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.
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 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.