The Magnificent Ambersons

After rewatching The Royal Tenenbaums the other night, I decided to take a break tonight and watch Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, which I hadn’t seen in several years.

Anderson’s film riffs nicely off Ambersons, but I really enjoyed going back to Welles’ film. I’d forgotten how effectively Welles uses space in the old mansion, with that fantastic curved staircase, and the low-key lighting in the mansion captured the family’s decline very effectively (of course I’m a sucker for low-key lighting). I also enjoyed Welles’ ability to map the Amberson family’s decline against the developing technologies of modern life, most notably the automobile that appears as a novelty at the film’s beginning when Eugene, Isabel’s longtime suitor (Joseph Cotten, a favorite actor of mine), takes several of the Ambersons for a drive in the snow. By the end of the film, the quaint town has been transformed into an industrial center, with tracking shots of smokestacks reinforcing the family’s decline.

Of course Ambersons is a very flawed film (the studio slapped on a happy ending and trimmed nearly 50 minutes (now lost) of the director’s cut while Welles was out of the country), but there are certainly some cool moments.


  1. bud Said,

    October 29, 2003 @ 4:51 pm

    I agree: Ambersons is a flawed gem, but worth re-visiting now and then.
    While taking film studies at university a long time ago, our prof made a very big deal about the fact of the enormity of the sets (as that rising crane shot up the staircase so dramatically reveals), and the fact that all of the rooms had a ceiling. It was his contention that Welles was keenly aware of how that would affect the audience while watching the movie: even if they didn’t know why, they would perceive a more-solid “realness” about this house, and hence about the narrative as a whole.

  2. chuck Said,

    October 29, 2003 @ 5:02 pm

    I noticed the foyer area was extremely vast–that was particularly memorable.

    I know Welles used ceilings in Citizen Kane in part to create a greater sense of realism, but it also reinforced a feeling of claustrophobia–you’d have a low-angle shot looking up at Kane (Welles) with the ceiling seeming to press against him. Cool stuff.

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