Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Magnificent Ambersons

The plot of Orson Welles's "The Magnificent Ambersons" is earthly: the fall of a wealthy family and the ruin of its spoiled scion, Georgie Amberson Minifer. But the look of the film is unearthly. It seems to take place in the afterlife, not heaven or hell, but a place extraterrestrial, the characters dead but in motion in black and white. They all experience a sexual death: Isabel Amberson in marriage to the weak Minifer; Eugene, the bold lover she refused, in resignation; her son Georgie sickeningly in thrall to his mother and she to him.

Welles's cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, created what I call the "afterlife look" by using deep focus--foreground, middle ground, and background all sharply in focus--great slashing shadows, and reverse cuts, the camera shooting from the left and right of the subject. All the while we hear Welles's voice, the narrating angel; he doesn't appear in the film.

We've heard so much about the living quality of art, the flood of green in Van Gogh, for instance, but art also gives us living death. Welles's ghosts shine, their blacks dark as graphite.


  1. Miriam, I am just back from northern Quebec and Hudson Bay and am happy to catch up with you. It was an interesting trip that I would blog about if not so lazy.

    I have not seen Ambersons for years, but I will go back to it with new eyes. I do remember the strange sleigh ride scene and many of the interiors, often shooting up to see ceilings and distort the character’s shapes, a familiar Welles trick.

    Cortez was a collaborator of Gregg Tolland, the prodigy camera man more responsible for the look of Citizen Kane than Welles himself. It was Tolland that developed the deep focus technique created by stopping down to f 16 rather that the f 3.5 typical of cinema photography of the day. The problem was that when stopping down you reduce the amount of light reaching the film. He overcame this by blasting the scene with unheard of levels of light and using specially coated lenses. Cortez, Tolland and Russell Metty’s work in this brief period led the way to the low key lighting that made film noir possible with its eloquent shadows. Innovations in this period such as double exposing in the camera, another way to achieve deep focus, revolutionized cinema in ways that are now transparent to audiences. When I saw these films in my youth, I was not aware of technique, but I was deeply affected by the intensity of the drama these tricks created.

    Turning from the pedantic to the sentimental, one of the biggest shocks of the film was seeing Tim Holt’s creditable performance in a non-cowboy role. But I remember him best as the drifter Curtin in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In the last scene Curtin rides his tiny horse centaur-like in a raging sand storm, whirling around is search of the lost gold, his abundant curls flying wildly, his face, as throughout the film, a mask of sober concern. A sweet memory. In his obit a few years ago he was shown as a jolly old men – excessively bald. Sic transit…

  2. Bluedog, so stopping down to f 16 and blasting with light creates that otherworldly look, not the way things appear to the human eye. Thanks for your elegant comment.