Second Time Around

The Magnificent Ambersons
With Citizen Kane, this truncated Orson Welles masterpiece of 1942 forms a diptych of American life over a 50-year period, from the 1890s through 1941. Cut by RKO from its original 131-minute length to 88 minutes, saddled with a ludicrous happy ending, and thrown away as the bottom half of a double bill with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost, Magnificent's fate is one of Hollywood's tragedies. But preview audiences had rejected the film, saying Welles was "camera crazy," while pudgy Tim Holt, in the lead role of Georgie Minafer, spoiled heir to the Amberson fortune in a Midwestern city, is so relentlessly selfish no audience will ever warm to him. As a stand-in for Welles, he lacks a star's charisma, though his curdled boyishness works for the picture.

Holt's jealousy of any suitor who might approach his widowed mother is one of Welles' most interesting portraits of a disturbed psyche, on the level of the director's own portrayals of spiritual decay in Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, or Anthony Perkins' guilty victim in The Trial. Welles' ability to convey these fairly subtle psychological perceptions on film is one of the less recognized facets of his genius, as is the way his celebrated skill at camera and set design is used to conjure up very particular times and spaces. The transformation of a small-town Arcadia into an industrial slum is one of Magnificent's most compelling subplots. Of note is Agnes Moorehead's wonderful work as the bitter spinster Aunt Fanny, with Ray Collins also good as an avuncular uncle. The Magnificent Ambersons was the one that got away from Welles -- later in his life, he was spotted crying during a late-night TV showing of the movie.

-- Gregg Rickman

The Magnificent Ambersons screens Wednesday, March 17, at 2, 7:15, and 9:15 p.m. at the Red Vic, 1727 Haight (at Clayton), S.F. Admission is $6; call 668-3994.

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