The Noir Vision of Max Ophüls, Romantic Fatalist
Max Ophüls, born Maximillian Oppenheimer on 6 May 1902, Saarbrücken, Germany, was a director known primarily for his romance films, often with sweeping tracking shots, and often taking place in the past. Ophüls’ luxurious camera style is evident in such superb romance films as Letter from An Unknown Woman (1948), with Louis Jourdan as Stefan Brand, a ne’er do well pianist who seduces and then abandons a young woman, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), and pays for his crime in a dueling match; La Ronde (1950), a sex comedy based on Arthur Schnitzler’s eponymous play, in which lovers float from one affair to the next with delightful abandon; Madame de… (1953), another romance film in which a spoiled Countess (Danielle Darrieux) engages in an extra-marital dalliance, highlighted by Ophüls’ trademark “waltzing camera” technique, and his penchant for long takes; and his final film, the Technicolor and CinemaScope extravaganza Lola Montès (1955), based on the life of a notorious courtesan who eventually winds up as the main attraction in a circus sideshow.
Ophüls started directing films in 1931, scoring an early success with his romantic drama Liebelei (1933), completing a total of eighteen films in Germany and France between 1931 and 1940. While these films, especially Liebelei, gesture towards his later, more mature work, Ophüls was still establishing himself. The director made only two true noir films in his long and distinguished career, back to back: Caught (1948) and The Reckless Moment (1949), both from his brief period in the United States.
To this most European and continental director, for whom romance was a sacred trust, with the camera revealing the innermost workings of the hearts of his characters, these two noirs were a distinct departure from his earlier work, and stand out as near aberrations in the director’s long and illustrious career. But they were created out of necessity, not design, for Ophüls never really wanted to come to Hollywood in the first place.
Instead, like so many other gifted filmmakers of the era, Ophüls landed in Hollywood during the 1940s much against his will, after fleeing from Germany in 1933 to France in order to avoid the rise of the Nazis. As a Jew, Ophüls had good reason to fear Hitler’s regime, and although he became a French citizen in 1938, when Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940, Ophüls was forced to flee again, moving through Switzerland to Italy, and arriving in the United States in 1941. Coming to the United States was thus not a conscious decision to move to Hollywood; it was, rather, an event necessitated by the simple desire to survive. Ophüls was simply not an “organization man,” but rather an individualist who adapted very uneasily to the American studio system.
Already established as a director in Europe, and admired by the cinematic cognoscenti in the United States, Ophüls nevertheless found it impossible to get work in Hollywood until noir director Robert Siodmak, another refugee from Hitler’s Germany, interceded on Ophüls’ behalf (see Keser), with the result being the decidedly peculiar The Exile (1947), starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and the erstwhile “Queen of Technicolor,” Maria Montez. This odd costume drama of the life and loves of a courtesan, scripted by Fairbanks with an uncredited assist from Aeneas MacKenzie and Clemence Dane, is almost a black and white dry run for Ophüls’ final film, Lola Montes, but certainly can’t be qualified as a noir.
The film was successful, however, and led to Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), a tragic romance for which Ophüls’ delicate sensibility was uniquely qualified, and which remained his biggest American hit. Even in this film, which certainly doesn’t qualify as an out and out noir, destiny is tragic; promising pianist Stefan Brand squanders his career with reckless extravagance and unrelenting womanizing. Brand is so caught up in the trajectory of own unending search for momentary pleasure that he ignores the genuine affection of Lisa, setting the stage for the both Lisa and Stefan’s premature death.
Ophüls’ final two American films were Caught and The Reckless Moment, both made in 1949, both noirs, and both starring James Mason, before Ophüls returned to Europe, and his true métier, the period romance. Caught and The Reckless Moment are curious films, unlike other American noirs of the period, and reminiscent in their poetic approach the cinema to Jean Renoir’s hallucinatory and brilliant Woman on the Beach (1947), another noir by a director fleeing the Third Reich.
Caught tells the story of a young and somewhat naïve fashion model, Leonora Ames (Barbara Bel Geddes), who impulsively and for reasons that are never really made clear marries manic multi-millionaire industrialist Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan). Signs of Ohlrig’s psychotic personality are evident from his first appearance in the film, but Leonora, wrapped up in her own dreams of romantic escape from her rather drab life, doesn’t seem to notice.
Almost immediately after the wedding, Ohlrig begins acting in a highly possessive and abusive manner, and yet Leonora stays with him, until finally she can stand no more, and walks out of Ohlrig’s life and into an affair with Dr. Larry Quinada (Mason), who works in a free health clinic in a rundown part of town. Dr. Quinada is everything that Ohlrig is not; patient, kind, considerate, and altruistic. Ohlrig is greed and brutality incarnate, and the most entertaining part of the film is watching Ryan devour his role with obvious relish, playing up Ohlrig’s megalomania for all its worth. Caught was a modest success, enhanced considerably by Lee Garmes’ atmospheric lighting, and Ophüls’ incessantly dollying camerawork, which by this time had become his trademark.
Caught was based on a novel by Libbie Block, which reportedly used the film producer and aviator Howard Hughes as the basis of Ohlrig’s ruthless, monomaniacal character. Here, the director was working at least partially from personal experience. There was little love lost between Ophüls and Hughes, as Hughes had fired Ophüls from the director’s chair on the revenge melodrama Vendetta, which began filming under Hughes’ supervision in 1946, but was not released until 1950. Amazingly, directors Preston Sturges, Stuart Heisler, Mel Ferrer and Hughes himself all took turns helming Vendetta, which opened to disastrous reviews and negligible box-office.
