Letter from an Unknown Woman (Olive Signature, Blu-ray) (1948), the second Hollywood film by European émigré Max Ophüls (who was credited as Opuls on his American movies), is his first American masterpiece, an exquisitely stylish romantic melodrama (based on a novel by Stefan Zweig) informed by his continental sensibility.
“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead,” reads aging bon vivant Louis Jordan 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.
[originally published in October 2013, this review has been revived to honor Danielle Darrieux, who died this week at the age of 100 – ed.]
The European films of Max Ophuls are elaborate dances of romance and seduction in a world of social constraints and fickle lovers, and his 1953 The Earrings of Madame de…, considered by some critics one of the perfect pictures of cinema, is the most elegant of these melancholy waltzes. And it is amazing, a piece that is not just directed, not just choreographed, but sculpted, with actors and décor as the raw materials and the camera carving out the story in time and space and black and white.
Danielle Darrieux is the Madame de… of the title, an old-world socialite in 19th century Paris in a marriage of convenience to confident, cultured diplomat Charles Boyer. She plays the Countess as a supremely poised actress who stages her own personal dramas for effect, such as fainting to force the sale of the earrings, or to stop a confrontation at a dance. Boyer gives the most delicate and nuanced performance of his career as the General, the very picture of a cultured gentleman at ease with social convention and manners, the confident, smiling high society habitué. Together they master the illusion of the perfect social pair while spending their free time dallying with flirtatious suitors and casual lovers, but the illusion is shattered when the Italian diplomat Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica) enters the picture.
The American films of German-born filmmaker Max Ophuls have never been as celebrated as his more overtly stylized and seductively romantic French films. That attitude is fed by a sense of ill-treatment by the studios. He dropped the “h” to become Max Opuls in the credits of his Hollywood movies, which can either be seen as an insult to his heritage or simply part of the American assimilation that his fellow immigrants also went through. More defining is Ophuls’ miserable experience on his first American project, Vendetta (1947), a production micromanaged by Howard Hughes, who ultimately fired Ophuls. That experience colored Ophuls’ entire American period to the point that he himself dismissed the films he made as compromised. I disagree with that assessment. His films 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. There is a great dignity in his best American movies, but where his European films present obstacles in the form of social “rules” versus emotion and desire, his American films frame the same issues in terms of economics, opportunity, and the lack of social and legal power to break out of circumstances.
Olive previously gave us the Blu-ray and DVD debut of Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), the most continental of his American movies, a romantic tragedy set in an idealized past with a decadent, self-absorbed high society man and a dreamy poor girl briefly swept into his world. Caught shares the same elegant camerawork, evocative production design, and the meeting of high culture and working class society but imports it into contemporary (circa 1940s) United States. It’s the first truly “American” film of his American era and, for all the film’s over-enunciated social commentary, it is a powerful drama rooted in the dreams and anxieties and realities of American filmgoers.
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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
Max Ophuls, the great European film director, once observed in conversation with a friend that different love relationships are expressed by different tokens: traditionally a man gives fresh-cut flowers to his mistress, but a potted plant to his wife.* Social rituals with their attendant images fascinated Ophuls. Of special interest to him were the conventional images surrounding romantic love: the sending of flowers, the exchange of jewelry, dancing as an erotic mating ritual, and the exchange of delicately scented, invariably tragic love notes. His films are full of these social rituals in various combinations. But Ophuls’ formulation of the flower ritual attests to more than a sharp eye for custom. In his expression of the rule about what kind of flowers to give to whom, Ophuls lays bare the social logic which underlies the custom of giving flowers. That social logic prescribes that the ephemeral loved one be presented with an ephemeral token; and, like for like, the more permanent loved one is to be presented with a token whose characteristics are stability, growth, and relative permanence. The flowers and the potted plant are not neutral images to which a social meaning has been added. Rather, the meanings of social rituals derive from characteristics inherent in the very objects which express the rituals. Ophuls’ genius, it seems to me, lies in his ability to reveal this logic on the screen, to show how a ritual, its object, and its meaning are related.
