Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.3: Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 98/A

Citizen Kane remains Orson Welles’ greatest and most important work, but Welles believe that his next film had a chance to be even better. The Magnificent Ambersons, based off of Booth Tarkington’s novel, was a dream project for Welles, highly personal and perhaps even more ambitious than Kane. Welles famously left the film after filming had wrapped on a goodwill mission to Brazil (funded by the American government, who wanted to dissuade the region from following Nazi interests) that gave him a chance to work on another project, the unfinished It’s All True. A rough cut of Welles film ran 148 minutes, where a version shown to preview audiences was 131 minutes. But the preview went over very badly, and without Welles present to negotiate any potential changes, RKO Pictures (to whom Welles had lost the right to final cut in order to make the film) convinced editor/future director Robert Wise that Welles version was, as preview audiences said, too slow, too long, and too depressing.

The result was near-catastrophic. Wise (who, to be fair, Welles did not completely blame) assisted massive cuts to the film that chopped out 45 minutes of material,  reducing the scope of the film considerably. Wise then directed a number of reshoots, including a much bemoaned happy ending that, while true to the original novel, feels false to the gloomy tone of the film. The Magnificent Ambersons would flop, and it would be one of many setbacks for Welles over the years. And yet, even in its truncated form with all the tinkering and butchering, The Magnificent Ambersons remains an astounding work, truly one of the high-points of Welles’ long, frustrating career. It may be hard to buy that it would have been better than Kane, but it would certainly have given it a run for its money.

George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt) is the only son of Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway) and Isabel Amberson Minafer (Dolores Costello), part of an aristocratic family living in Indiana at the turn of the 20th century, still largely living off the money of patriarch Major Amberson (Richard Bennett). George is spoiled, arrogant, and entitled, and the whole town wishes for him to get his comeuppance. Following his father’s passing, George opposes the relationship between Isabel and Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), a successful automobile manufacturer who was always Isabel’s true love. Even as George falls for Morgan’s daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), he works his hardest to keep his mother and Morgan apart. George’s impudence not only ruins his mother’s chance at happiness, but as industry rises and the old ways of the aristocracy fall, it ruins his family.

Welles intended for the film to top Citizen Kane as a technical achievement, and an early ballroom scene just might have done it. In Welles’ original vision (as aided by cinematographer Stanley Cortez), a long crane take would move up the staircase of the Amberson mansion during a ball sequence as various guests talked, gossiped, and moved in and out of the frame before the shot finally settled on the top floor of the three-story house. This is one of the many shots taken out to pick up the pacing, unfortunately.

 Still, the first act of the film has the same exquisite effect even if the technical centerpiece has been harmed. Welles’ lovely, lyrical narration (his only acting role in the film) perfectly sets up the world in a way that anticipates how the narration in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence would work. He establishes a world of an antiquated society, one where everyone important in Indianapolis knows each other and the world doesn’t move too fast. There’s a playfulness as Welles quickly jumps through time- there’s a soft look to everything, near-imperceptible edits show Joseph Cotten’s Morgan switching fashions through the seasons, and there’s a sense of a cyclical world among the aristocracy, particularly for anyone on the outside looking in. The material of Morgan’s failure to win Isabel’s hand in marriage is sometimes funny (he initially loses her favor after drunkenly tries to serenade her and steps through his bass fiddle), but more often it’s heartbreaking, particularly his two near-identical conversations with Isabel’s butler Sam- first he’s told that Ms. Amberson “ain’t home”. The next time he comes? She “ain’t home to you”. And still, Welles maintains a sense of fun as young George is introduced as a young hellion, and the narrator and the townspeople who hate him practically start to interact:

Welles: “The whole town was waiting for him to get his comeuppance.”
Woman in town: “His WHAAAT?”
Her husband, presumably: “His comeuppance!”

The ballroom sequence also remains impressive even if the greater sense of fluidity has been lessened. Welles’ use of long takes and deep focus still retain their power as they luxuriate in the décor and the pleasantries, but Welles’ narration opines that this is “the last of the great remembered dances that everybody talked about”, bringing in a moodier tone that hangs over the proceedings. Here, Welles gets a chance to play with spatial dynamics via deep focus- George tries to woo pretty young Lucy, but in her father, the kind-hearted Eugene Morgan, remains in her sight, and George doesn’t much like how he looks at his mother. The two dancing couples often switch between the foreground and the background, and by the end, as the ballroom has emptied and only Isabel and Morgan remain dancing, there’s a sense of happiness through the air, only spoiled by George, fuming in the background.

Welles fills the rest of the film with plenty of impressive technical moments- Wilbur Minafer’s funeral brings a cloud of pain and gloom over the Amberson manor, and Welles uses his best expressionistic touches to heighten the intensity of the situation. An argument between George and his Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead in an Oscar-nominated turn) is already at a simmering intensity because of the subject (Isabel’s relationship with Morgan), but when set on the mansion’s winding staircase the scene grows even more uneasy. The heightened sounds in a bathroom scene between George and his uncle Jack (Ray Collins, aka Boss Gettys from Citizen Kane) echoes George’s psychological discord at his mother’s relationship.

One particularly impressive shot in the middle section shows Jack and Isabel discussing her relationship on the ground floor. The two go behind closed doors as the camera reveals George eavesdropping on them from the second floor…and further reveals Fanny eavesdropping on him from the third floor. It’s a moment that’s very uneasy, as Welles has used the towering, monolithic space of the Amberson home both as a way to jolt the audience and as a way to comment on how the impossible expectations of the Amberson family will encroach on Isabel’s happiness.

