Max Ophuls | The Exile | Letter From an Unknown Woman | Caught | La Ronde | Madame de... | Lola Montès | Bibliography
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Max Ophuls directed films in Europe and the United States.
Here is a checklist of features that occur in many of Ophuls' films:
Naturally, these do not all occur in every Ophuls film.
The Exile (1947) is Ophuls' first American film. It is a remarkably graceful and beautiful movie.
The Exile seems to be little known today. It never seems to show up in retrospectives or nostalgia celebrations. When its star Douglas Fairbanks Jr. died, it was not mentioned in any of the obituaries I saw, even though it is one of his best movies. His gem with Alfred Green, Union Depot (1931) wasn't mentioned either. Members of the news media seem to be ill-informed about the history of film.
Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) is one of Ophuls' most beautiful romances.
This film is constructed of three long episodes, each from a different era in the heroine's life. This gives it a structure similar to those of Ophuls' later French films.
Ophuls uses many panning shots. These are rarely simple pans, turning from left to right or back. Instead, they are very flexible. Ophuls' characters often go up or down staircases. The pans can gently tilt upward or downward, keeping the character in the center of the shot while traversing the staircase. The staircases here are often just a series of short steps, leading from one level to another. The transitions and the pans are correspondingly small and graceful. Characters also frequently move around within a location, such as the businessman endlessly fussing around the train station. Ophuls' camera pans back and forth with this man, as he moves restlessly through the crowd.
Some elements here echo in a minor way Ernst Lubitsch's The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), a film version of an operetta by Oscar Strauss, who would go on to write the music for La Ronde. The Smiling Lieutenant takes place in old Vienna, the setting of many later Ophuls works. Its heroine is the leader of an all woman band of musicians in a beer garden; such a female band will reappear in Letter From an Unknown Woman. The hero plays the piano in both films. The heroine of The Smiling Lieutenant must leave the hero. She watches him for one last time by moving to the upper landing of the staircase in his apartment building, and looking down on him at the door of his apartment. This anticipates the famous scenes of the heroine on the upper landing in Letter From an Unknown Woman.
The Smiling Lieutenant perhaps influenced other Ophuls films, too. The King here is a distinguished looking, gorgeously uniformed, but dumb and easily manipulated middle-aged man. He anticipates Anton Walbrook's character in Lola Montès. There is a scene early in The Smiling Lieutenant where a succession of functionaries take turns in delivering a telegram to the King. Such comic chains of functionaries return in the thread scene of Lola Montès.
Other Lubitsch films sometimes contain the persistent objects that run through Ophuls movies. These include the purse in Trouble in Paradise, Horton's remark about "three square meals a day" in Design for Living, and the jewels in Ninotchka.
Although at first glance a typical Hollywood movie with a unified plot and characters, Caught has structural similarities to such episodic Ophuls works as La Ronde. Characters appear and disappear here, just as in the later anthology film. Often times some of the most interesting characters in Caught appear in just a single scene, such as the psychiatrist. The heroine's girl friend and confidant disappears completely less than half way through the movie, never to be seen again. In La Ronde, characters disappear when their episodes end. These vanishings leave an odd emotional effect there, but they seem even funnier in a narrative work like Caught. Locations too show up, play a major role, then completely vanish again. Often times we only get tantalizing glimpses of them, such as the yacht or Ryan's L.A. mansion. They hold out temporary interest to the heroine and to us in the audience, but they are never seen again. Just as in La Ronde, the characters are always late and life is always slipping by them, so too does every thing rush by and vanish in Caught.
Many of the encounters in Caught are between two people, just as in La Ronde. The characters often discuss their intimate feelings about romantic encounters in such sessions, in both films. Group life tends to be largely absent here. There are no sustaining communal traditions, of the sort one might find in John Ford.
The heroine of Caught oscillates between two men. This gives it similarities with La Ronde, whose characters are often changing partners. Despite her denials, the heroine's motivations in Caught are often less then idealistic; this too links her with the characters in the later film.
If people often disappear in Ophuls' films, objects often stay, even after we wish they would disappear. The fur coat desired by the heroine in the opening scene of Caught keeps returning in the film, as a symbol of the folly of the heroine's desires. Its return suggests the inescapability of a reckoning for the heroine and the bad choices she has made. It manages to persist right to the final shot of the film, even after the heroine herself has vanished from the movie. In this, it anticipates the earrings of Madame de ... (1953), which also endlessly turn up in the film, in an ever more tragic context. Both objects are expensive presents given to women by men in return for their sexual favors, including marriage. Ophuls suggests that there is something wrong with both prostitution and rich people's marriage in these works, as both depend on economic transactions, in which women are bought by the men.
