He had his freedom when making his first film, the all-time classic Citizen Kane, but it wasn’t a box office hit, and Welles ended up signing a new contract with RKO that took away final cut rights. The Magnificent Ambersons is a great film, but the loss of the final cut made this, Welles’ second film, to be the first of many Welles movies to be less than they deserved. In this case, RKO famously cut almost an hour from the movie while Welles was in Brazil, then shot and inserted a different ending. (Welles wasn’t the only one who suffered. The great Bernard Herrmann’s score was chopped up so much, Herrmann had his name removed from the credits.)
For a long time, I wondered how The Magnificent Ambersons could be a classic if what we saw was only 2/3 of the intended film. But the part of the movie that belongs to Welles is brilliant, so cry if you wish for what could have been, but don’t deny yourself to experience what we have.
The movie’s look is stunning. Welles switched from Gregg Toland to Stanley Cortez for cinematography, and his contributions are crucial. Cortez’ filmography is remarkable, not only for Ambersons, but for the atmospheric The Night of the Hunter. But in the 60s, his name turns up on movies like Dinosaurus!, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, The Navy vs. the Night Monsters, and They Saved Hitler’s Brain. He got one of only two Oscar nominations in his career for Ambersons.
It is always hard to know where to assign credit in an Orson Welles film. He was a genius who seemingly could do anything. But it isn’t true that all of the good stuff in his movies are due to his direct contribution. No doubt, he had a lot of input into the look of The Magnificent Ambersons, but there is no reason to ignore the work of Cortez.
There is some great acting, as well, especially Agnes Moorehead in a showy role that was right up her alley (she got an Oscar nomination, as well). Moorehead always had the willingness to act up a storm, and some find her over the top here. But I think she is not only appropriate in Ambersons, she is crucial in personifying the breakdown of everything she believed in.
Welles does wonderful things with sound here, as he did in Kane. Coming from radio as he did, that was no surprise. It is one of the saddest aspects of his problems making films in later years that the sound was often the first thing to suffer.
Several of Welles’ Mercury crew are along, and Joseph Cotten is his usual underrated/understated self.
What matters most of all, though, is how successful Welles was at making the movie he wanted to make. His Magnificent Ambersons is a dark tale of change and decay, and for an hour, that’s what we get. But once the studio takes over (and if there isn’t any one point where you know this has happened, in retrospect you can feel the change), we get a choppy series of events, just as you might expect from a movie with 40 minutes missing. Individual scenes work, but the flow is gone. And then we get the attached-on “happy” ending, which is completely outside of the tone of the film as a whole.
My opinion of The Magnificent Ambersons has risen over time. I still think it’s a flawed masterpiece, rather than a straight-out classic. But the masterpiece part is so much more than the flaws. #90 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.