On Monday, January 23, Turner Classic Movies is showing all four films made by Max Ophuls, the great German director, during his brief tenure in America (when he dropped the “h” and signed his films “Max Opuls”).
The evening of “Max Ophuls in Hollywood” is followed by two of his greatest French films, La Ronde (1950) and The Earrings of Madame de… (1954), but while they are well represented in superb DVD editions stateside, the four American films showing Monday night—Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), The Reckless Moment (1949), Caught (1949) and the rarity The Exile (1947), his Hollywood debut—have still not been released on DVD in the U.S.
The films of Ophuls haunt the space between the idealism of unconditional love and the reality of social barriers and fickle lovers. Yet his greatest films are anything but cynical; ironic certainly, but also melancholy, sad and wistful, and always respectful of the dignity of those who love well if not too wisely. His fluid, elegantly choreographed camerawork and intimate yet observant directorial presence have resulted in some of the most delicate and beautiful films made on either side of the Atlantic, but his American films have never been as celebrated as his more overtly stylized and seductively romantic French films (Ophuls left Germany in the early 1930s for the same reason so many fellow artists did).
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stars in The Exile, a lightweight adventure film that looks to Fairbanks Sr. for inspiration. The film, about a king in exile, lacks the showstopping stunts and show-off acrobatics of Sr.’s silent classics, but the old fashioned love story and simplicity of adventure is pleasantly retro. Even for 1948. Fairbanks does his best impression of his father ever, with a tiny mustache and a big smile and a leaping energy, even going as far as writing the scenario and producing the independent feature. And while Ophuls is no action director, he has nothing to apologize for in this rousing little film. His camera glides through some lovely scenes and while Fairbanks lunges and leaps, Ophuls choreographs the crowd scenes to give the film a scope the belies the budget and a grace lacking in most such adventure films.
Letter From an Unknown Woman is Ophuls’ first personal project in Hollywood and he injects this exquisitely stylish romantic melodrama (based on a novel by Stefan Zweig) with his continental sensibility. “By the time you read this letter, I may be dead,” reads aging bon vivant Louis Jourdan from a letter found in his tiny hotel room. Hair tousled and tux tired from yet another night of meaningless flirtation, he’s startled by these opening lines and suspends his preparations to flee a duel to read the history of a love affair that he can’t remember. For the rest of the film we’re transported to the life of Joan Fontaine’s awkward young Viennese woman, hopelessly enthralled by the dashing pianist from adolescence and momentarily his lover, the emotional pinnacle of her life but for the philandering rogue simply another fling in a blur of women passing through his bedroom. Fontaine delivers one of the best performances of her career, vulnerable and yearning without lapsing into sentimentality and ultimately showing a hidden strength as she risks all for one more moment with the love of her life. Jordan is genial and callow, an empty figure faced with the meaningless of his life and shamed with self discovery. Meanwhile Ophuls’ endlessly moving camera tracks, cranes, and circles around the characters while maintaining a measured distance, offering a privileged view of intimacy that captures both her life-defining rapture and his momentary engagement. It’s a sensibility more European than American, right down the empty gesture that concludes this sad melodrama, but it’s also a transition piece to his two great films in the American vernacular. Letter From an Unknown Woman is a Hollywood version of the films he would later make upon returning to France. The Reckless Moment and Caught are films about America as seen through Ophuls’ European eyes.
Caught, Ophuls’ dark “Cinderella” melodrama, belongs as much to the murky world of American film noir as to the polished European dramas of high society social appearances and power games. Barbara Bel Geddes is the car hop who puts her hopes in a charm school education and a modeling gig and Robert Ryan is her dream come true, is so she thinks when the cold, demanding industrialist millionaire suddenly proposes. Ophuls perfectly captures her uneasiness in society when she first meets him: she a charm school grad from a working class background looking to land a rich husband, he a millionaire industrialist born to wealth and power and looking to fool around and proposing on a whim to prove a point to his psychiatrist. James Mason is her jolt of reality, an idealistic doctor in New York’s east Side who hires her despite her qualifications (diction and posture have little value in a working office) when she flees his control. While Mason slowly wins her heart, the manipulative Ryan responds with a campaign of blackmail and psychological torments. Ophuls fights a script that all too often puts its themes into the mouth of Mason, whose constant harangues against the pursuit of money for money’s sake sounds increasingly like a broken record, but his delicate, elegant style beautifully captures both the surface elegance and emptiness of the millionaire lifestyle. Bel Geddes transforms from callow, naïve kid to woman of strength and moral fortitude, while Mason tempers his saintliness with moments of doubt and Ryan reveals chillingly cruel manipulator whose only goal is to “win” at all costs. Ophuls beautifully twists the American dream into a nightmare, where even the happy ending feels just a bit tarnished.
The Reckless Moment is a masterpiece in the class of his revered late French classics. Set in post-war suburbia, in a seaside bedroom community outside of Los Angeles, it’s a mix of crime drama and what Hollywood once called a “women’s picture,” a label they applied to almost any film that took a woman’s perspective. One-time ingénue Joan Bennett makes a confident transition to wife and mother holding her family together (two teenage children and a retired father-in-law) while her husband is working overseas, and facing a criminal to protect her daughter from a gigolo and then from a blackmailer (a darkly attractive and quietly menacing James Mason). Ophuls shot the film on an obviously small budget and it is rife with strains of “goony” dialogue, unnatural exclamations, one-sided phone conversations whipped through at a sprint and other conventions of studio pictures. Yet he masterfully shapes it all into a portrait not just of suburban middle class security shaken into chaos when it collides with big city corruption, but of the social prison of middle class family. Forget the crime thriller conventions, the film’s most startling revelation is how powerless this middle class woman finds herself in this society as she attempts to secure a loan or to get money without a husband at her side. (For more, see my essay on The Reckless Moment on Parallax View here.)
Go to Turner Classic Movies website for the complete schedule of films, and don’t forget to adjust for your time zone. Or just turn to Turner Classic Movies and watch the films go by. And don’t forget to set those DVRs to record.