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The Magnificent Ambersons

June 14, 2014

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I went to see Orson Welles’ second film at the NFT last night. Setting aside the fact that it’s a ropey print and that at one point it actually broke (there’s always a slight frisson when that happens, the reality of celluloid laid bare), it was fantastic to see a movie I know a fair amount about but have never seen in its entirety.

The story goes that Welles’ first cut ran to 135 minutes, which he was intent on trimming, but that, being absent in South America, the studio, RKO, took if over and reshot a ridiculous ending. That much is evident: the final scene looks awful and feels as if it’s been tacked on. Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorhead look disengaged, not surprising given that it seems to have been shot in a studio corridor. But the thing that really gives it away is the music. Famously Hermann insisted on having his name removed from the movie when half of his score was cut. Hermann’s cues are obvious by their quirky orchestration (an almost-trademark use of bass clarinet and low flutes) and the harmonies, all of which signal later, more famous scores like Vertigo and, for me at least, Marnie. And equally obvious are the cues that were added, by Roy Webb, pulled from the bottom drawer of movie-music clichés: high syrupy strings for the love scenes and the finale. Still, at least the music signals clearly the bits that Welles himself would have been dissatisfied.

For all that, there are some strange moments that one must lay at Welles’ own door. The film is very dark indeed, and though one can justify the use of silhouettes and shadows on aesthetic grounds, a preference for masking of the frame and one odd iris shot sit rather less comfortably. The set too, at least in this bastardised version, is underused, there being only one shot where the three storeys are shown together. It’s admittedly startling, but one does rather yearn to see the space used more. There’s also no denying the sight of the camera tracks in one long tracking shot as the buggy drives along Main Street, a glorious shot spoiled by a simple error.

The acting, though sometimes ratcheted up to 11, is nevertheless engaging, and the play between the velvety voice of Anne Baxter, Joseph Cotton’s soft baritone and Welles’ own lilting voice-over is a further delight. I must see it again, but then that goes for most movies. And there are just too many movies to see.

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