- Actors: Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead
- Directors: Orson Welles
- Format: NTSC, Subtitled
- Language: English
- Subtitles: English
- Region: Region A/1 (Read more about DVD/Blu-ray formats.)
- Number of discs: 1
- Rated: Not RatedNR
- Studio: Criterion Collection
- DVD Release Date: November 27, 2018
- Run Time: 88 minutes
- Average Customer Review: 34 customer reviews
- ASIN: B07GGMPZ3W
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #10,440 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
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The Magnificent Ambersons The Criterion Collection
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Orson Welles's ambitious follow up to Citizen Kane was every bit its equal: A masterful adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel featuring inventive camera work and powerful performances from stars Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, and Agnes Moorehead. This emotionally rich family saga provides a moving elegy for a bygone chapter of American life. 1 1/2 hrs, 1 DVD or 1 Blu-ray disc, B&W. Bonus features galore.
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4K remaster quality: first time viewers will initially be disappointed, especially if you're used to inky blacks and superior sharpness. But remember this film is over 75 years old so tack sharp you won't get. Still, as a huge Welles fan I was let down when the famous opening RKO logo looked faded and not sharp at all. Film grain seemed too prominent and whites slightly blown-out. I was freaking out, did I get shipped a regular dvd?
But then a surprise: a second viewing, especially when compared against the dvd from the Kane box, actually did reveal improved details and a more balanced picture. Any previous judder and film specks are all gone. As the film progressed some scenes were strikingly sharp, most especially daytime scenes with George and Lucy. Most impressive are details strewn about the impossibly complicated set design of the Amberson mansion. Those familiar with this film will delight in subtle details strewn throughout the film such as the sheen of satin dresses and the cross-stitching found in men's suits. Your eye will wander around and get lost in newly revealed details, background actors and their actions make you go "I didn't notice that before". Don't let the initial graininess get you down (it gets better) and while it's not 2018 tack sharp this is the best Ambersons to date .
Continuing: skin tones were especially improved. Anne Baxter in particular is breathtakingly beautiful here, she positively glows throughout. Even previously unseen acne under Tim Holt's makeup is now visible, remarkable. Dark tones, so critical to the overall look and theme, come off well but don't quite get to inky black. Sequins on dresses really twinkle now, whites seem a bit more crisp, the mansion seems even more expansive and more detailed.
Audio: of course, this a mono track for a film of this vintage. No complaints, the dialog came in strong and clear, the Hermann score all things rousing, sentimental and dark. Bottom end was solid and deep.
Extras: okay--here's your missed opportunity. First, a reconstruction is sorely missing here. And no I'm not talking about those missing 44 minutes, those appear to be lost forever (but I still hope for a miracle in my lifetime). What would have been spectacular is to use Robert Carringer's indispensable "Reconstruction" book as a template, reshuffle existing scenes and insert stills (for missing acts) reassembled in correct order according to Welles' shooting script. What would have also been nice is a gallery of stills from the set as there are numerous available. The short doc by Welles scholar Joseph McBride is rife with these stills, most impressive is his sketch of the final shot as he remembered it from a rare still that is of course also lost. The absence of more stills makes it especially frustrating when you're teased and you want more! The Boganovich audio-only with Welles is interesting but could have been supplemented with relevant text factoids. Thoughts on the score were surprisingly illuminating explaining subtle scoring techniques and connected themes I was not aware of. The Cavette interview (with an enthusiastic adoring Jack Lemon) was delightful. The included booklet appears comprehensive but with small typeface that is difficult to read. I haven't finished the other supplements.
Commentaries: the Carringer commentary is well-known and insightful although unnecessarily critical when discussing acting styles, particularly Agnes Moorehead's universally praised work. Her performance is a tour-de-force and while Carringer wrote a great book he's dead wrong here. Somewhat disappointing is the second more new commentary with two Welles biographers who spent way too much time discussing author Tarkington. I wanted more on the film-making process and behind-the-scenes studio drama. They seemed unrehearsed and missed important moments like the startling (and extremely difficult to pull off) shining eyes of Dolores Costello late in an important scene. Just more missed opportunities.
In the end: this is a must for Welles fans, you probably already have it. It could have been better but it's good and certainly an improvement on the dvd. For those just dipping their toes into the Welles pool this may be the one time you read about a movie BEFORE you view it. It will probably be an incomprehensible mess for the uninitiated, it's what's missing that makes the film so mysterious. Read the Carringer book to understand Welles' true intentions, to fill in the missing pieces. Orson Welles mastered radio's theater of the mind, the beautiful fragments of this broken Venus de Milo carries on in that tradition. Recommended.
Ah, how eager am I to see this in Blu-ray.
