13th Dec2018

‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead, Orson Welles | Written by Orson Welles, Booth Tarkington (novel) | Directed by Orson Welles


AKA the film that Orson Welles made after Citizen Kane, and which has become synonymous with studio interference. Perhaps an hour of footage was slashed and burned, hence the 90-minute version we are left with. Though, even without the full vision of Welles, it’s a cracking piece of cinema.

On the surface The Magnificent Ambersons is a simple story of youthful jealousy and impudence. It’s the early 20th century, and the western world is on the cusp of an automobile revolution. 20-year-old George (Tim Holt) doesn’t see it as such – he just sees an opportunistic businessman named Eugene (Joseph Cotton) trying to seduce his lonely mother, Isabel (Dolores Costello).

George has no great ambitions of his own. What use are ambitions when he has the Amberson fortune to live on? Three generations of the family live in the crumbling, forebodingly dark chambers of the mansion, all the way up to the elderly patriarch, Major Amberson (Richard Bennett). George is as impertinent an adult as he was a child, and he wants nothing to change. Without an effective parental figure to discipline him – to teach him some respect – there’s no stopping George. He’s a boy of double standards: he wants Eugene’s daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), yet he won’t let his mother have Eugene. The level of control he commands, purely by virtue of his name, is absolute. And in the end it’s absolutely tragic.

As with Kane, Welles is eschewing the temptation to focus on the good guy (Eugene), preferring instead to tell the story from the perspective of the conflicted baddie (George). Eugene is the perennial decent man, never lowering himself to the fervent emotional passions of youth, therefore never responding to George in anger.

The framing device of the automobile revolution – and George’s dismissal of cars as a “useless nuisance” – casts a shadow of tragedy across his futile campaign. All around George, his elders and betters seek to understand him, but they’re watching a train crash in slow motion, powerless to prevent his self-made demise because of the etiquette of high society.

Holt is remarkable in the main role. Literally an antihero, his severe gaze is unshifting, yet means something different to different people: sometimes snakelike, sometimes sad, sometimes vicious. Another standout is Agnes Moorhead. Aunt Fanny is all of George’s rage and despair externalised, and Moorhead nails the sense of a fracturing façade. If only George had unstiffened his upper lip long enough to show the pain beneath, he might have been saved. Welles plays the narrator and he gives himself some of the best lines (“The magnificence of the Ambersons was as conspicuous as a brass band at a funeral”), and he even reads out the credits at the end.

But Welles’ true brilliance here is behind the camera. There’s an effortlessness to The Magnificent Ambersons’ sense of style. The precision of the framing and the range of shot lengths is extraordinary. Sometimes he will capture the fevered eyes of George in close-up; other times, he’ll dwarf his characters in the vast cavernous house. At one point, as the dynasty collapses, George and Fanny stand before a window, casting long shadows, and the furniture is covered like ghosts, and it looks almost comic book-like in its boldness.

Citizen Kane’s style was often ostentatious, in keeping with its subject, but here the flourishes are quieter. For every glorious crane shot up the staircase there’s a sweaty closeup, more akin to something out of 1958’s Touch of Evil. Sometimes Welles shoots through windows or in mirrors, and I got the sense that we the audience are like an eavesdropping servant, listening from the stairs or behind a door – or sometimes stuck right in the middle.

For a film hacked to near-death, it really is the full package, from the intricate, arch screenplay to the production design (the snow-drenched exteriors are particularly picture-postcard perfect) to the dreamily fluid editing by Robert Wise, the most versatile man Hollywood ever had. With its rich tapestry of characters and themes and quietly dazzling visual ideas, it’s a film to get lost in, and one that can stand alongside its director’s greatest work.


  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Two audio commentaries, featuring film scholars Robert Carringer, James Naremore and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum
  • New interviews with scholars Simon Callow and Joseph McBride
  • New video essay on the film’s cinematographers by scholar François Thomas
  • New video essay on the film’s score by scholar Christopher Husted
  • Welles on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970
  • Segment from Pampered Youth, a 1925 silent adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons
  • Audio from a 1979 AFI symposium on Welles
  • Two Mercury Theatre radio plays: Seventeen (1938), an adaptation of another Booth Tarkington novel by Welles, and The Magnificent Ambersons (1939)
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Molly Haskell and essays by authors and critics Luc Sante, Geoffrey O’Brien, Farran Smith Nehme, and Jonathan Lethem, and excerpts from an unfinished 1982 memoir by Welles

The Magnificent Ambersons is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.


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