The Magnificent Ambersons ★★★★★

*SOME SPOILERS. ALSO, IF YOU AREN'T INTERESTED IN ORSON WELLES, YOU WILL FIND THIS BORING. EVEN IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN ORSON WELLES, YOU MAY FIND THIS BORING*

"Something had happened. A thing which years ago had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town. And now it came at last: George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him."

But when George Orson Welles, the infuriating, profligate wunderkind of American cinema got his comeuppance - three times full and running over - the whole world was watching. Still basking in the remarkable acclaim afforded his debut feature, Citizen Kane, he returned home from a government mission to Rio to find his Mercury unit disbanded by the studio, RKO, and his second masterpiece mutilated almost beyond recognition: cut from 145 minutes to 88 after a preview at Pomona where his employers purposefully showed his sombre epic to an audience of teenagers, directly after a Betty Hutton musical. They hated it, most of them - one derided Welles as "camera happy", which is like calling Leonardo Da Vinci "paint happy" - and so the destruction began.

Stories about Welles encountering, in his later years, the dismembered remnants of what might have been invariably end with him in tears - and from the unapproachable brilliance that remains, you can understand his sorrow, self-obsessed as it may have been. While some historians have sought to suggest that the boy genius abandoned his film to chase showgirls in Brazil, it was more his fervour for the never-to-be-completed South American opus, It's All True, that was occupying the rest of his time in 1942. I say "the rest", as those historians fail to acknowledge that he was fighting tooth and claw to save his vision of Ambersons from studio heavyweight Charles Koerner and his cabal of artless bean counters, and spending a staggering $1,000 a week on cables and phone calls regarding the re-shaping of his remarkable film.

Welles made miscalculations, certainly, thinking his legendary charm could bluff him out of any tight corner and failing fatally to acknowledge the gravity of his situation, but it was more a mixture of bad luck - along with its more ruinous effects, Pearl Harbor made the film instantly out of step with the times, then sent Welles overseas - and genuine malevolence on the part of Koerner and his sycophantic acolytes that robbed the world of The Magnificent Ambersons.

What we have left are mere fragments: shreds of the weighty, playful, dizzyingly inventive two-and-half-hour film that Welles intended - indeed shot - interspersed with awful inserts filmed by anyone who happened to be around (editor Robert Wise, Welles's business manager Jack Moss) and both dramatically and thematically completely out of place. Wise argued in his final interview that the finished film merely reinstated author Booth Tarkington's original ending, and that Welles' conception of the climax was so off-the-cuff that it had never even been storyboarded. True, but Tarkington's ending is regarded almost universally as a travesty, while Welles was forever guided by the lightning of inspiration, crackling through him and straight onto celluloid. Just as Pomona smirked, giggled and "kidded" the picture, high on hormones and Hutton, so we're obliged to wet ourselves with tears and bitter laughter at the embarrassing, mawkish junk that replaces the director's fabled "boarding house finale". Astonishingly, this incompetent hospital climax, so cheap that it writes the central character out of the finish and has someone else recap what he's just said, was scripted and directed by Moss - the same Moss who failed to get Welles the critical final cut on the film, who was then inexplicably left in charge by the director to fight his corner, who consequently threw Welles's daily memos about the editing process into the bin without reading them, and who spread the convenient rumour that Welles had given up on the film to shag carnival dancers. The same Moss, in fact, who had never written a page of dialogue before, or shot a frame of film.

It's been written of Rossellini's films that they possess a certain something no other filmmaker's have ever had. It's true. I think it of Barbara Stanwyck's greatest performances too, and of The Magnificent Ambersons. Texturally, it's like nothing else you've ever seen, Welles and the painstaking Stanley Cortez's evocation of a lost era of America - specifically the aristocratic Mid-West of the 1870s, a community rarely glimpsed in film - seems variously to have been shot on oak, on silk, on burlap, as a sewing pattern and as an old picture postcard - a vivid picture of a vanishing past, vanishing fast. Its visual sumptuousness is very much the point, in and of itself, but like Kane it's a film in which the technical wizardry succeeds in always serving the story, whether spanning decades in the blink of an eye, keeping us breathless at the centre of the action or turning exposition into the richest screen magic. Welles found it notoriously difficult to engender material himself, but he could shape and hone other people's words with a confidence and bravura virtuosity that was unmatched in the realms of radio, theatre and film.