Quite often in amateur film criticism of the sort I indulge, one will find hyperbole, such as: films like this simply are not made anymore. This commonplace observation often bears no shortage of truth. Indeed, John Ford’s “Two Rode Together,” or “Young Mr. Lincoln” would not be made today.
And when even The New York Times’s great A. O. Scott, whose film and music criticism I admire, likens the first Avengers film to Howard Hawks’s looser, more chaotic, and fun one-time "guys (and gal) on a mission" mass-entertainer, “Rio Bravo,” I wince, for cinema has greatly changed.
That change is rarely more stark than what Welles captures here—with its slow, romantic pace, (George and Lucy rolling in the snow when the carriage overturns) - so particularly apt before the advent of the automobile sets in motion the family’s demise, much of it softened in the theatrical release, in which Welles, having flown the roost in order to protect his far darker cut—(in one version of the script Amberson mansion, now another sad boarding house—has a profanity scrawled on its side as George Amberson Minafer indeed receives his “comeuppance.”)
Adapted previously by Vitagraph Pictures as first “Pampered Youth (1925), and then recut as “Two to One” in 1927—from what I understand both versions are lost—the novel’s rise to the screen and subsequent pilfering and (some would say: butchering but not I, for enough touches only Welles could exact, such as the entire opening, when “…in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet, and everybody knew everybody else’s family horse and carriage,” which leads into a stunning bit of editing that captures a civility-driven culture, or the meaning we ascribe to experience,” through the lens of changing fashion—all while deftly setting characters and plot in motion, so nothing precious lurked as mere window-dressing setting up the era, absent character-development, is rare cinematic art matched only by Welles in Kane and “Chimes at Midnight,” and a hand few of other truly anthropological auteurs, such as Welles’s stated idol Ford—I would add Rohmer; Bergman; Mizuguchi; Bresson, and Ozu—oh my.
Tim “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is at last shorn of his B-adventure movie status, setting him up for his turn in the noted Huston work, but Agnes Moorhead, as ever-suffering Fannie steals the show with a house on fire performance that recalls the converse on the shrill power od Mercedes McCambridge in Nicholas Ray’s “Johnny Guitar.”
The ever-abused Fanny gets in sometimes snide digs at her overbearing nephew; when he realizes his teases go too far, we see truly human scenes of daily pain and struggle in her poisonous, unrequited love as she is forever upstaged by Isabel. Both young George and his uncle backpedal as they realize they have hurt her. This sort of emotional tangle is so rare in, for example, "Kane," who, as the “hollow man,” can watch others suffer, but rarely humanly engage with anyone.
This dramtic about face in Welles’s seeming “can do anything and make it work” style has made more than one critic, despite the studio’s forced ending and its lame attempt to wrap matters up in a neat bow, argue that Ambersons is Kane’s equal, and I can see why.
Here, we see Welles handling “Ordinary People,” if you will, despite the family’s damaging “on high, looking down on creation” status—which, in the new age, robs them of agility.
And who can forget family patriarch’s slow degeneration, described by the narrator, “And now, Maj. Amberson was engaged in the profoundest thinking of his life. And he realized that everything which had worried him or delighted him during this lifetime, all his buying and building and trading and banking, that it was all trifling and waste - beside what concerned him now. For the Maj. knew now that he had to plan how to enter an unknown country, where he was not even sure of being recognized as an Amberson”—just before, in a deranged state, he contemplates the demise not of his family but the universe.
In a strange postmodern way, the slapped-on ending oddly works, as a sort of comment on what Hollywood would tolerate—as well as on the destitution inherent to quickly changing times, as the automobile shortens distance and makes the world uglier, oddly prescient at the moment; after all, we have seen this family fall apart and darken, and still we receive this out of place coda telling us all is quite well; it reminds me of Hawks’s formerly biblical “Red River,” suddenly yanking back the veil to reveal that no, John Wayne’s character will not kill that of Montgomery Clift, and soon the men will no doubt share a beer and laugh over the vitriol and bombast of their Saul and David shenanigans—in which the Duke even offered not to kill his “heir apparent,” if he could sire a child on Clift’s girlfriend. That sort of dark movie magic is never mentioned when the film is discussed.
Incidentally "would not be made today" perhaps could have been qualified with -- "in this manner"; there was a dutiful remake (an unfair choice of words - how about another stab at the novel?) a few years ago.
Sadly, we all know that some 60-plus minutes of the film are not to be found. And only Welles’s detailed notes allow us a glimpse at the dark, brilliant thing slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, indignant desert birds be damned.
But see this. See it. Then see it again. Then destroy your social media accounts—unless there is some special book or film nook in which you can hide with the rest of we medieval monks determined to see that real cinema survives. In a way, when I see the film I think of graphic novelists Seth, as well as Chris Ware, both of whom bemoan the sad, overly sexualized, virulently violent “art as advertising” approach that has seized the world with its garish, fake figures. Enjoy.