The last time I watched The Magnificent Ambersons was about 17 years ago. If you don’t know what to expect, it can be a very upsetting film. But when I watched it today, it was mostly a delight.
When I first watched it, the film was going along swimmingly. And then the last scene — The last shot! — slapped me in the face. There should have been a warning card, “This film finished by an entirely different crew with no budget.” It is a terrible thing.
On this viewing, I noticed much more that bothered me. Yet the experience was far better. The third act itself is somewhat jarring. Whereas the first two acts are tightly scripted and produced, the third is episodic. The grand thematic arc that guided the earlier parts of the film breaks down. It seems as though the rest of the film was edited so as to rush to the denouement.
But those first two acts are well worth the time. In fact, they are probably the best thing Welles ever did. What’s most striking — although we see this in most other Welles films — is the perfect combination of staging, choreography, and camera work to tell a complex story with ease.
One scene is especially thrilling. Eugene has come to see the dying Isabel. George says he can’t see her. He pushes past George on his way to the stairs. Just then Fanny comes down the stairs telling him that George isn’t just being a jerk, it would be a bad time. Eugene begins to think better of the visit. Then we see Uncle Jack upstairs tell him to come back later. This is all done in 40 seconds with a single shot.
One thing that is really interesting about The Magnificent Ambersons is how it shows what a varied set of tools that Welles used. I tend to think of him as an aggressive editor. But this isn’t really the case. I think he depended upon a lot more editing in his later films because of the way he had to make them. Here we have scenes that are highly cut and others with fluid camera work, and still others with a static shot. Whatever works.
Welles is also great at not boring the audience. For example, there is no deathbed scene. Instead, we get Fanny walking up to George and hugging him. “George!” she says. “She loved you. She loved you.” Nuff said? Absolutely.
The Magnificent Ambersons stands as the ultimate indictment of our culture where commerce always trumps art. Even worse, it speaks to our basest nature where group politics gleefully destroy creative work in the name of sticking it to “them.” Nonetheless, all the great artists who worked on this film cannot be denied. The Magnificent Ambersons is still a priceless gem — if badly damaged.