The Magnificent Ambersons ★★★★½

Upgrade. Once you move past the two inevitable handicaps that are the great facts of this movie's existence -- that it's only two thirds of the movie Orson Welles filmed, and that it cannot possibly shoulder the burden of being the second film by the man whose first was Citizen Kane -- this is almost unique among Hollywood studio pictures, its bizarre union of three-dimensional believability and cartoonish unreality well matched by the clash of romantic nostalgia and extremely subtle Gothic terror recast as social comment in Welles' adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel. The sprawling and sordid narrative ("rich people arguing in a house," Welles called the recut version; he meant it derisively but it needn't be so) -- as beautifully elaborated upon by Albert S. D'Agostino's breathtaking sets, Robert Wise's quick and surefooted cutting, a slew of brilliant performances (Agnes Moorehead and Ann Baxter best of all) and Welles' unflappable enthusiasm and willingness to run to the brink for every crazy idea in his head -- essentially tries to form the bitter, love-starved yearning of the childhood memories in Kane into an entire feature. It nearly succeeds. The hugeness of the emotions and tragedy here, even though Welles haters would never admit it was all so expressive and moving, give you enough to study and live in for all your life, and that's with what's left racing in under 90 minutes. (Though the original ending which doesn't survive was recalled with fondness by the director, we actually get the perfect conclusion a few minutes ahead of time, when that horrific shot of the bed fades slowly to black.)

I was so high on Kane just after I saw it that there was almost no way this film could live up to my expectations when I first caught it on TCM well over a decade ago; staying away for years, becoming a massive fan of Welles' other work in the interim, and barely remembering anything except the opening narration and Baxter's devastating final exchange with Tim Holt, this screening was like seeing it for the first time again. It's a difficult film to love, but immensely rewarding once it's unlocked for you. I doubt I will ever love it as much as its predecessor, or as much as Touch of Evil or The Trial or F for Fake but I finally understand why so many do.