The Magnificent Ambersons (Mercury; RKO-Radio) is a magnificent movie. It is also Round Two of the Orson Welles v. Hollywood set-to. The upstart young (27) producer-director-author-actor won Round One in a walk with his first picture, Citizen Kane (TIME, March 17, 1941), 1941's most provocative and exciting movie. Ambersons is not another Citizen Kane, but it is good enough to remove Director Welles for keeps from the novice or one-picture-prodigy class, and to further the feud.
What distinguished Kane from Hollywood's run-of-the-studio product was its sensational use of new techniques in picturemaking and storytellingduly observed and variously imitated by Hollywood. Ambersons continues this important exploration with some remarkable piecemeal successes.
The picture is a faithful adaptation of Booth Tarkington's 1918 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about the effect of U.S. industrialism on the feudal Midwest as embodied in the Ambersons. Founder of this dynasty (in 1873) is sharp-trading Major Amberson (Richard Bennett), who has become so rich that the magnificence of the Ambersons stands out in their little clapboard town like a plaid suit at a funeral. Last and worst of the clan is spoiled, arrogant Grandson George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), who gets his deserved "comeuppance" (in 1912) from the new industrialism which his baronial mind can neither understand nor tolerate.
Welles manages to make young Minafer one of the most insufferable grandees the camera has ever made hateful. The grand. gloomy, theatrical fellow kills his pretty, weak, widowed mother (Dolores Costello) by the cocksure ruthlessness with which he prevents her marrying the man (Joseph Cotten) she has always loved. His selfishness and self-righteous pride of birth ruin his own love affair with Lucy (Anne Baxter), the vital daughter of Inventor Cotten. His character is his family's fate.
Ambersons is an exhausting picture. It is almost humorless, almost without physical action. George's megalomania, detestable but never dull, becomes wearing from repetition. Old Major Amberson is not sufficiently explained. Neither is the spread of U.S. industrialism which changes and befouls the Midwestern city.
But despite these faults, dramatically Ambersons is a great motion picture, adult and demanding. Artistically, it is a textbook of advanced cinema technique. The novel use of sidelighting and exaggerated perspective that made Kane seem unlike any other movie floods Ambersons with the same revealing eloquence, examining faces, bathrooms, streets, the cluttered detail of the Ambersons' magnificence, from a viewpoint so fresh that it creates a visual suspense in the very act of clarification. Once the camera takes a 350-degree turn round the ballroom at George's home-for-the-holidays party, darting in to pick up revealing scraps of conversation, moving, probing, giving the narrative subtle, succinct meaning.
Welles opens his picture with his own voice narrating the scene the audience watches. Almost imperceptibly the players come on and the story begins. The acting is so good that it is hardly noticeable. None of the actors is a star, none needs to be. With Welles's direction and the wizardry of Make-up Man Maurice Seiderman, they look and talk and act like people who might never have heard of Hollywood.