The opening montage finds him at his zenith, placing the Ambersons - the "magnificent" Ambersons, the adjective relating to their wealth, power and refined extravagance rather than any admirable personal traits - in context, via round-cornered reminiscences set to his own unapproachable voiceover, and using Joe Cotten as a clothes dummy and comic fall guy before revealing, quite magnificently, that the pratfall we've just enjoyed precipitates the tragedy upon which the whole piece will hang. Well, that and the advent of the automobile - sorry, "horseless carriage" - which for Welles represents the loss of Eden, that simpler place that he himself had found in Grand Detour, Illinois, in rural Ireland and - as Ambersons previewed in Pomona - in impoverished Fortaleza, Brazil.

Via the intonations of the wise, omniscient Welles, a harridan in a grocery store and a gossiping chorus (shot theatrically against a blank background), we learn of the film's central character, a spoiled, arrogant youth by the name of George Amberson Minafer ("TIM HOLT!") - ruined by too much motherly love - whom the town dearly wishes would receive his "comeuppance". In that irrepressible, jovial mood that Welles would forever struggle to recapture, the director's even happy to explain the word to us via the on- screen action.

Welles' beloved set-piece, a single, meticulously choreographed shot that took the audience through each room of the house during the crucial ball, and so into the lives of these people - a life that would soon cease to exist, this being "the last of the great balls" - is cut to ribbons, causing the stomach to tighten, the spirit to sag and the heart to sink each time Wise and his studio paymasters opt for an ugly, arbitrary dissolve. And yet still the ball retains a singular magic, dancing with life, exuding a sense of effortless fun, fleshing out George and introducing the adult Gene Morgan (Cotten) and his spirited daughter, the roving camera drawing us into the heart of this rarefied community, as Cotten's jovial interjections recall nothing as much as the song-and-dance number from Citizen Kane. The Leopard may match the ball for romanticism and opulent grandeur, but in terms of evoking the perfect atmosphere and provoking sheer exhilaration at what the filmmaker is doing: setting fire to the rulebook before your very eyes, there's still nothing to touch it. While Ambersons is an old man's film - quiet and sad, full of regret - it is also a young man's film, positively bursting with invention.

The ball sequence is followed by a spellbinding snowbound scene in which the car and the horse-drawn vie for supremacy, the latter zipping around the track to Bernard Herrmann's delightful jangling score - leading to a fall and a kiss - the former ailing, sputtering and dispersing thick plumes of smoke into George's fizzog, then juddering into ugly, ramshackle life as the family breaks into song, his vain, tuneless commandeering of the melody entirely in keeping with his character. And while the first 40 minutes suffers from RKO's idiotic tampering, compared to what follows it emerges relatively unscathed: the masterfully nauseating scene in which George stuffs his face with cake while considering his family's affairs had been earmarked for the chop, but somehow made it to theatres intact. There are sequences, and single shots, of such extraordinary emotional depth and clarity that it destroys at a stroke the idea that Welles was a cold filmmaker. My favourite composition sees Dolores Costello silhouetted between two departing lovers - one of them her son, George - bidding goodnight to her own childhood sweetheart, the one she didn't marry, the one who just re-entered her life. It's such a poignant, perfect juxtaposition, a visual, character-centric effect that no other director could have achieved so subtly or strikingly

As the film progresses, it becomes more and more disjointed, Welles' confidently episodic handling replaced by something that looks awfully like random, merciless cutting, as almost 50 per cent of the second half is removed, later to be dumped in the sea to Koerner's sadistic delight (if you think I'm exaggeratedly scapegoating, check out the memos - he hated Welles). Triumphant self-contained scenes follow one after another, at one point Welles pans up three storeys inside the Ambersons' vast mansion to an appreciate "ooooh" from me, but there's no through-line, no dramatic escalation, just pieces of meaningless brilliance, wrenched out of context, sitting miles apart, the narrative lurching forwards in time like a drunk Doctor Who. At one point Welles shoots a long, brilliant close-up of Major Amberson's (Richard Bennett) face, other voices intruding on the soundtrack: first Welles, then Collins, then Holt. As Bennett himself begins a monologue about the sun, his voice dips out, and you realise that RKO is now cutting scenes off in the middle. A pivotal death scene - interestingly shot by Russell Metty rather than Cortez (who Welles regarded as too slow) lasts little more than 10 seconds in the final cut, but in that time alone achieves a bracing impact, George's aunt (Agnes Moorehead) suddenly appearing before the camera, flinging her arms around her nephew and pressing him close, expecting no resistance and finding none.

