This is a movie about the decline of a once-great American family. It’s the type of story that demands an epic sweep on par with Gone with the Wind. IMDB claims Welles’ original version was 148 minutes in comparison to the 88 RKO so graciously released. That’s pretty close to half the movie, and it shows.
You can feel the random studio scissor-work all over this film, as if monkeys were sent into the editing room armed with gardening shears and a tack-on sappy ending. For this type of movie to work for me, I really need to spend time with characters, get to know them, and age with them over the expanse of time the movie intends to cover. For example, Major Anderson, the patriarch of the family around whom everyone circles, is shown for maybe one scene towards the end of the movie. It’s a great scene no doubt, a dying man realizing that his whole life in pursuit of wealth has been wasted. But where else is he in the movie. Talked about, yes. But seldom seen.
The other mesmerizing moment involves a speech Joseph Cotten gives to Tim Holt about the potential of the “horseless carriage” to completely change society and bring about it ruin at the same time. From a 2005 vantage point, as both gas prices and war-for-oil death tolls rise, it seems downright prophetic.
Were there more of these moments in Ambersons? I’d like to think so, but I guess we’ll never now. It feels like a bottle of wine that had the potential to age gracefully…until someone dropped in one of those rapid aging doo-hickies to stoke the process. And you know what? Now it just tastes sour.