Sunday 27 April 2014

Movie Review: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The decline and fall of a rich Indianapolis family, The Magnificent Ambersons is a directorial tour-de-force by Orson Welles. Despite significant studio editing, the film sparkles as a gossipy drama and a story of love and jealousy across generations.

Early in the 1900s, the Ambersons are one of the wealthiest families in Indianapolis, and they live in the grandest of mansions. Daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello) rejects the advances of eccentric inventor Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) when he embarasses himself with an awkward fall. She settles instead for the grey Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway). They have a son George, a spoiled brat who grows up to be a conceited young man (Tim Holt).

George returns home from college and immediately sets his sights on Lucy Morgan (Anne Baxter), Eugene's daughter. Eugene is fast becoming a successful tycoon in the nascent automobile industry, while the fortunes of the Ambersons are in a rapid decline due to bad investments. When Wilbur dies, Eugene again tries to ignite a serious romance with Isabel. George strongly objects to his mother having a dalliance with a new man, while Isabel's plain sister Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) is equally devastated, since she had always harboured secret hopes of winning Eugene's affections.

Edited down to just 88 minutes from an eternally lost original cut of 148 minutes, the surviving version of The Magnificent Ambersons is a compact masterpiece of human drama and cinematic wizardry.

Almost every scene in the film is a carefully composed artwork. Welles directs his own script with an emphasis on fluid camera movements, actors seamlessly gliding in and out of the frame, breathtaking long takes, animated backgrounds, and in-scene depth. Shooting through doors, doorways and hallways or in the cavernous rooms of the Amberson mansion (built with moveable walls to accommodate the kinetic camera movements), Welles fills the screen with action behind the action, something always happening in the background to compete with or enhance the foreground main event.

The story is an epic reversal of fortune, fully deserved in the case of George, as his comeuppance unfolds with the full support of a community fed up with his singularly unearned arrogance. The disintegration of the Ambersons is also a classic tale of the ever turning wheel of market forces. George's grandfather Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) loses his touch in picking winning investments just as Eugene Morgan gets to grips with the automobile and steps into the wealthy industrial class through a technology unheard of in the Major's era.

Welles' phenomenal perception is on full display, as even before the private car fully catches on with society, Eugene, in response to a snide comment from George, expresses his concern that his seemingly miraculous invention may yet prove to be a negative societal force.

Eugene: I'm not sure George is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward, they may be a step backward in civilization. It may be that they won't add to the beauty of the world or the life of men's souls. I'm not sure. But automobiles have come. And almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They're going to alter war and they're going to alter peace. And I think men's minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles. And it may be that George is right. It may be that in ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine but would have to agree with George: that automobiles had no business to be invented.

The Magnificent Ambersons is also a series of tragic love stories. Eugene and Isabel pursue a love that is simply never meant to be. Small events, the passing years and small people will conspire to keep them apart. Fanny also suffers in solitude, her pathetic pining for Eugene worlds apart from his utter disinterest in her. Even the relationship between George and Lucy stumbles and stalls rather than soars, his haughtiness in contrast to her practical upbringing.

But for all the financial and emotional turmoil, Welles keeps the mood light. The townsfolk provide a prattling commentary on the travails of the Amberson clan, there is a steady diet of humour, and a thread of world-wise resignation accompanies all the heartache.

A grand story which was ultimately destined to be revealed in unusually concise form, the story of the Ambersons remains nevertheless magnificent.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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