Mason was toplined in Ophüls’ next production, The Reckless Moment, appearing opposite noir stalwart Joan Bennett. Produced by Bennett’s husband, Walter Wanger, The Reckless Moment tells the rather improbable tale of Lucia Harper (Bennett), who becomes tangled in a web of lies and deceit when she tries to cover up for her daughter, Bea (Geraldine Fitzgerald), whom she believes to be guilty of the murder of her sleazy boyfriend Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick).
Ted is a complete cad; he’s so thoroughly rotten that he actually tells Lucia that he’ll drop Bea in return for a cash consideration, but Lucia refuses to pay him. Lucia then tells Bea of Ted’s request, but Bea refuses to believe her. That night, Ted clandestinely meets Bea in the family boathouse. When Bea confronts him with Lucia’s story, Ted casually admits the truth of it, and Bea takes a swipe at him with a heavy flashlight, grazing him. Bea runs away, but Ted makes a wrong turn coming out of the boathouse, and falls off the landing, fatally impaling himself on an anchor.
The next morning, Lucia discovers the body, and disposes of both it and the anchor in the bay. Ted’s body’s is eventually found, but with nothing to link Bea or Lucia to the corpse, Lucia thinks she’s managed to cover up her daughter’s “crime.” But Bea and Ted had been carrying on a correspondence, and the love letters fall into the hands of confidence man Martin Donnelly (Mason), who tries to blackmail Lucia. But, in the odd sort of twist that could only happen in the films of an incurable romantic like Ophüls, Donnelly finds himself falling in love with Lucia, and thinks better of the idea.
Even more peculiarly, Donnelly finds himself attracted to Lucia because she apparently – or so he says – resembles his mother. However, Donnelly’s silent partner, the mysterious Nagle (veteran supporting actor Roy Roberts, in a standout performance), unmoved by Donnelly’s change of heart, emerges from the shadows to demand the cash from Lucia. Outraged, Donnelly summarily murders Nagel, and then stuffs Nagel’s body into his car and flees, before deliberately crashing the car into a fence post. Lucia follows Donnelly to the crash scene and with his dying breath, Donnelly returns Bea and Ted’s letters to Lucia. When the police arrive on the scene, Donnelly, with his last breath, “confesses” to Ted’s murder. Lucia, it seems, can now return to her life as it was before.
Both films were modest successes, but neither had the box-office clout of Letter from an Unknown Woman, and despite his best intentions, Ophüls was never cut out to be a Hollywood contract director. In both films, the action moves along as if all the characters are in a dream, and Ophüls’ luxuriant and deeply romantic camerawork seems almost at odds with the material, as if he’s standing back from the action and observing it, rather than participating in the world his characters inhabit.
Ophüls is simply not at home in Hollywood, seemingly forcing his own vision into films that in the hands of other, more resigned or quotidian genre craftsmen, would have become simple exercises in melodrama. As always, Ophüls covers most of the film’s action in a series of lengthy, fluid tracking shots, which only adds to the peculiarly hallucinatory nature of both films. Indeed, James Mason, amused at how many tracking shots both films contained, famously composed a brief poem in honor of Ophüls’ stylistic penchant, which reads:
A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he’d never smile again.
Ophüls knew a great deal about the dark side of human nature, as his many romantic tragedies amply demonstrate. But he was not a truly noir director; rather, he was a romantic from another era who took these two projects on as work that he could do, and get paid for. He then immediately decamped to Europe with the proceeds, determined to make the sort of films he’d made his reputation with, before the Nazis came to power. And, indeed, these American films form a curious interlude in the director’s career as a whole; he was much more at home in the continental atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Europe, and never really comfortable with the modern world.
Ophüls would live until 1957, and make only four more films; they are among the most sublime in cinema history: La Ronde, Le Plaisir, Madame de… and Lola Montès. These are films of passionate romance, a world away from the two American noirs Ophüls created, which remain peculiarly his own, a mixture of passion and old-world style. And yet even in these films, human weakness, failure of character, and the caprices of fate play an undeniable role; in Lola Montès, as noted above, the leading character (played by Martine Carol) is reduced to reliving her scandalous career as a circus sideshow attraction, under the exploitational guidance of ringmaster Peter Ustinov, who presents her as a “freak,” out of touch with the world, trapped by her own past.
Never in the best of health, Ophüls died at the age of 54 of heart failure; his films represent a splendid embrace of style, romance, energy, and an embrace of the past, particularly nineteenth century Vienna. As the on-screen narrator (Anton Walbrook) of La Ronde tells the audience directly (breaking the fourth wall) during the opening minutes of the film, “I adore the past. It is so much more restful than the present, and so much more certain than the future.” This sums up Ophüls’ approach to life, and to the cinema, in one elegant, epigrammatic phrase.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series New Perspectives on World Cinema for Anthem Press, London. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); A History of Horror (2010), and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon’s book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; the book is a required text in universities throughout the world.
Works Cited and Consulted
Bacher, Lutz (1996), Max Ophüls in the Hollywood Studios. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Bourget, Jean-Loup (2004), “Ophüls and Renoir,” The Arizona Quarterly, 60.5, pp. 127-148.
Keser, Robert (2006), “The Exile”, Senses of Cinema, 39, May.
Sharrett, Christopher (2011), “False Criticism: Cinema, Bourgeois Society, and the Conservative Complaint”, Film International, April 18.
White, Susan M. (1995), The Cinema of Max Ophüls: Magisterial Vision and the Figure of Woman, New York, NY: Columbia University Press.