The Magnificent Ambersons (USA, 1942)

image_evento_final_3792_2013-01-21_11_07_39Directed by: Orson Welles. Keeping up with my Welles, part two. As much as I loved Touch of Evil, the completist in me couldn’t sleep right knowing that I’d skipped from Welles’ first film to his eighth, so here we are at the much-discussed Magnificent Ambersons. The verdict…I guess I just don’t get this one. It’s no Citizen Kane, and it’s no Touch of Evil, and at the risk of being tarred and feathered by my fellow filmy-types, this movie is no Royal Tenenbaums either. I won’t push that last point too much because I didn’t give this film a lot of scrutiny, but just as a viewer, in the way that the other Welles films I’ve seen are directly and viscerally impressive on a narrative level, a character level, a technical level, or all three, this movie kind of falls short everywhere. The acting is certainly very good, but it’s another case of very capable actors dealing with a strange and somewhat stifling subject matter. I don’t know, it’s really hard for me to talk about this movie fairly because it’s another case of Welles’ now-legendary adversarial relationship with the studios. After the unprecedented freedom and artistic wholeness of Kane, almost all of his other films, starting with this one, were second-guessed, snipped, trimmed, and altered by the studios to make it more palatable. And in this case, it worked—this movie got a lot of Oscars under its belt, and the critics still rave about it to this day. But it definitely seems like a weird, stunted, meandering kind of a movie. At its core, the film is about the decay of small-town American values beneath the wheels of technological progress and modernity, literally the automobile, and it’s played out with a reverse-role dynamic of a jealous young son who’s angry at the kind-spoken gentleman auto-industrialist who is falling in love with this widowed mother. The son’s resentment of the auto man, for oedipal reasons as much as philosophical reasons about the place of the automobile in modern society, compels the mother to leave her new love, and mother and son go into exile, where the mother gets deathly ill (of a broken heart is the nominal explanation), returns to the little town, and dies before her lover can say goodbye one last time. When the spoiled rich son is reduced in his station to near-poverty, and ironically injured in a car accident, he becomes the subject for the film’s incredibly unsatisfying ending (which, I read, was only slightly less satisfying than Welles’ original ending) where the old lover (Joseph Cotton) simply walks out of the hospital room and tells the spinster aunt (Agnes Moorehead) about the very nice spiritual conversion the son has had, where he asks forgiveness from his would-be stepfather, and the two adversaries are finally reconciled. All of this is so incredibly unsatisfying, but it took me spelling it out like this to myself to understand why critics are still fawning over this movie. Anything this bizarre, this sprawling, this uncompromising in its depiction of the blurry motivations and frustrated attempts at meaning that human lives can yield, is a pretty remarkable thing in a Hollywood movie of any era. And even though this movie isn’t as satisfying to watch as a Frank Capra movie or something, and not as emotionally lush as a Douglas Sirk joint, this is still a really interesting addition to what I suspect will be a really bizarre and compelling filmography.


One response to “The Magnificent Ambersons (USA, 1942)

  1. Pingback: The Stranger (USA, 1946) | Offhand Reviews·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s