The Magnificent Ambersons

Lucy and George

The film that never was, a magnificent mess, Orson Welles’s masterpiece, better even than Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is all these things and more, or perhaps less, since no one apart from a handful of people in 1942 has ever seen the finished version. Instead there’s just the version we have, which is minus 50 minutes of material Welles had included in the rough cut he’d made with editor Robert Wise (later of The Sound of Music fame).

After negative screenings, a general antipathy towards Welles at RKO and a change of public mood on account of Pearl Harbor having just propelled the USA into the Second World War, the studio ordered the butchery and Wise carried it out, while Welles was out of the country. Wise also co-directed the happy ending, restoring the one from the Booth Tarkington novel on which the film was based. Welles always said the studio had a dread of downbeat movies and here was the proof.

Even with the re-edit and the new ending the film flopped.

The stories about what happened to this movie are legion and there are whole books on the subject, like Robert L Carringer’s scholarly and exhaustive The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction, and I suggest you look there if you want to know more. But what about the film as it is, the one you might catch on late-night TV, at an arthouse cinema or on your own big screen, courtesy of the superb Criterion Collection edition?

It’s a story of thwarted love set against a backdrop of rapid social change, barely any of it good. Rich Isabel Amberson (onetime silent movie star Dolores Costello, grandmother of Drew Barrymore, incidentally) loves automobile manufacturer Eugene Morgan (Welles regular Joseph Cotten) and he loves her. But instead of marrying Morgan, Isabel decides, in a moment of pique, to wed dullard Wilbur Minafer instead. The lovelorn Morgan does eventually marry but his wife dies. His heart in any case belongs for ever to Isabel, to the chagrin of Wilbur’s sister, Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), who has eyes only for Eugene, a secret she clutches close to her bosom.

Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorhead
Eugene and the secretly adoring Fanny



Isabel and Wilbur have a child, the vile George (Tim Holt). Years pass, and the horrible, entitled child becomes a priggish man with all sorts of psychological hang-ups and far too close an interest in his mother’s emotional life, an interest that leads to him prying the lid off most of the secrets no one in the Amberson or Minafer family want to give up willingly.

Welles spins all these people together in a grand ball scene early on, also introducing Morgan’s daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), someone for George to get in a tangle over. This is one of those huge, big-production Welles displays of movie-making genius, like the opening moments of Touch of Evil, conceived as a series of massive continuous takes shot from a crane swinging up and down through the three floors of the Amberson mansion. Some of it remains in the film that we have, and what remains is glorious.

Behind the superficial fabulousness of Welles’s mis-en-scene, transgressive relationships lurk – a man for another man’s wife, a married woman for another man, a spinster for the object of her sister-in-law’s affections, a son’s for his Oedipally close mother – while in wider society, the motor car is upending social relations, destroying property values in the Ambersons’ hoity-toity part of town and replacing a world of order with one of chaos.

That negative view of progress and the downer on the motor car – and by extension on industrial America (which was just about to use its muscle to win a war) – make it easy to see why the movie was considered a problem.

Though the slash and burn has reduced nuanced individuals to a single character trait – Morgan is principled, Fanny hysterical, George a boor, Isabel silly – the acting remains fabulous, with Agnes Moorehead the standout as the tragic spinster doomed to love someone she can’t have and being driven entirely mad by it. If you only know Moorehead from reruns of Bewitched, prepare to be amazed.

Composer Bernard Herrmann – who started his career out in Hollywood with Citizen Kane and ended it with Taxi Driver (beat that!) – took his name off the credits as a protest at what had been done to Welles’s film, but his score is an immensely subtle piece of work, and who knows how much better it would have been if the film’s coherence hadn’t been shattered.

Stanley Cortez cannot match Gregg Toland for the deep-focus cinematography of Citizen Kane, though how he tries (Welles was not happy) but his lighting is superb – all gothic shadows, especially inside the Amberson mansion, where secrets lurk.

Wise’s edits have reduced what should be a coherent narrative to a series of vignettes, but they do hold up as vignettes, and the film does hold up as a piece of brilliant 1940s drama. As I write this (late August 2021), yet another expedition is readying itself for an expedition to South America to try and track down the original, pre-butchery rough cut Wise gave Welles when Welles set off to make his film to help with the war effort. Perhaps the even more Magnificent Ambersons will be found yet.





The Magnificent Ambersons – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Touch of Evil

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

10 May

 

Rock around the Clock released, 1954

On this day in 1954, Bill Haley and His Comets released the single Rock around the Clock. It wasn’t the first rock and roll record – that was probably Rocket 88 by Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm (though the label credited Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, Brenston being Turner’s sax player) – and it was only moderately successful, hitting number 23 on the Billboard chart before dropping out completely after one week. Written in 1952 by Max Freedman and James Myers, it was first recorded by Sonny Dae and His Knights. Haley’s version was used in the film Blackboard Jungle – a drama set in an inner-city school and starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. It was at this point that the song became a success, rocketing back to the top of the Billboard chart and announcing the arrival of a new youth movement. Haley was 29 when he had the hit, quite old for a teenager. Meanwhile, in Memphis, a 19-year-old truck driver called Elvis Presley was warming up his pipes.

