Posted in: Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Noir, Guest Contributor, Max Ophuls, Melodrama

Houses, Phones and Cars: Domestic Spaces in Max Ophuls’ “The Reckless Moment”

By Norman Hale

[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.

James Mason and Joan Bennett pose

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—The Reckless Moment (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.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Pandora’s Technicolor Box and More Shameless Knock-offs From Corman: DVDs of the Week

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Kino)

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

I have a soft spot for Albert Lewin, a literary Hollywood writer/producer turned director with a continental sensibility an eye for handsome imagery (if not always cinematic storytelling). His productions tended toward literary adaptations (The Good Earth, 1937, which he produced, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945, which he scripted and directed) but Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Kino) is an original script (“suggested by the Legend of the Flying Dutchman,” in the words of the credits) reverberating with mythological themes, literary and classical references and a Hemingway-esque atmosphere of the lost generation of idle wealthy Europeans in early thirties Spain.

All of the men in the tale are in thrall to Pandora (Ava Gardner), a beautiful American nightclub singer who has come to Esperanza, Spain, via London, and spurns the attentions of her admirers with a mix of cruelty and ennui. Then she is drawn to the mysterious ship anchored in the bay and meets the ageless Renaissance man Hendrik (James Mason), a haunted loner whose story is the stuff of legends, and becomes captivated by this mystery man who seems to know her yet makes no advances.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Boys from Brazil

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

“Budt ze prroject vill be ruindt,” complains Gregory Peck, in the worst possible screen-German accent, when James Mason’s SS Colonel suggests that Peck’s mad geneticist recall his squad of assassins, sent out to bump off 94 civil servants throughout the world. It’s a clever way to evoke audience sympathy for the bad guys, because at this point in the film we don’t want Dr. Josef Mengele’s project to be cancelled—not till we can at least find out precisely what it is. How can the killing of 94 low-grade civil servants, aged 65, possibly bring about “ze Fourss Reich”? That our curiosity should be used to ally us with Mengele, even though we already know him to be a heinous villain, is indicative of Franklin Schaffner’s offbeat taste in heroes. Schaffner has wavered between celebrations of mavericks who defy convention (The War Lord, Planet of the Apes, Patton, Islands in the Stream) and confrontations or alliances of two strong-but-flawed characters (The Best Man, Papillon, and the special case of The Double Man in which Yul Brynner played both a CIA agent and a Communist spy). The Boys from Brazil seems to unite the two interests, with Schaffner unable to conceal his fascination for Mengele, quite despite the intentions of novelist Levin and scenarist Gould.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Film Reviews, Sam Peckinpah

Cross Of Iron: On getting past the blood

[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), May 25, 1977]

Hugging the wall of a trench, Steyner’s platoon looks up at a Russian tank clattering over their heads. They are the last Germans at this easternmost point on the Russian front, a rear guard where no rear guard was meant to be, deliberately stranded and now quite surrounded. They break for the nearby factory, spray the snipers out of the convoluted ductwork, but find no refuge there. The snout of another tank gun smashes through the wall, the machine following, climbing over brick and mortar and dead Germans and Russians. There is a tunnel. The platoon runs along it. In the eyehole of light behind them, the tank appears. The snout becomes an eye, and the eye a mouth, roaring after them. But only the tunnel remains to be destroyed. The platoon has risen out of a hole into sunlight, silence, and a field of the thickest, greenest grass this side of paradise.

Cross of Iron
Cross of Iron

People talk a lot about the violence in Sam Peckinpah’s films. Most of what they say has to do with drawing facile connections between bloodlust and macho sexuality, or tut-tutting over fascist mindsets, or announcing forthrightly that violence never settled anything and only begets more violence. This record is available at any number of reviewing stands and is suitable for playing at all the best parties.

The problem with these approaches to Peckinpah’s violence is that they all seek to ignore the man’s art, to seal it safely off behind a barrier of trendy labels and categories—somebody else’s categories. In so doing, ironically, they overlook how truly violent and anarchic his movies are. For Peckinpah’s violence involves much more than an abundance of blood-spurting corpses and protracted death falls. It rages against the very structures of experience, explodes the linear reliability of perception and narrative, blows up the known world and then shudders as the chaos starts resolving back into the same old patterns.

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Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: Bloodline

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

There are certain questions that tend to come up in the dark nights of the critical soul, like ferinstance: How, in a just universe, can there be a greater resemblance between the basest, most incompetent shlock and art of a very high and rarified degree, than between. say, middling-respectable shlock and moderately successful art? It’s as though the snake of aesthetic value had swallowed its tail and brought polar extremes into a condition of adjacency. The Kit Parker Films catalog carries my appalled reaction to a grade-Z horror property named Scared to Death (Christy Cabanne, 1946, with Bela Lugosi in Natural Color), which includes a discussion of the resemblance between the budgetary-imaginative limitations of this level of cinematic creation and the sorts of narrative shorthand and lacunae-leaping one encounters in avowedly surrealist artworks. If anyone wants to take the discussion further, he might well pick up on Bloodline, a multimillion-dollar dog of summer that outdoes in ineptitude any Z-movie you care to name—that is, in fact, so astoundingly poor that one almost needs a new theory of cinema to cope with it.

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Posted in: Essays, Film Noir

The Reckless Moment: Max Ophuls’ Masterpiece of Middle Class America

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.

Joan Bennett as Lucia Harper in her suburban home
Joan Bennett as Lucia Harper in her suburban home

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.

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