the changes brought about by time are shown as snippets of how the town has changed and grown, and are effective in the same way that i don’t know how much the places from my youth have changed throughout the years until i stop and think about it*. I get the feeling that Welles wanted it to be much more of a central focus than what we have here, if i look at the town at the beginning of the film to its end it is completely unrecognisable and ultimately dark and uninviting. Sadly only hints of that original intent are on display and it does hurt the film tremendously.

Also while still retaining many of Orsen Welles’ trademark visuals (long uncut takes, deep focus, use of silhouettes and high contrast lighting) the film just doesn’t look as good as Citizen Kane, or at least as visually appealing. While this may be by design its a little disappointing considering that even the low-budget Macbeth (1948) looked far more dramatic and evocative than this film, even though it had a fraction of The Magnificent Ambersons budget.

Lastly we come to the problem of its ending; irregardless of how the book ended, the way the film ends does indeed feel like it was tacked on. It’s composed of two or three quick shots that try to undo all of the scenes that came before, and it makes no sense as it leaves a lot of unanswered questions in its wake.

How can Lucy reconcile with George after she told her father that she had no intention of doing so? Or better yet, how could Eugene forgive George after what he did to him? No. No, that wouldn’t and shouldn’t happen and unfortunately a film that was building up towards one of those great tragic endings was ruined.

 

THE UGLY

The Magnificent Ambersons is both frustrating and enjoyable in equal measure; it’s enjoyable in that what remains is a rather solid film about how bad luck and bad decisions can ruin lives, but it’s frustrating in that it will always have the question of “what if” hanging over its head.

The monumental movie highlighting the tragedy of change is there, peeking below the surface bubbling up every now and again, but it suffered the same fate as the Amberson’s fortunes in that it is lost to time.

And that is a damn shame.

 

3.5 stars

OUT OF FIVE

* North Edmonton, particularly around the Claireview area has changed an incredible amount since i was a child. Circa the mid 90’s, it was nothing but fields with a few outlying developments and a mental hospital. Now, row upon row of houses, condos, and shopping centres with more on the way.

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