Review by Joshua Stevenson
Orson Welles’ movies are generally too good to be simply “issue” movies. Citizen Kane is conversant about “the press.” Touch of Evil touches on “corruption.” The Magnificent Ambersons raises the question of “industrialization.” But the movies always invest more deeply in characters and the strangeness of human behavior. Using an “issue” of the day as a bit of a red herring to then investigate characters, that’s a trick Welles learned from Shakespeare. Both are happy to draw analogies between their subjects and the figures and concerns of daily life, but avoid binding themselves so closely to those concerns that they fail to bring round, lifelike characters to the fore. P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master work similarly.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was the second picture Welles made, the year after Citizen Kane. After the success of Kane, you’d think that the studio would have given Welles some room. Instead, they cut the third act to ribbons and even reshot an ending. Welles’ outlook on the world never manifested rosy endings for his films, and the studio couldn’t stomach Ambersons’ bleak picture of decay.
The movie starts around the turn of the 20th century, before the advent of the automobile, and sets up the Ambersons as the wealthiest family in a small town. Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) pursues Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) and, due to an embarrassing drinking escapade, loses her. She enters a loveless marriage, and as a result pours her affections out on its product, her son George (Tim Holt). She spoils and ruins him. The main conflict begins when Morgan returns, now successful as an inventor and manufacturer of automobiles and the father of a beautiful girl, Lucy (Anne Baxter). George falls in love with Lucy at the same time that Morgan and Isabel’s romance reawakens. Isabel’s husband dies soon after, but she remains reticent to make her affections for Morgan public. The movie then follows George’s successful efforts, over many years, to undermine Isabel and Morgan’s love, to ruin his family, and get his comeuppance.
Whatever the studio might have thought they were doing by adjusting the ending, it’s for naught. The film dooms the Ambersons long before the final act. Events take place almost entirely in the Ambersons’ enormous house, which Welles fills with shadows. Tim Holt’s portrayal of George feels artless, as in it feels like he doesn’t know what he’s doing, like he’s never performed anywhere but a high-school stage. The effect of this on the movie is that George comes across as stiff, strange, and alienating, of a piece with the tone of the movie.
Why is George so set against Morgan and Isabel’s relationship? There seem to be a complex of reasons. He has a bit of Hamlet in him, and sees Morgan as a usurper. But even when his father was alive, Isabel’s attentions focused entirely on George. George has never competed for her attentions until Morgan shows up. In George’s relationship with Morgan’s daughter, Lucy, another antagonism arises: Lucy won’t marry George unless he has some kind of occupation. Lucy holds this position without instruction from her father, merely because she knows it’s what he wants.
Welles sums George up in his first meeting with Lucy. They’re talking about the other attendees at the party, and George says, “Well, just look at them. That's a fine career for a man, isn't it? Lawyers, bankers, politicians. What do they ever get out of life, I'd like to know. What do they know about real things? What do they ever get?” Lucy then asks George what he wants to be. He replies, unselfconsciously, “A yachtsman.”
George wants no occupation, and looks with scorn on Morgan. But it’s not a principled stand. He simply hates the idea that Morgan would require something of him. In George’s view, Ambersons should never need to be “passed” by anyone. He hates Morgan just for suggesting that he doesn’t measure up.
In this way, Welles does something interesting. The movie clearly deplores the industrialization of America. Welles’ montage late in the movie showing the descent of the Amberson’s town depresses the viewer thoroughly. The automobile stands at the center of this change, both for the country and for the Ambersons. But the character that despises the automobile and would seem to stand for pre-industrial America, George, comes across as petulant and hate-filled. The character ruining the country by inventing and propagating the machine, Morgan, is instead open, kind, thoughtful, even wise. When George insults Morgan at dinner by calling automobiles “useless” and “a nuisance,” Morgan responds this way:
"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."
It’s not a ploy from Morgan, either. It’s a speech from the core of the movie’s feeling, from the character doing the most to destroy the way of life about which the film cares most. Welles twists themes and characters around, complicating the way we experience them. This is another trick learned from Shakespeare. Both Welles and Shakespeare push ambiguities into the hearts of their dramas.
You can also watch the movie for Welles’ stylistic influence. Clearly, there’s some of Ambersons in Wes Anderson’s DNA, particularly in The Royal Tennenbaums. Remember when Steve Zissou offers to show you around his boat, and the lights go down as we see the cutaway of the Belafonte? Ambersons includes a shot that feels almost as stagey, early in the movie, as day fades into night on the grounds of the Amberson manor. If, as I did, you re-watch the Coen’s Hudsucker Proxy before Ambersons you’ll see a number of techniques, bitten directly from Welles, particularly in terms of fast-paced transitions. I’d like to think that even without these resonances, the introduction of the film would still feel striking to me. Welles uses voice-over about as well as you can use it. The voice and the image at times seem to work in a sort of lock-step, both doing the same work, but then you realize that you’re actually getting hidden exposition, receiving details and background without even realizing it.
Welles was most at home in tragedy, but here, when he’s using a light touch, his movies glide along. It’s wonderful to watch.