For its mid-season finale, Hit Me With Your Best Shot celebrates the centennial of the magnificent Orson Welles. To commemorate the occasion, our dear Nathaniel has let us choose between three of Welles’s early movies: his debut and masterpiece Citizen Kane, his follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons, and the Rita Hayworth noir The Lady from Shanghai. Having never seen it before, I decided to pick Ambersons.
I think I made the right decision.
Welles’s infamous reputation coming off the chaotic release of Citizen Kane made the release of The Magnificent Ambersons -the second movie made under his contract at RKO- even more chaotic. The studio took the movie from Welles’s hand, re-editing large portions in it, and scrapping the third reel of the director’s original cut in its entirety. Welles famously said that “They destroyed Ambersons, and Ambersons destroyed me.” He was probably referring to the studio’s brute manipulation of his two favorite scenes in the film. One of them was a boarding room scene towards the end of the movie, which was cut from the released version of the film. The second is a ballroom sequence that remained in the cut, albeit in maimed form.
According to Welles, the original ballroom sequence was one long take in which the camera was mounted on a crane that allowed it to move through the three-story construction that was the Ambersons’s house. Allegedly for pace purposes, the studio cut the middle part of the take. The “one long take” has been lost to time, but the finished product still provides a glimpse into Welles’s inherent genius for storytelling. We still follow the camera as it roams through the Amberson mansion, and our attentions jumps from character to character as they wander into focus. It’s an intensely choreographed sequence, and the results are delightful. It’s a clear precursor to the opening to Welles’s own Touch of Evil, but also to the overlapping conversatoinal style of Robert Altman, the jumpy point-of-view of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, and the equally beautiful ballroom sequence in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (of which I wrote about recently).
It’s hard to pick a single shot from these sequences because they’re so cinematic and their magic relies so much on the flow of the characters coming in and out of the frame. But on this particular topic, I want to point out how thanks to cutting his teeth as a theatre director, Welles comes into Ambersons with a magnificent understanding of how to place actors in relation to one another within a single frame. Not only in terms of when they enter and leave scenes, but where they stand, and how to make beautiful thematic juxtapositions between the foreground and the background. This is perfectly exemplified in my pick for Best Shot, where Stanley Cortez’s cinematography casts the actors in shadow, but we can still distinguishing the silhouette of mother Isabel Anderson standing in-between the lovers of the younger generation.
I love how Welles combines the more technical aspects of filmmaking, such as lighting and camera movement, with as basic an element of theatrical direction such as blocking. Knowing where and how to place actors is an invaluable ability that is sadly rarely used in our current era of ultra “realistic” shot/reverse-shot filmmaking. Just think of how amazing our movies would be if more filmmakers exploited the possibilities of staging the way Welles was willing to do? I guess he was one of the greats for a reason.