Young people today probably have little understanding of the now mercifully vanished mythology of the mink coat. When I was a kid in the 1950's, American TV sit-coms endlessly promoted the idea that what women wanted more than anything else was a mink coat. This very expensive object was given by well to do men as a present to their wives or girl-friends, always as some sort of financial reward to the woman in return for being their sex partner. Crime films always showed mobsters giving their molls mink coats. Wealthy husbands gave them to their wives, often after much scheming and wheedling by the wife. Even in the sexist 1950's, there was always something sleazy and ominous about the whole concept. Such films as Caught and Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) managed to exploit this ready-made bit of American folk culture to express the most terrifying critiques of people's behavior. Alfred Hitchcock gave a more comic look at this subject in his TV show "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat" (1960). These works by prestige directors are only the tip of the iceberg, on the subject of the mink coat. I have no statistics on the subject, but suspect that a complete inventory of the era's TV and radio programs would turn up over a hundred examples. Thankfully today, the women's movement has alerted everybody to richer possibilities in women's lives than getting presents from men.
Caught (1949) resembles Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), especially that film's second half, which deals with the marriage of Kane and Susan. Both films show a domineering rich man married to a poor woman. Both show him tyrannizing her, being a control freak and organizing every aspect of her life. In both films, the woman becomes a virtual prisoner in a huge mansion, a mansion built on a massive scale that dwarfs its human inhabitants. Both mansions express great wealth without joy. They are all formal magnificence without any sense of pleasure. In both homes, there is a major domo with a foreign accent and a sardonic, cynical sense of humor, a man with much more actual independence than the wife. In both films, the husband suffers a serious health crisis. Both films offer a thinly disguised portraits of real media moguls of the day: Kane of newspaper man William Randolph Hearst, Caught of film producer Howard Hughes. Both films have a left wing point of view; both contain a critique of capitalism and capitalists in their negative portrayal of the rich. Both of these men started out by inheriting great fortunes; both went on to even bigger financial adventures. Both films use newspapers to tell part of their story.
There are some differences between the two films. Caught is set entirely in the present, unlike Kane, and it lacks the intricate flashback structure of Kane, being told in a linear, straightforward way. The film is as episodic as Kane, however. The relationship is also a bit different in the two films, with the millionaire in Caught being actually abusive of his wife in a direct way, whereas Kane is more purely obsessively domineering. While the man in Kane is emotionally disturbed, the man in Caught is a full fledged crackpot, consistent with what we all know about Howard Hughes. The couple in Kane married out of love, while the couple in Caught married for money and spite.
The noble doctor sequences of Caught also resemble a previous film, Irving Pichel's And Now Tomorrow (1944), an under rated work whose screenplay is partly by Raymond Chandler. In that film, rich society women Loretta Young finds meaning in life by working as assistant to noble doctor Alan Ladd, who specializes in treatment of the poor. This is similar to the relationship between the wife and the doctor in the second half of Caught. Both films contain a similar sequence of going to the house of a poor kid, and offering emergency medical treatment. Somehow, while I found And Now Tomorrow touching, I have never been able to respond to the similar material in Caught. While Ladd plays a man from a poor background and who is definitely of working class origin, James Mason's doctor is obviously a member of the British upper crust.
Caught is frequently referred to as a film noir. I find that that is really stretching the term. Unlike most noir films, Caught is not a crime story; it is instead a romantic drama. There are no crime elements whatsoever to Caught. There is no crime, mystery, criminal characters, violence or suspense passages. There are a few moments towards the end where it looks as if Ryan's millionaire is going to erupt in violence, but nothing of the kind ever actually occurs. The film is entirely in the tradition of romantic drama. It has considerable social commentary, like many such romantic films: see the works of Douglas Sirk, for instance. The visual style of Caught is also distinct from film noir. It lacks the high contrast photography, night for night sequences, and elaborate shadow effects of much noir.
The similarity of Caught to Citizen Kane suggests a distant relationship of the movie to film noir. Kane is often justly cited as one of the ancestors of film noir. It is a non-crime movie whose visual stylistic and flashback storytelling features are ancestral to those of film noir. Since Caught is a film directly in the tradition of Kane, it can be considered a sort of first cousin to film noir.
