Film: Greatness lies in what is lost

As 'The Magnificent Ambersons' returns, David Thomson considers the remains of Orson Welles's masterpiece
Suppose That, in 1940 or 1941, a sincere, sensitive and somewhat saintly young man from Wisconsin had approached RKO, a motion-picture production company, and said he had a notion to make a movie - for them - from Booth Tarkington's novel, The Magnificent Ambersons (published in 1918, when the young man was three). "Good Lord!, we've been waiting for you," said RKO, "for it's always been our favourite book, too." So the young man - he was named George O Welles - wrote a script, cast his story diligently and resourcefully with little-known actors, and then had the Amberson mansion and the town they lived in built on the RKO lot.

The filming was a joy. Mr Welles resisted every importuning to act. No, he preferred to be able to concentrate on his ensemble of actors, to have the camera move through the large space of the house in a way that seems to mark time's elapsing and fortune's failure. He wanted to make a movie that captured that old Midwest ease and splendour. The footage achieved was uncannily beautiful, the performances were priceless. Here was a small gem.

But America was by now at war, and there was nothing that RKO could do to prevent the drafting of GO Welles - a quiet man, but so determined in his gaze he was made to be a warrior. Alas, the picture was not fully edited when he embarked; and it was left unfinished when his ship went down in the battle of the Coral Sea.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, we have - how shall we describe it? - the clear promise of a great film, an authentic American tragedy, cut off and left undone because no one else could match the vision of it held by George Welles. Don't forget that name - think what he might have become.

Well, not exactly, ladies and gentlemen. But entertain this thought - that if Citizen Kane had never been dreamt up; and if there had been no Lady From Shanghai, no Macbeth or Othello, no Mr Arkadin, not a glimmer of Touch of Evil, and nothing but bewildered looks if you mentioned The Immortal Story or F for Fake; if there had been no Harry Lime, and no casual conjuring on afternoon television, there would still be the 88- minute version of The Magnificent Ambersons, the remains of a full design meant to run 132 minutes. So much less than it might have been, and all the cut material lost now, so there is no hope of restoration; but still, maybe, arguably, trust me, the most moving American film ever made.

What? Better than Kane?

Well, come now, Kane is a chestnut, a sacred cow. Give Kane a rest for a decade or so. Look at Ambersons, look at that wreck of a venture, and see how immense this Orson Welles was.

The true story of how the film was made and unmade is not pretty. It does not in every detail encourage our fondest belief in genius, or in Welles. For truth to tell, no one could bring him home from Rio de Janeiro to protect or finish the masterpiece when he was doing his studious best to fuck all the lady samba dancers in the city. You can't always expect the great artist to take care of himself and his art.

Anyway, on 1 May 1941, Citizen Kane opened. It was a commercial failure and a critical success; its chances were hurt by the boycott by William Randolph Hearst's newspapers, instigated by the tycoon, who believed, with reason, that he had been lampooned in the film.

RKO had stood by Welles in defence of the picture - and standing by Welles was never easy, for he was slippery and volatile - but his contract called for a second movie, The Magnificent Ambersons, and filming began in October 1941.

It is the story of a young, wilful, emotional tyrant, George Amberson Minafer. When the Mercury Company had done the book on radio, Welles had played George. But for the movie he stepped aside and cast Tim Holt - rather dull, stolid and charmless - a touch of genius, for the story is overthrown if George has any of Welles's unlosable, lethal charm.

Shooting was completed by the end of January 1942. In a great rush, with editor Robert Wise, Welles did all he could to assemble and edit the film. But on 4 February he left for Rio, intent on making some kind of war-effort documentary. He began by shooting the Rio carnival (wall-to-wall dancers); later, he would turn to the tale of four heroic fishermen.

The editing went on in Los Angeles, with Wise and others having great difficulty making regular contact with Welles. By May, the "full" version (or Wise's estimate of what Welles wanted) was previewed - with dismal results. His friends begged Welles to return; his assistants fought to save his great scenes. But RKO was changing; they now saw Welles as a problem, as irresponsible, as the maker of a long, slow, gloomy picture that audiences hated - and far away. And so, with some retakes and a few new scenes (the ending notably), the studio made up their version of the film and released it in July 1942. Welles returned in August. Never again would he enjoy any power in the Hollywood system.

To be brief, what is missing from the movie as we now have it is the deepening decline in the Amberson fortunes, the loss of the house, the way Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) goes to live in a shabby boarding house, the collapse of old hopes. Those scenes exist in script form, and there are some stills that survive. Beyond that, we have the recollection of a few who saw the entire film, that it was the greatest movie they had ever seen, and the most complete account of the downfall of class and privilege in America (Welles was a radical in some ways, but he was very fond of the old order, too).

We will never see what Welles wanted. And he must bear the largest blame for that. He did not have to go to Rio, or stay there. But there was a fatalistic streak in him, and he was always more the outsider than a company man.

And yet, The Magnificent Ambersons is still heartbreakingly beautiful (most of it photographed by Stanley Cortez); it is one of the cinema's outstanding examples of extended takes and moving camera - the strawberry-shortcake scene, the conversations between George and Lucy; its use of decor - the house itself as a presence - could not be surpassed; and although Welles does not appear in the film, he delivers the narration, and was never more grave than in his account of how George got his comeuppance. There is still Agnes Moorehead, caught between despair and hysteria; the decent, jolly Ray Collins as Uncle Jack; the lovely teenage Anne Baxter as Lucy; Joseph Cotten, deferring to others; and Richard Bennett, not far from death himself, as Major Amberson, the shattered patriarch, gazing into the fire and seeing his family story as just an instant in the vast history of mankind. There is the ball at the Amberson house; the sleigh ride in the snow; that sense of how families sometimes have it in them - thanks to love, duty, closeness and anger - to make quite sure of destroying themselves. And there is a nostalgic feeling for a kind of grace that will never come again.

That's the point, really. It is a movie about manners, deference, grace, resignation, and a tranquillity unsurprised by hardship or failure. And Welles, for the rest of his life, hardly indulged that quietness. Ambersons was written by a man who was a friend to Welles's father, and it depicts the Midwest that Welles saw vanishing, just as he lost his father at the age of 15. It is a film about loss, the subject that moved Welles most. Perhaps he needed to lose this great film to make it securely his.

A restored print of 'The Magnificent Ambersons' (U) will be shown at the NFT, SE1 (0171 928 3232), from 27 Dec to 8 Jan.