The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
On first impression, The Magnificent Ambersons was a real surprise. I came into the film on the back of watching Citizen Kane for the first time in decades, but that was not what was influencing me the most in my expectations. Instead, I was expecting a film more tonally along the lines of the film it probably most heavily influenced: Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). The opening of the film, while clearly emulated in style (and Wes Anderson is nothing if not at least a cinematic stylist) by Mr. Anderson, offers the first hints that Mr. Welles’s film will not strike the breezy irony that Mr. Anderson’s films have become so identified with. Mr. Welles’s voice over narration is sombre and serious in a way that Alec Baldwin’s deadpan delivery is not, and neither is it leavened by pop orchestration of a “Hey Jude” cover. Mr. Welles is offering a history and a context for the eponymous family rather than just the history of the individuals that make it up. Both, however, do serve their respective films very well. Still, with the comic missteps of Eugene Morgan and his double-bass, I was still on the path of mis-expectation. As the film unfolds, it slowly and gently pulls the viewer into its sad morality tale. Then, with signature deep focus shots and long takes, the viewer is compelled to view the downward spiral of the Ambersons from the outside. As the title directs, they are magnificent and clearly separated from the ordinary citizens who are, of course, the diegetic audience while we, the cinema audience, remain even further removed. Made immediately after Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is clearly its very close relative, but they are not twins. If Kane is a hybrid of European expressionism and good ol’ American realism, Ambersons is, to me, a study in Bazin’s cinematic realism. Narratively, Kane is fractured and subjective; it’s a story told in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards from six narrative points-of-view. These narratives, while presented pretty chronologically, are bookended by sequences that are highly expressionistic with noir-esque cinematography, horror film allusions, dramatic use of music, and employment of distortion and canted angles. The Magnificent Ambersons on the other hand is detached in its perspective and with those long takes (the final ball of the Ambersons is such a beautiful use of camera and set working together) and the deep focus shots it asks the audience to coldly observe. While George is a young boy and young man we partake in the expectation the townsfolk have of relishing his comeuppance, but when it does arrive the citizens have forgotten and we, now the only audience remaining, are left with ambivalence as we watch not what is expressed, but what is being reported to us.
A lot has been written and said about how Mr. Welles, through circumstances mostly out of his control — the Pearl Harbour attack, for one — The Magnificent Ambersons that has been left with us is not the film its director would have delivered (about 40 minutes is missing from Mr. Welles’s original cut). However, precisely because these losses have been so lamented, Mr. Welles’s intent is easy to place in the viewer’s mind and the film’s original spirit can be evoked, especially if watched shortly after a viewing of Citizen Kane.