Caught does show the obsession that Alain Silver has defined as one of the key elements of noir. This is especially true of Robert Ryan's millionaire. Since Ryan is one of the icons of film noir, his episodes in the film do tend to have a bit of a noir like quality. The duel between honest working man Mason and powerful rich sinister guy played by Ryan anticipates the similar Mitchum-Ryan contest in John Cromwell's The Racket (1951). This also gives the film a noir-like feel.
Caught is one of several films, mainly film noir, which take its heroes to a nightclub with black people. One thinks immediately of William Castle's When Strangers Marry (1944) and Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947). All of these films are made by liberals who wanted to help integrate the screen, and give more dignified roles to black people. Caught is less forceful than these films, which gave speaking roles to black characters, and whose night club scenes served as virtually little mini-documentaries, showing the real, non-stereotyped world of black New Yorkers for almost the first time on any movie screen. However, if Caught is less innovative, its dance sequence comes from the same spirit of pro-Civil Rights activism. Here, the black musicians play as hero James Mason proposes to the heroine. They suggest that he is part of the great democratic masses of the people, not a member of the elite.
La Ronde (1950) is one of cinema's most avant-garde works. Few films are so playful with the boundary between illusion and artifice. The narrator of the film talks directly to the camera, alters the events of the story, and does things that symbolically, not literally, depict the action. All of this is delightful. However, such actions are huge no-no's in terms of today's Hollywood films, which always seem to take a painfully literal approach to everything. The freedom of La Ronde seems wonderful compared to the commercial control that is exercised over today's product.
The structure of La Ronde will recur in the circus scenes of Lola Montès. There, however, the structure is less explicitly avant-garde. Instead of a master of ceremonies, associated with the film, talking directly to the camera, we will have the circus' ringmaster, talking to the circus' audience. This commentary often gives new perspectives on the action, both emotional and intellectual. The separate episodes of the film, which in La Ronde are explicitly set forth as chapters of the film, in Lola Montès are disguised as flashbacks, memories of the heroine. While the structure of the two films is virtually identical, everything in the latter is made to conform, however loosely, with the realistic conventions of commercial cinema.
The way the master of ceremonies in La Ronde talks to the audience and arranges the action, recalls the stage manager in Thornton Wilder's play Our Town (1938). The contemporary Australian made film, The Sum of Us (Kevin Dowling, Geoff Burton, 1995), has characters who take time out from the action to directly address the audience, and comment on the film's events.
Much of the visual style of La Ronde resembles Josef von Sternberg. The carousel recalls the roulette wheel of Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture. Both are circular machines. The revolution of both suggests awesome forces at work in the world, stirring up the lives and emotions of the characters. The revolving circus show of Ophuls' Lola Montès (1955) is also in this tradition.
Other features of Ophuls' films recall those of Sternberg. Both were deeply oriented towards romance, and the relations between men and women. Both filmmakers' works fall into the genre of romantic dramas. Both have plenty of irony, wit, and sophisticated comedy relief. Both often made costume dramas. Both filmmakers featured exotic backgrounds, sumptuously presented, that aided their creation of a rich visual style. Both often featured rich costumes. The men in both often have a military connection, and wear a very fancy uniform; the women are often either entertainers, or "fallen women". All of these male and female roles have a strong association with romance and sexuality, something both filmmakers develop to the max. After all, these are romantic dramas, and any suggestion of romantic potential is to be highlighted. Both filmmakers include plenty of songs and musical interludes in their films, even though both only on rare occasions made actual musicals.
Above all, there is a similarity in the visual style of the two directors. Ophuls' tracking shots recall those of Sternberg. Both tend to be lateral, following the characters along walls or paths; both often follow their characters along stairways. Both are designed to show much beautiful imagery along the way. The shots contain elaborate compositions, compositions that unroll along the screen like an unreeling scroll. Both use elaborate material in both the background - the wall behind the characters - and foreground - material placed in front of the characters' path - to help create these compositions. Both will use netting, scrolls, doors and other semi-transparent materials through which they shoot the characters. Such material is also integrated into the complex, beautiful compositions of the shots.
Camera movement is used almost continually in this film. Few of the shots even make sense unless one is conscious of the beautiful camera movements that create them. One sense Ophuls breaking free here, and creating a film exactly as he wishes. La Ronde is a film about the beauty and possibilities of camera movement. It is the center and heart of the film.
Some of the camera movements in La Ronde are linked to discussions in the dialogue. These discussions are often logical arguments, in which a character sets forth an idea, point by point. Each stage of the discussion is linked to a new area revealed by the moving camera. The ideas in the dialogue and the images revealed by the camera counterpoint each other, illuminating each other's concepts. This same approach will often be used in the circus scenes in Lola Montès.