While cut flowers seem to be a widespread Western image, the significance and usage of the image differs slightly in each particular culture. Moreover, culture has other, more specific and local images which are not transferable, just as the nuances of language are sometimes untranslatable. When Max Ophuls left Europe for America, he surely encountered a culture with a different social imagery than he was accustomed to. His first two films here are cautious historical or period pieces, highly European in flavor. However, the two following films attempt to deal with a specific American milieu. The latter of these—and the last film Ophuls made in the United States—TheRecklessMoment (1949) is complete in its mastery of the American idiom.
By American idiom I do not mean merely speech, although Ophuls’ ear flawlessly recreates a range of dialects from teenage slang to upper-middle-class English to the argot of the lower-class villains. Rather, I mean that Ophuls captures and analyzes American domestic life with the assurance of one who understands its unspoken rules. In a way uncanny for a non-native, he understands the parameters of American social beliefs and taboos. “Belief” may be too strong a word to use since it implies a conscious attitude. Ophuls is primarily concerned with the unconscious, half-articulated, vague notions which rule American domestic life.
The thirty-second year of the Seattle Art Museum’s annual Film Noir Cycle, “the granddaddy of the world’s film noir festivals,” opens with one of the most unheralded masterpieces of shadowy American melodrama: The Reckless Moment (1949), directed by continental stylist Max Ophuls (shortened to “Opuls” for his American screen credits). Known for his visual taste and elegance, his ravishing style and his delicate portraits of impassioned, impossible love in a world of fickle lovers and social barriers, the Austrian director came to America (like so many European artists and intellectuals) in the early years of World War II and (again, like so many fellow film artists) struggled to find his place in the Hollywood system. He only directed five films in his ten years in America (one of which he was fired from before completing). The Reckless Moment was his last before returning to Europe.
Set in post-war suburbia, in a seaside bedroom community outside of Los Angeles, The Reckless Moment is 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 the role of Lucia Harper, a wife and mother holding her family together (two teenage children and a retired father-in-law) while her husband is working overseas. She’s a modest woman but a defiantly protective mother who doesn’t flinch when confronting the oily gigolo who has seduced her increasingly assertive and independent minded daughter, Bea (Geraldine Brooks), and puts herself in harm’s way to cover up the man’s death and a potential scandal. When that only brings on blackmailer Martin Donnelly (James Mason), a darkly attractive and quietly menacing Irish thug who demands thousands of dollars for incriminating love letters, she discovers that she is essentially powerless in this society to secure a loan or to get money without a husband at her side.
Ophuls shot the film on an obviously small budget (Bennett’s star had faded and it was only Mason’s third American film) for Columbia, which specialized in the budget-minded first run picture. The film is rife with strains of “goony” dialogue, unnatural exclamations, one-sided phone conversations whipped through at a sprint and other conventions of studio pictures. Ophuls 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.
[Originally written in November, 2002 for the “Luminous Psyche” film series “The Films of Max Ophuls”]
“But where would people like us get to if we couldn’t get carried away?” –Max Ophuls
When Max Ophuls died in 1957, his friend and collaborator Peter Ustinov (Le Plaisir‘s narrator, Lola MontÃ¨s‘s Ringmaster) described the director as “a watchmaker intent on making the smallest watch in the world and then, with a sudden flash of perversity, putting it up on a cathedral.” One takes issue with Ustinov’s somewhat condescending adjective–“smallest”–but the metaphorical connection of watch and cathedral is wonderfully resonant as a key to Ophulsâ€™s movie metaphysics. As a film artist, Ophuls can be compared to God as watchmaker, designer of exquisite cinematic mechanisms–set in motion in fin-de-siÃ¨cle Vienna or contemporary La-La-land or timeless Paree.That irresistible motion makes Ophulsâ€™s world go round, carries his actors–and his audience–away, traps or transforms all those who dance to his Mozartian music.
