Rightwing Film Geek

Victor trashes “Citizen Kane”

OK, not really, but that’s how this post is inevitably gonna come across. Reader James in a comment below says among a list of questions, “nor do I get the greater love for Welles sophomore work than his freshman one.”¹

Now … I would, if a gun were held to my head, pick THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS over CITIZEN KANE. But how does James know this? I don’t recall saying that here, and I’ve only mentioned AMBERSONS once in detail in this post here, where I lament upon 23rd viewing the fact I can never see it again for the first time but didn’t compare it explicitly to KANE. Telepathy?

But anyhoo … that is the case, and I explained myself a few years ago in Movie-Nerd Discussion Group in the context of a thread about Orson Welles (which I reproduce here with only a few details added). If your favorite Welles film is anything other than CITIZEN KANE, the consensus “greatest film of all time,” you kinda feel compelled to provide a reason. And understand that CITIZEN KANE is still #1 on my 1941 list, though I sometimes DO get tempted to displace it with THE LITTLE FOXES. Anyway, here are my reasons for preferring AMBERSONS:

1) KANE’s structure makes it a bit of a stumper on first viewing,² certainly when compared to AMBERSONS. Philistine that I am … I persist in believing this is at least somewhat of a flaw.

2) Charles Foster Kane is an enigma in some ways that George Amberson Minafer is not, especially since Rosebud pretty much turns out to be a psychological red herring, compared to George’s comeuppance. Plus George’s comeuppance gets brilliantly, gradually forgotten over the course of the film, until it’s yanked back in the most shocking “remember this?” voiceover-narration line ever (in contrast Rosebud weaves itself throughout the film a bit much for a red herring).

3) Agnes Moorhead has more than one scene in AMBERSONS, and Welles even manages to make good actors out of Tim Holt and Ann Baxter. I also treasure Welles’ radio-trained voice more than his physical presence as an actor,³ so making him the narrator is a mo-fo genius move.

4) The last scene of AMBERSONS, which is always held against it, is not bad at all despite the “hearts and flowers” reputation it’s picked up. Eugene’s dialog and the plot points are rather the same as Welles’ original cut (George has been reconciled to both the Morgans, thanks to Isabel’s intercession). Though I shudder to think of hearing this in a poorhouse with a senile Fanny half-listening.

And to repeat … I’m comparing masterpieces here, and it’s like saying MACBETH was “only” Shakespeare’s fifth-best play. But I wouldn’t blame a KANE-lover from reacting as though I’ve “trashed” his favorite to elevate mine.
¹ Actually, I would guess that a very significant share of my readers, if not a majority, don’t share my political or religious beliefs. Particularly since I prefer to write about snooty art films, the audience for which is overwhelmingly secular-liberal.
² Though again, Welles is a brilliant visual storyteller and no film structured like KANE is could possibly have been more of a pleasure and an ease to follow.
³ Again, not that his movement and presence are bad or nothing — just that the voice was the best part of him.

October 18, 2008 - Posted by | Canon, Orson Welles


  1. Yes, I am indeed telepathic, but that is not how I know what your favorite Welles is.

    I also know that 8 1/2 is your favorite Fellini. I know that you prefer DR. STRANGELOVE to 2001, CRIES AND WHISPERS to WILD STRAWBERRIES, SUNSET BOULEVARD to SOME LIKE IT HOT. This information is derived from your own personal top ten that you have posted on mulitiple occasions.

    I agree that we are discussing masterpieces here. I know that we also both think TOUCH OF EVIL is one too. Welles is arguably the best filmmaker America has ever produced (destroyed?) and everyone of his films is notable to some extent. My point is I don’t get WHY someone would put AMBERSONS above KANE.

    KANE is my fav Welles. I get that there will always be people who consider AMBERSONS, TOUCH OF EVIL, MR. ARKADIN, THE TRIAL, CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT or any of his other stuff better, I just don’t know if I can appreciate their reasons.

    Besides I have seen AMBERSONS several times and even if the ending isn’t as bad as advertised I have never been able to shake the feeling that it doesn’t totally gel with everything else. The movie ends very quickly (a little too quickly for me) and wraps itself up much tighter than I feel like it should.

    Ultimately I feel like Welles’ first two films are too close thematically to deny the superiority of the first. On the other hand I would have less trouble understanding why someone’s fav Welles was TOUCH OF EVIL or THE TRIAL simply because even if they aren’t as brilliant (?) as AMBERSONS the aesthetic is different enough that I can chalk it up to taste.

    P.S. I can also, always do with Moorhead.

    P.S.S. Who the fuck thinks MACBETH is only Shakespeare’s fifth-best play?

    Comment by James | October 18, 2008 | Reply

  2. Who the fuck thinks MACBETH is only Shakespeare’s fifth-best play?

    Consensus would be third-best after Hamlet and King Lear, right? I suppose there’s room in this world for someone to like a couple of others better than Macbeth … maybe one of the comedies (The Tempest? A Midsummer Night’s Dream?), or Henry V, or Richard III or something.

    Comment by Adam Villani | October 20, 2008 | Reply

  3. I think a strong case can be made for Ambersons over Kane. For starters, it’s stylistically all-of-a-piece; instead of throwing every trick in the cinematic handbook (and then some) at you, Welles opts for a calmer, more coherent and smoother visual style which is no less masterful than the pyrotechnics of Kane. Also, the emotions run very deep—the story of a family trying to preserve their dignity in a transforming West has a magisterial pull to it.

    That said, I still prefer Kane. I find its youthful exuberance eternally refreshing, and it seems to resonate deeper with each viewing. Its importance to film history can’t be argued—its wisdom (at what point did Kane’s life go wrong?) needs to be stated and restated for as long as is necessary.

    Comment by Nate | October 23, 2008 | Reply

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