Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ophuls in Hollywood: THE RECKLESS MOMENT

I confess to a mad passion for James Mason, and Joan Bennett was underrated and underused. Just saw her in the fantastic Lang WWII thriller Man Hunt, and she was terrific.

Max Ophuls’ 1949 film The Reckless Moment shows us the world of a decent, conventional woman, the 40ish, still lovely but buttoned-up Joan Bennett, she of the smoky, commanding voice, and attacks the sense of security living there. The scene is Balboa, California of long ago. What is sunnier than a beach house? This little piece of suburban Eden is dark indeed. There is a snake in this Eden, Ted Darby, a shifty “ex-art dealer” who is exploiting Bennett’s precociously pouty adolescent daughter, Bea. Into the fight strides Lucia – and her descent into the underworld is every bit as momentous as the journey that Demeter makes to ransom Persephone from Hades. The night world of Los Angeles is marvelously set out for us to enjoy as the camera follows Lucia past sleazy operators and the tackiness of the come-on, as the business of the neighborhood is vice: pawnbrokers, loan sharks, bars etc. It’s a costly journey, as we shall see.

Ophuls’ focus was ever on women, especially the fallen woman, as one of his most well-known films, Letter to an Unknown Woman, illustrates. The lush, romantic, yet doomed ambiance of that film is more obvious, but even the spare The Reckless Moment is passionately intense. It is a precise, tight little film, like a coiled spring.The late and lamented critic Robin Wood was a strong advocate, placing this film on his own “top ten” list in the British Film Institute’s 2002 poll.

In her perceptive study, The Cinema of Max Ophuls: Magisterial Vision and the Figure of Woman, Susan M. White observes:

“Robert Lang has correctly described The Reckless Moment as a critique of the patriarchal family. Like Mildred Pierce (1945), this film lies at the juncture of several genres, notably the family melodrama and film noir, both of which it exemplifies in visual and thematic terms.”

White has made a strong case for Ophuls’ identification with his women, and that would seem true here. Lucia is tense, chain-smoking and paces about – she acts courageously to protect her family and her weakness is in that attitude, as she is ensnared in a web of her own bad luck. Into this very noirish environment comes James Mason as Donnelly, an “Irish racketeer.“ The soft accent marks him as different, an unexpected and unlikely addition to the fatherless household of Lucia’s always absent engineer husband Tom. A tarnished angel himself, he is at first menacing, then something else again. His relationship with Lucia will have many twists and turns. The feline, elegant Mason is letter-perfect as always. Donnelly invades Lucia’s home, becomes part of her deadening maternal routine, grafted awkwardly onto her family as they draw ever closer to each other. His star on the rise, Mason had personally requested Ophuls for this project, as his contract stipulated, and it was a very fortuitous choice for both of them. Bennett was the choice of the producer, Walter Wanger, not the director, as she was married to Wanger at the time. Later, the two of them would have their own scandalous incident, the 1951 shooting of Bennett’s agent, whom Wanger believed was involved with his wife. He was imprisoned for a term; her career never recovered.

The original version of the story, the short suspense novel, “The Blank Wall” started life as a short story in the Saturday Evening Post, and along the way attracted the admiring attention of Raymond Chandler and Alfred Hitchcock. Author Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s work is now recognized for its excellence and originality but unfortunately, she never lived to experience that recognition. Similarly, this film was remade in 2001 with Tilda Swinton as The Deep End. However, this film has a stronger reputation, despite being rarely seen. The beginning did not seem auspicious: Its first preview screening was a setback from the start, necessitating strategic editing and artistic trade-offs:

The preview of the film was a disaster. Columbia took the print to a suburban theater where everything went wrong. The picture broke and several minutes were taken to splice it. Then, when the movie began to unreel, the sound track and the picture were out of synchronization and the words didn't match the lip movements. By the time they re-synched the movie, half the audience had left and any suspense that might have been generated was lost. (TVGUIDE.Com)

Despite all the squabbling over art and commerce that commenced between the director and the producer, Wanger and Ophuls managed to forge a working relationship. Lutz Bacher’s excellent work, Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios, describes it this way:

“According to Mason, Ophuls agreed with a common assessment of Wanger “as a man who talked good pictures and made bad ones as a general rule” while Wanger worried about Ophuls’ artistic ambitions resulting only in succes d’estime. “’ Writer Robert Soderberg believed that Max Ophuls was trying to make an American picture, hoping to find success in Hollywood, which he had not had up to that time. There was a feeling that his camera work was too arty, too unconventional. In his writers Ophuls had two experienced professionals: Soderberg and Hank Garson, the authors of a sly satirical CBS radio program, “Junior Miss.” They proved to have a good hand with this melodrama, which is a classic “lady in a jam” film. Ophuls was also a very thoughtful director who befriended his writers and attempted to get his way without pushing, typically offering encouragement and suggestions. Soderberg described it as a “sunny experience.”

