DVD club: The Magnificent Ambersons

Orson Welles's second feature, a loving adaptation of Booth Tarkington's 1919 Pulitzer Prize novel, was re-edited by RKO while he was away filming in Brazil, released in a double bill, and failed with both critics and public.

Orson Welles's Citizen Kane is, one assumes, like the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare that have been on Radio 4's desert island to await each castaway ever since Roy Plomley launched Desert Island Discs in 1942 - every home has, or should have, a copy. Welles's second feature, a loving adaptation of Booth Tarkington's 1919 Pulitzer Prize novel, was re-edited by RKO while he was away filming in Brazil, released in a double bill, and failed with both critics and public. It didn't respond to the temper of the times (early Second World War).

But it's a flawed masterpiece, as brilliant a study of social change as Visconti's The Leopard. We see a rich, Midwestern family in decline from the 1870s into the 20th century as a new commercial, bourgeois society emerges.Welles doesn't appear but provides an eloquent, seductive voiceover, and the movie is admirably served by several Mercury Company performers from Kane (Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins) and new recruits (Tim Holt, Anne Baxter, pictured). The experimental narrative combines extended takes with sharp montages of social commentary, and veteran Stanley Cortez's photography is as remarkable as Gregg Toland's on Kane

This is Welles's warmest, most personal film. But the final credit sequence, often described as innovative, derives from a film by another flamboyant theatrical figure, writer-actor-director Sacha Guitry's masterly Le Roman d'un tricheur (1936), which some DVD label should release here. Essential reading: Simon Callow's definitive Welles biography, published by Jonathan Cape. The second volume (Hello Americans) begins with Ambersons

Next week: James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein. See the archive and pick Philip's brain about film-related matters at observer.co.uk/dvdclub

Phillip French

The GuardianTramp

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