Circles that count time, watches suggest the little round of human life, the turning of the earth, the unreeling of a film. Timepieces are significant plot devices in Ophuls’s films, which often revolve around star-crossed lovers–and repeated variations on the question “What time is it?” signal ever-pressing mortality, as well as the worldly duties that so regularly interrupt or end transcendent affairs and assignations. A friend once described Ophulsâ€™s elegant cinematic excursions as â€œtracking eternityâ€; it is the directorâ€™s famously long, complex, beautiful tracking shotsâ€”and the power of his loversâ€™ emotionsâ€”that carry them (and the willing viewer) out of time. In The Earrings of Madame deâ€¦, Ophulsâ€™s masterpiece, that inexorable, voluptuous camera movement constitutes the film, a life, the transformation of a beautiful woman from ornament to essence. Madame deâ€¦â€™s pilgrimage ends in an empty cathedral, architecture which rises up to eternity.
Liebelei (1932), La Signora di tutti (1934), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Caught (1949), The Earrings of Madame deâ€¦ (1953), and Lola Montes (1955) all contain Ophulsian heroines who are ensnared and sustained by seductive images of earthly pleasures, or fall from the glittering merry-go-round of the worldâ€¦into eternity. Falling in love, plunging from social grace, flinging themselves out windows, jumping from the heights of circus tentsâ€”these courageous or despairing acts are leaps of faith, leaps into the void. By an act of pure will, Ophulsian women often seek to transmogrify the unsatisfying stuff of ordinary life into art. Their obsession–or talent–drives them to sanctify or aestheticize their experiences, mining metaphysical significance from the mundane. But sometimes the machine breaks down, and beauty is ground up in perpetual motionâ€”like Gaby Doriotâ€™s movie-star portrait endlessly reproduced on the drum of Il Signora di tuttiâ€™s printing press.
The Earrings of Madame de… has been called one of the perfect pictures of cinema. And it is amazing, a piece that is not just directed, not just choreographed, but sculpted in time and space, with actors and décor as the raw materials and the camera carving out the story. Charles Boyer gives what I believe is the most delicate and nuanced performance of his career as the General, the very picture of a cultured gentleman at ease with social convention and manners, the confident, smiling high society habitué. Vittorio De Sica, as the Italian diplomat, Baron Donati, is suave and serious, hiding a romantic passion, where the General is easy and joshing to hide a lack of feeling. When he falls for the Countess (Danielle Darrieux), the Madame de… of the title married to the General, the scene is played out at a dance that Andrew Sarris describes so much better than I could: “In a series of Strauss waltz sequences, the most dazzling courtship in film history is conducted before the probing eyes of the Parisian Belle Epoque aristocracy.” Her whole social life has been a series of flirtations and romantic play, but this scene is unabashedly romantic, a fairy tale of love at first sight. But it’s a fleeting moment, and for all the dreamy romance of the scenes, it’s hard to feel the heat between them because the passion simply doesn’t break through their carefully cultivated facades.
Like other of Ophuls’ films, there is a circularity to the story carried along by the journey of heart-shaped earrings of the title as they are sold, bought, given away as love tokens and farewell gifts, and ultimately make their way back to the Countess. The jewels are never more than tokens, and the heart-shaped diamonds are a cold, impersonal stand-in for affection, but by the time they come back to the Countess as a gift from Donati, she has invested them with a meaning far greater than they ever had when they were merely a present from her husband.
Darrieux, who here somewhat resembles Arletty (only more poised and less easygoing), plays the Countess as an actress who stages her own personal dramas for effect, fainting to force the sale of the earrings, or stop a confrontation at a dance. The camera’s relationship to the Countess is like a respectful dancer in an elaborately choreographed routine, one of those elaborate 19th Century group dances where you spend more time moving away from and dancing around your partner than you do actually touching them, always maintaining a respectful distance. Ophuls is sympathetic, but never really intimate, and treats the Countess like an actress who is always on stage, playing the part of the perfect socialite, until she sinks into depression at the end of the affair, her once buoyant charm now listless, her face tired and old before its time.