Generally, the set of The Reckless Moment was a typically Ophuls one in its professionalism, speed and European approach: warmer and more personal, with a distinct flair for vivid camera work, which James Mason celebrated in this little verse:

“A shot that does not call for tracks, it is agony for poor dear Max,
Who separated from his dolly, is wrapped in deepest melancholy”

Craft and finely tuned performances mark this neglected classic.


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Madame De...

What a glorious, elegant film Max Ophuls created in THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE! 1953 found the director between two stunning films: LA RONDE (1950) and LOLA MONTES (1955), but this film perfectly expresses Ophuls’ mastery of the camera and his expression of a woman’s spirit, for which he is rightly celebrated. At one time, his genius was unappreciated; he was called a mere stylist and overly concerned with visuals. His films are exquisitely beautiful, yes; this one features a woman of surpassing grace and loveliness: Danielle Darrieux, still a working actress, now in her 90s.

Darrieux’s Louise is a foolish woman, but very fond, and as such, her life is all sentiment while her husband, the General, (Charles Boyer) is sentimental about only one thing: his beloved wife. She has every material pleasure: the opening sequence is a superb example of Ophuls’ craft. A slender gloved hand caresses each of her possessions in a sumptuous closet – the lady has a dilemma, and there our story begins. Like Emma Bovary, Louise spends too much, but her heart is free. Her world rather anticipates and expects that a woman will have dalliances, but love will be her undoing. Mary Ann Doane astutely points out that the adulterous woman, Ophuls’ definitive character, “does not presuppose that the protagonist is characterized as villainous. Rather, her sexual deviation from a norm is usually quite clearly socially imposed. A rigorous and unrelenting social order governs her options…Hence the spectator is persuaded not to castigate the woman but to sympathize with her…” (Doane 129).

It is strange indeed that this film has been, like all Ophuls’ films, rather neglected. The restoration by Janus Films has long been hoped for by the devoted among the critical establishment: David Thomson writes very passionately about his discovery of Ophuls as a young student viewing LOLA MONTES. He states,” …Max Ophuls is one of the greatest of film directors. He is frivolous only if it is frivolous to be obsessed by the gap between the ideal and the reality of love” (Thomson 668). And I think this quote by J. Hoberman of The Village Voice is particularly wonderful: “He taught the camera to waltz, often through a 19th-century city that, no matter its name, seems a glittering simulation of the Hapsburg capital.” As the camera swirls and glides, we see why he also describes Ophuls as a Viennese, with a charm and sophistication that characterizes all his films; the director was actually a German who made films in France, then the US and back again, not unlike his fellow and kindred spirit, Jean Renoir. While both men’s American films were respected, it is his last, greatest French films which command our attention.

Again, from Hoberman, who, along with Pauline Kael, Richard Roud and Andrew Sarris is a great admirer of this film:

"Has there ever been so shallow a character whose fate is so tragic? Playing opposite two aging matinee idols, Darrieux is a natural coquette—not above strategic fainting spells—and undeniably lovely. With her upswept hair, bare shoulders, and impeccable posture, she blossoms from her gown like a single tulip in an Art Nouveau vase. Ophuls famously directed Darrieux to "incarnate a void," and one of the movie's great shots makes this literal (and also emphatic as, rather than moving his camera, Ophuls employs the motion of an object within the frame" (Hoberman). I take issue, though, with Hoberman on one thing: she is undeniably the flirt and a spendthrift, but love transforms Louise: consumed by longing, watching her passionately kiss the earrings, much traveled and traded, is to see her fully alive at last, even as she sickens and literally dies of heartbreak.And those diamond hearts, now under glass on the saint's altar where she left them as a plea for her lover's life, are no longer trafficked, but like their owner, made sacred.

I can't believe a year has gone by since I last posted. I'll do better this year...

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