 

 

 

Touch of Evil (1958, dir: Orson Welles)

Touch of Evil is Orson Welles’s rock’n’roll film. Going large on transgression and youth culture, it places Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh as a pair of newlyweds on the border between Mexico and the USA, where Heston’s Mexican detective gets caught up in the investigation into a car bomb, in a sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll town ruled over by lumbering hulk of corruption Sheriff Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). The film opens with the most famous continuous take in film history, with blonder-than-blonde Leigh and a brownface Heston moving slowly towards the checkpoint, while behind them, and advancing every second, comes the car with a bomb (we know, they don’t) in its trunk. Over the next 100-plus minutes, Welles feeds us a soup of lust and licentiousness, law-breaking and trans-racial coupling that is still fairly unusual today, unheard of back in 1958. The studio cut the picture to ribbons and removed a lot of the ambient rock music from the soundtrack, though the version now available (around 111 minutes) is an approximation of what Welles originally envisaged, since it follows fairly closely the 58 page memo he sent to the studio after their first hack through his long, audacious and unsettling film.

Whether the memo expresses Welles’s real wishes or his best compromise is now academic; this “restoration” is all there is left. Not all is perfect in this iconic masterpiece – neither Leigh nor Heston can act, and Leigh in particular seems to be struggling with basic line readings. And Heston as a Mexican? Well, you might say, if he can play an ancient Judean… But then so much of this film is improbable, over-ripe – the casting, the acting, and what about the fact that Susan (Leigh) appears to have been raped by a local gang, an event dealt with almost as if it didn’t happen? The answer might be: the film isn’t really about her, or her husband, even though they are billed as its stars and the film follows them from the start. It’s about the shadowy Quinlan, the sweating gargantuan brought low by his own chicanery, not least his attempts to frame the newlyweds on drugs and murder charges. Other delights include an unbilled Marlene Dietrich, shot so carefully you’d never guess she was nudging 60, as the gypsy brothel keeper and soothsayer who Kane, sorry Quinlan, confides in. Don’t follow the spotlight, Dietrich’s presence seems to be saying, the real show in Touch of Evil is all going on in the wings.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A support cast including Dennis Weaver and Zsa Zsa Gabor
  • Russell Metty’s expressionistic monochrome cinematography
  • Henry Mancini’s score
  • Another Welles masterpiece

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Touch of Evil – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

A Man for All Seasons

Robert Shaw and Paul Scofield

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 February

 

 

Jane Boleyn executed, 1542

On this day in 1542, Jane Boleyn was executed. Not to be confused with her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, Jane went to meet her maker on the same day as Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard.

Jane had been born Jane Parker and had married George Boleyn (brother of Anne). She arrived at the court of the king as a young woman and had joined the household of the king’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, before marrying George Boleyn who, according to various reports was a wild womaniser, or gay, or both.

In 1536 George Boleyn was arrested for the crime of sleeping with his sister, Anne (who was now queen). Jane testified against her husband, possibly because she resented his relationship with her sister-in-law, possibly because she was simply swept along on the wave of intrigue that would unseat the second queen and the entire Boleyn family.

Later, as the fifth wife’s attendant, she arranged clandestine meetings for the young queen Catherine with her lover, Thomas Culpeper. It was on the discovery of this fact that Henry VIII had both women imprisoned in the Tower of London. Jane died on the same day as the teenage queen, aged about 36.

 

 

 

A Man for All Seasons (1966, dir: Fred Zinnemann)

One of a series of generally turgid royal costume dramas produced in Britain in the 1960s, A Man for All Seasons bucks the trend, though on paper it has all the hallmarks of the classic yawn.

Yes, it’s a stage play and yes, director Fred Zinnemann doesn’t do very much in the way of opening it out for the movie camera. Instead he leaves it down to the power of Robert Bolt’s original script, which essentially delineates a sumo-battle of wills in Tudor England.

It’s between Henry VIII, who wants to divorce his first wife, and Sir Thomas More, the only person pointing out that divorce is against the will of god and of the church of Rome. Ranged against More is not just the king, but the entire court, a gang of chisellers who’d sell their own mothers if it would keep them in favour with the crown.

Bolt’s brilliance is in exposing their motives without ever making them explicit. Zinneman’s brilliance is in keeping the actors playing all these roles on a very tight leash. There’s no such problem with Paul Scofield as Thomas More, but Robert Shaw as Henry VIII, Orson Welles as the scheming Cardinal Wolsey, Leo McKern as Thomas Cromwell, all are capable of letting the boom of their own voices get the upper hand.