Many aspects of the film are hard to judge in this compromised state. Thematically, it's a difficult movie to comprehend. In the theatre, Welles was a conceptual director, creator of the "voodoo" Macbeth and the fascist Julius Caesar, but those concepts - while invigorating, lacked political coherence. As Simon Callow noted in The Road to Xanadu, the moral of his Caesar would appear to be: "don't kill Mussolini", probably not the message that he was trying to transmit, even prior to his left-wing awakening in the early '40s. Here, he's lamenting the passing of an epoch (and an extraordinarily brief one at that) by focusing on the product of that civilisation: the intensely dislikeable, selfish George Amberson Minafer. His counterpoint, the charming, personable Gene, cheerily oblivious to the past, may be bringing about the ruination of this world with his new-fangled motor-driven contraption, but you're clearly intended to side with him.

At a stretch, you could say that Gene is also a product of this lost world - one who acknowledges the danger of "progress" - as is his lost love (George's mother), while it's the flawed character of this callow, conceited youth and his contemporaries that allows their existence to slip into oblivion, but it's more likely that Welles is merely doing credit to a literary work he loves, and creating and revelling in the world it conjures, without drawing an ideological or moral bead on the material contained therein. Perhaps in its complete form, Ambersons dealt with these apparent contradictions more clearly.

The performances are also hard to consider in any definitive sense. I really admire Cotten's work in this film, his Wellesian intonation suggesting that he was either coached very closely by the director or took on his inflections in admiration. It's a performance of outer tranquility, a wealth of emotions raging beneath the surface, and pouring out in that brilliant sequence where he tersely, defiantly brushes George aside, heading for the boy's ailing mother. As George's aunt - tormented by her unrequited love for Gene - Moorehead's performance is so intense, so unlike anything else in the picture or in the cinema at that time - at one with the gloomy lighting, the shadows streaming down her angular face - that it takes a little adjusting to, but really it's the key one, throbbing with conviction, unhappiness and self-loathing. After seeing the rushes, George Schaefer, Welles' main sponsor at the studio - and still then the head of RKO - described her performance as "one of the finest pieces of work I have ever seen on the screen", but after he took unprecedented "punishment" at Pomona, the kids howling with laughter at her supposed over-acting, it was slashed to pieces, like everything else. Like the corporative executive in Sturges' Christmas in July, Schaefer knew something was good only if other people told him so. Bizarrely - and hilariously - Moorehead seems to have borrowed from her part here for the following year's Youngest Profession, a daft MGM comedy about teenage autograph hunters, though with the hysteria very much dialled down. Bennett is, well, magnificent - when granted rare consent to shine by Wise's scissors - but Costello is unexceptional in a role that's either underwritten or just uninterestingly played, while - a little damagingly - neither Holt nor his love interest (a young Anne Baxter) have as much dramatic weight as would be ideal to power a story of this magnitude.

Ray Collins' performance as the paternalistic, twinkling Uncle Jack demonstrates just what actors would do for Welles. Elsewhere, he gave some of the most half-hearted performances I've ever seen. Here, filling the screen, given a real, breathing character at the heart of the action, he excels. His farewell scene, with the background hubbub, a tolling bell and a poetic, nostalgic speech about a girl he once knew, sees Welles putting his experience to work: setting the background with a handful of radio tricks, then showing what he learnt from Herman Mankiewicz. "Quicksilver in a nest of cracks" is pure Welles - lyrical but not meaningful - but it's the wise, witty and straightforward language surrounding it, with a wealth of affection and a touch of hyperbole, that gives the scene a rare power. It's perhaps the second best scene in the picture. The best regards George Amberson Minafer receiving his comeuppance: Welles's voiceover, Wise's editing and Holt kneeling by a bed, delivering in a way that makes up for most of his shortcomings as a petulant, sullen George. It's set, of course, to the music of the incomparable Herrmann, whose justly celebrated score quite gloriously still exists in full.

It's also worth noting that Welles had been unable to do any post-production work on Ambersons, due to the tight deadlines of his government-appointed role, compared to several unbroken months on Kane, a period that had produced many of the film's most lauded innovations, including the double-exposure that placed the eponymous anti-hero in the background - but in deep focus - as Leland snoozed drunk at his desk, and that stunning, swooping shot of the Thatcher Memorial Library and its statue, all done via model work. The quality of what remains - discounting the occasionally voiced idea that Wise "saved" the film (an amusingly provocative stance, but clearly complete nonsense) - is testament to how astonishingly well Welles was firing in those heady days, before he became just too hot to handle - either in reality or just in reputation.

He would rise again, of course, first with Othello, then Touch of Evil, then The Trial and finally Chimes at Midnight, but he never did get over the debacle that was The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles lost his mother at nine and his father at 15, but it was the destruction of his 1942 film that he regarded as "the worst thing that ever happened to me". That bold, brilliant, maddening genius got his comeuppance alright - from the studio sadists, the hand of fate and his own bloody recklessness - while the whole world watched.

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