The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) ****

Surely the most humane, moving, profound and powerful film Orson Welles ever made: a story about things ending, and of the need to make our peace with time, the enemy we cannot possibly outwit, which speaks consolingly but not sentimentally, of our need, like the effigy atop Larkin's Arundel Tomb, "to prove our almost-instinct almost-true: what will survive of us is love."
It is not, let me rush to stress, a morose film. There are powerfully moving passages, for sure, but much of it is light; it's very funny in parts, and full of charming social detail. But at the same time, in its very simplicity and reticence it finds its way to a very deep place, and says more about the bonds of family, of the loves we strive for and define ourselves by, and of the passing of the years, than any other film I know.
At one time it was the last film in the world to need trumpeting. It was almost Citizen Kane, not as precocious perhaps, but, except for the effects of studio interference, every bit as good. But it rarely troubles the 100-best lists these days, due in part to the inevitable backlash against Kane itself, now routinely punished for the crime of being so long hailed the best film ever, and in retaliation against its appropriation as shorthand by critics who refuse to look beyond the milestones of cinema history. And as Kane's stock fell, so did the much more basic Touch of Evil's rise, because it’s genre and there’s stranglings and shootings and corruption and you don’t have to think much about it. And while all this was happening, Ambersons seemed to just fall away, like melting snow, or memories of a childhood Christmas.
Kane is a certain tour de force, a technical marvel and a work of great brio, but in its striving for profundity it is clearly a young man's film. Ambersons is a quieter work in its mechanics, but as drama it's streets ahead, because it relies on solider source material (a novel by Booth Tarkington). And as befits the subject, Welles’s work as director is never ostentatious or distractingly showy; it is a far more integrated job of work than Kane, that at all times allows the drama to lead the presentation. (Though when the moment does call for the grand effect, Welles pulls off some of his most impressive: witness the reverse tracking shot through several doorways.)
Welles wrote, directed and narrates the film but does not appear, allowing the other members of his Mercury players their chance to shine, which they certainly do. Agnes Moorehead was never better. I hate to think what this woman could have done in movies and never got to show us. She's like an exposed electric wire one minute, cracked china the next; just amazing. This is my favourite Joseph Cotten performance too: praise indeed for that most reliable of actors. And there are striking contributions too from a very young Anne Baxter and from Tim Holt, who, in a long and busy career, never gave a performance this good again.
Supposedly the film was grievously compromised by a vengefully philistine RKO who, fed up that their much ballyhooed boy wonder had turned into a white elephant almost overnight, hacked at the concluding reels, took out half an hour and re-shot a new, hurried finale. But though the joins show stylistically, and the finale feels somewhat hurried, the new material is in fact truer to the source material: Welles had opted for a more glibly pessimistic denouement that sounds plainly inferior. I hope his version is not found and restored, because what we have here is as close to perfect as makes no matter. No other film has achieved (or perhaps sought) its texture. It starts like a documentary and slowly segues into drama, in which an entire time and place, its rise and fall, is mirrored in the rise and fall of one family, whose members we are carefully introduced to and whose paths we follow in tandem. By the time it has established all of its major themes and characters it has settled into a unique rhythm that is warm, elegiac, delicate in the extreme, but also poignant, cinematically very effective, and quite stunning in its careful but never unnecessary attention to historical detail.
It may be possible, but mistaken, to dismiss the film as an insufficiency of drama in a surfeit of detail. This is because Welles adopts the very opposite approach to most dramatists, who pride themselves on creating human situations that ring true in any surroundings and convey themselves to us with the minimum of effort and adjustment. But the personal dramas here are indivisible from their location and their moment (and so carefully and beautifully are the latter evoked, the film seems often almost eerily like a vanished age come to life). Somehow it uses its specificity of setting and circumstance to reveal its essential truths all the more potently; it reminds us that the universe cares nothing for the complexity and intensity of our lived moments: all we are is the connections we make, and eventually we, and everything we know and see and experience, will be forgotten utterly. Welles achieves this, paradoxically it might seem, by deliberately concentrating on the tiny details rather than the large. His opening monologue pinpoints both theme and era exactly by the seemingly irrelevant distraction of listing various changes in men’s fashion against a montage of Joseph Cotten trying on the different items in front of a mirror. The whole film is built around the same understanding: that a change as seemingly mundane as the transition from horses to automobiles is in fact one that transforms everything and everyone it touches, that instantly ends one age and starts another, and cuts off the former from all possibility of recall. It is by concentrating on the small details that the larger themes come into focus. Thus neither narrative nor backdrop are appendage to or metaphor for the other, rather they are two perfectly integrated halves of the same story. There is a sad wisdom here, never stated outright but potently conveyed all the same. The story of the Ambersons themselves seems inevitable, somehow, in the context of the wider setting Welles evokes for them to reside in.
Great drama, as Hemingway told us, is a matter of truth. The Magnificent Ambersons, never harsh or bitter or neglectful of drama's obligation to enchant, is nonetheless one of the truest films I have ever seen.