Moving from small chamber scenes to a grand inquisitorial finale, the film is concerned throughout with matters legal and theological, its triumph being that it turns potentially dry topics such as Henry’s split with Rome and his decision to make himself the head of his own church in England into compelling entertainment. A box office hit, a multiple Oscar winner, its timeless script means it works just as well today as it did when it was made.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The great Paul Scofield’s first film performance – an Oscar winner
  • Ted Moore’s luscious Technicolor cinematography
  • Fabulous costumes by Elizabeth Haffenden and Joan Bridge
  • A cast including Vanessa Redgrave, John Hurt and Nigel Davenport

 

 

 

A Man for All Seasons – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

The Transformers: The Movie

Unicron – as voiced by Orson Welles – in The Transformers: The Movie

 

 

As a new multi-squillion-dollar Transformers movie directed by Michael (Pearl Harbor) Bay comes down the pipe, someone obviously thought a quick cash-in was in order. So here’s the old Transformers from 1986. On the upside: the voice talent is of the “well I never” variety. In what other film would you get Robert Stack, Eric Idle, Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles all working together? On the other hand, just what the hell is going on? The plot is pretty much unfathomable – Welles described it as being about “a big toy who attacks a bunch of smaller toys”. The title music helpfully tells us the movie is about “Robots in disguise”, fighting Stunticons, Aerialbots and various other deadly shape-shifting things. Taking the fetishisation of metal beyond even the wild fantasies of Top Gear fans, Transformers: The Movie is just like the TV series that spawned it – a bewildering, crudely drawn cartoon battle set to a poodle-haired rock soundtrack (think Van Halen’s Jump without the catchy hook). Those dewy-eyed for anything 1980s will love it. Those hoping for a fitting epitaph for the creator of Citizen Kane – this was one of his last contribution to movies – should look elsewhere.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

The Transformers: The Movie – at Amazon.com

 

 

 

The Third Man

 

 

So much is right about the Third Man that could have gone so wrong. Producer David O. Selznick wanted it shot entirely on studio sets. Director Carol Reed disagreed and won, which is why it’s shot on the dank streets of post-war Vienna, a city as overrun with black marketeers as the film suggests. Selznick also wanted Noel Coward to play Harry Lime, the role eventually taken by Orson Welles. Perhaps Coward would have made a good “Third Man”, a shit trading penicillin to the highest bidder and damn the children who die as a consequence. But if Coward had taken the role, there wouldn’t have been the “cuckoo clock” speech, written by Welles, which makes the case that all human achievement is founded on suffering. As to the rest of it, who knows what would have happened once Selznick started getting his way – for the American release he changed Graham Greene’s opening monologue, which does in five minutes of scene-setting what some films can’t manage in an hour. It’s a masterpiece of concision. But then every aspect of the film says “masterpiece” – the writing, the directing, the casting, locations, Anton Karas’s zither score, the cinematography. It’s still regulary voted “Best British film of all time”.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

The Third Man – at Amazon

 

 

Le Procès aka The Trial

 

 

An arch bullshitter of the first water, Orson Welles fell on Franz Kafka’s The Trial like he fell on everything – mountainously. Kafka’s is a simple story – about Joseph K, a man arrested for an unspecified crime, who is taken through a legal process, all the way protesting he’s innocent. Is he? We can never tell, since the narrator is K himself and it’s impossible to work out if he’s lying or not, though he does increasingly come across as a shifty piece of work. Not unlike the artful Mr Welles, who protested to the end of his days that Hollywood had found him guilty of an unspecified crime and had banished him to indie obscurity. As K, Welles cast Anthony Perkins, the Psycho star and evasiveness personified, and amusingly cast himself as the Judge. Behind the camera Welles orchestrates an oppressive tangle of crazy camera angles, expressionistic sets and bravura black and white photography and while he probably knew he could never transpose the book’s subjective point of view to the screen, he has a damn good try. As Welles himself said in 1962, “Say what you like, but The Trial is the best film I have ever made”. And, since he said it himself, it’s got to be the truth.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

The Trial – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Confidential Report

Orson Welles in Confidential Report aka Mr Arkadin

The prevailing wisdom on Orson Welles has changed in recent years. It used to be: “Poor Orson, his masterpieces (such as The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True, The Lady from Shanghai ) butchered by the studios”. Now it’s: “Lazy Orson, got most of the way through a film and then lost interest”. Certainly Welles subscribed to the former view, and broadcast it widely wherever he went in Europe during his exile (or extended flake-out, take your pick).

Confidential Report fuels the debate. A shadow of both his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (in which Welles played the similarly gnomic Harry Lime), the film jumps around the world excavating the past of a mysterious megalomaniac and is either a masterpiece re-edited to destruction by the studios, or a series of brilliantly melodramatic vignettes which Orson couldn’t quite be bothered melding into a whole.

Whichever it is, and seven different versions have done the rounds over the years, the version I watched recently certainly seemed to have been edited by a man with a grudge. Maybe this was the same version that Cahiers du Cinema saw in 1958 and declared a masterpiece, in spite of the fact that all of Welles’s flashbacks and other chronological trickery had been ironed out.

Whichever version you are offered there’s good stuff in it – all that deep-focus photography and Expressionistic Euro-angst – and the always engaging, lovably preposterous figure of Welles himself, who plays the mysterious Mr Arkadin, by which name this mad, gothic/baroque fruitcake of a film is also known. See, you can’t get a straight answer even on the title.

© Steve Morrissey 2002

Confidential Report/Mr Arkadin – at Amazon