Welles and Cortez’s technical achievements weren’t the only masterworks whittled down by the studio. Welles re-teamed with his Citizen Kane composer Bernard Herrmann for Ambersons, but Herrmann was so infuriated by the studio’s editing of his score that he demanded his name be removed from the credits. It is a pity that the scope of Herrmann’s work cannot be heard in the film (though an excellent re-recording of the score was released on CD in 1990 and is available on iTunes), but what remains is astonishing and perhaps even more impressively varied than his work on Kane. What starts as idyllic and cheerful (the snow automobile ride scene) grows increasingly brooding over the film (the aforementioned staircase scenes) until it’s outright bleak and hopleless (the final minutes of the film). It’s the perfect accompaniment to Welles’ masterpiece.

As with Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is rather clearheaded in regards to public figures. The two films share a certain Brechtian quality in how their form, while enticing, causes the audience to take notice of the techniques, have a certain intellectual remove, and process the content of the story in a rational way. This is the best way to process the Ambersons, an often likable family that nonetheless have a sense of entitlement that’s often poisoning. The spoiled George looks down on the rest of the world, coasting off of his family connections (his uncle’s political connections, his grandfather’s wealth), arguing that “anyone who is anybody ought to be able to do as they like”. Played with a perfect mixture of youthful pride and self-importance by Tim Holt, it’s easy to loathe George for his sense of propriety, not to mention his family for not adequately discouraging his behavior.

Yet there’s something deeply sad and relatable about George, likely because Welles does relate to him. Author Tarkington was actually a close friend to the Welles family, and he supposedly based George off a talented but spoiled young boy by the name of George Orson Welles. George’s actions are often monstrous, but they are the acts of a young boy who doesn’t know what he’s doing or what the consequences will be. When George refuses to go into a real business, it is out of the expectations that he needn’t do so, but he damns his family and himself to squalor. When George refuses to go into Morgan’s automotive business, he loses the Ambersons’ chance at sustained happiness.

George’s churlish remarks to Morgan of automobiles being little more than a nuisance are also a representation of the aristocracy’s rejection of industry- it’s the work of old ways breeding young, inexperienced men who are too blinded by the way things are in the present (not to mention George’s own dislike for the man behind them) to see how vital they are for the future. Eugene’s even acknowledges that they could be destructive to the class of people he holds so dear. “Maybe they won’t add to the beauty of the world of the life of men’s souls. But they’ve come, and things are going to be different”. Cotten’s performance of this monologue is extraordinary- sad and slightly pathetic, but with the full knowledge that George is but a boy, and that he can’t handle a world that’s rapidly changing around him.

Still, some of George’s actions are not so forgivable. Welles’ major theme of morality losing out to megalomania makes its second appearance here. George must control everything about his life (even though his control over his life and his wealth is little more than an illusion), and the idea that a rich but common automobile manufacturer might move in on someone as “important” as his mother is unthinkable. George is initially cruel to his Aunt Fanny, who loved Eugene Morgan but couldn’t compare to the beautiful Isabel, simply for her feelings for Morgan. As he courts Lucy, his sense of propriety over her lets him feel that he can rebuke her father and his ideals (read: working for a living) right in front of her.

By the time George takes measures to isolate his mother from her true love, he has taken away any chance at happiness his family had left. The isolating factor from Kane is even greater here, as Isabel lies on her deathbed, wishing to see Morgan one more time before she dies. Herrmann’s score reaches a particularly gloomy note as, in one arresting image, a split-diopter shows Cotten, turned away from seeing Isabel at her deathbed, walking into the distance on one side of the frame, where the other shows George’s cruel glower in close-up.

The Amberson’s downfall grows increasingly bleak in the final scenes of the film, as Major Amberson’s very will to live is broken after his daughter’s death. Although he was initially given a longer, even more powerful scene, Richard Bennett does wonderful work in a tight, claustrophobic close-up as he trails off while pondering the meaning of life, alone and haunted. Soon, George and Fanny are left alone, their wealth drained by a bad business decision, the already emotionally unhinged Fanny’s behavior increasingly distraught (although less so than in the original cut of the film), given a sad, manic little laugh as she realizes how little is left for her.

George is now forced into a world he was never prepared to deal with. He is isolated from the rest of the world, cut off from most of his family, and given a mentally ill aunt to take care of. George Amberson becomes a truly pitiable figure by the end as he’s forced to join the very industry he hated, the world he loved gone forever. He has little to live for, and will likely die alone. That is, until a rushed finale regarding an automobile accident and a reconciliation in the hospital between George and Morgan takes place. Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead walk towards the camera, plastered smiles on their faces, with Morgan speaking of being “true at last to his true love” and her family. That line is in Welles’ original ending, as apparently Morgan does reconcile with George, but Welles’ planned finale focuses on a meeting between Morgan and poor, rejected Fanny, a woman who never had anyone who truly cared for her. As Morgan speaks of his reconciliation, it’s hopeful more for George than for Fanny, who is still alone, and without Morgan’s love. What would have been a haunting ending is now replaced by a dud final note.

And yet that dud note is easily ignored, if one skips from the 83:30 mark to the delightful credits. End the film at the 83:30 mark, after George takes one final walk home to the Amberson mansion, as the now terrifying industrial city towers over him, no longer welcoming, the “strange streets of a strange city”. As the camera goes to black and Herrmann’s ominous music plays, Welles pulls back to a praying George, asking for forgiveness far too late. Welles’ narration here speaks of George finally receiving the comeuppance he deserved, but no one is there to mock him. Indeed, no reasonable person could want this lonely, miserable life for him. It’s a devastating moment, and more in keeping with the tone that Welles wanted. And even if one does include that studio-imposed ending- what lingers longer? Fake smiles on Cotten and Moorehead’s faces, or the haunting narration of Welles as the camera lingers George, too lonely to even have someone relish in his comeuppance? “Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him”.

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