Not only ideas are expressed by the stages of the camera movements, but also the characters' feelings. The different stages of the scene through which the characters walk, often correspond to the emotional progression of the characters, especially their romantic feelings.
When characters vacillate in these arguments, the camera can move back and forth over the same path, reversing and then re-reversing its path of movement, along with the characters. In the first episode, Signoret's attempt to have the soldier come with her involves much such back and forth movement, all tied to different stages in her persuasion of the soldier, who waxes hot and cold in his desire to come with her.
Similarly, some of Walbrook's indecisiveness in the opening monologue is reflected in back and forth movements of his character, accompanied by the camera. The movement of the camera reflects a witty commentary on this indecisiveness. Its huge movement, with the entire film moving back and forth to reflect tiny indecisions on the part of Walbrook's musings, seems delightfully disproportionate to the significance of what is going on. Yet, there is also something profound about the way the camera captures thought. It is as if the tiniest sensations in the thoughts and feelings of the characters are registered by Ophuls' camera and film frame, ever ready to move with them over the subtlest changes in their minds.
Madame de... (1953) has long been known as The Earrings of Madame de... in English.
The ballroom sequence here, where the characters fall in love, is one of the great set pieces in Ophuls. It shows Ophuls' avant-garde narrative techniques, in which several different scenes are all linked together, and made part of one continuous sequence. It further shows Ophuls' creativity with camera movement.
The recurring refrain in the dialogue, where the heroine's last name is cut off, and all we hear of her name is "Madame de", recalls the constant questions of "What time is it?" in La Ronde.
Madame de... resembles Caught (1949) in terms of plot, structure and characters. Both films:
Lola Montès (1955) is Ophuls' final film. The work allowed Ophuls a chance to work with a big budget and color. Its circus scenes are among the most dazzling in Ophuls' work. This film shares the high quality and artistic originality of La Ronde.
The reversing device has some added meanings in Ophuls, not found in his predecessors. Take the scene where the palace attendants go out for a needle and thread. These start out as an elaborate series of moves through a huge castle. Eventually, the whole tracking shot along the giant palace staircase is repeated in reverse. What starts out as a naturalistic series of moves through the castle turns into a huge "machine". The machine contains the movements of the characters, the movement of the camera, and the building's elaborate architecture. One has a sense of an elaborate, powerful but toy like machine being put into motion. This machine is symbolic of another powerful machine in human lives: sexuality. It recalls a literal machine in La Ronde that symbolized and embodied sexual activity, the carousal of the title. Both machines are large, powerful, but elegant, toy like and not forceful. Both move, but neither goes anywhere: the carousel spins, the attendants go down then up the stairs. While this scene is going on, the audience's thoughts are on what is not being shown: Lola is seducing the King, a most willing seductee. The whole scene is wittily conveying sexual passion, and offering a commentary on its mechanism. In this, the scene is close to the episodes of La Ronde, each of which is also about a passionate encounter. The staircase scene starts out with naturalistic sounds of the palace servants. These are gradually swallowed up in music: the film plays Lola's theme. This theme recalls the carousal music of La Ronde. The music too conveys the effect that the characters are caught up in a beautiful machine. It conveys that sense that something inevitable is happening.
The whole of Lola Montès has a playful quality. The endlessly elaborate camera movements show Ophuls' delight in the possibilities of the moving image. Play is undervalued in modern society. Everyone is supposed to be too serious for it. But the playful quality of this film is linked to its extraordinary creativity. The film is an outpouring of artistic riches. This is made possible by Ophuls playful, creative spirit.
The term "camera movement", treated literally, tells only half the story of what Ophuls is up to in his films. Ophuls is equally interested in the compositions revealed by his camera, as it moves. Each time the camera assumes some new position on the film set, a different composition is created on the screen. These compositions are at the heart of Ophuls' art.
There are many books on Max Ophuls and his work. Lutz Bacher (1941 - ) wrote The Mobile Mise-En-Scène: A Critical Analysis of the Theory and Practice of Long-Take Camera Movement in the Narrative Film (1978) and Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios (1996). The latter is a straightforward, enormously detailed biography covering Max Ophuls' stay in America in the 1940's. It is based on production records and a vast number of interviews with Ophuls' colleagues. It mainly covers Ophuls' work on his films and film projects, offering very detailed looks at the progress of all of Ophuls' Hollywood films.
Alan Larson Williams wrote Max Ophuls and the Cinema of Desire: Style and Spectacle in Four Films, 1948-1955 (Dissertations on Film, 1980) and Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking (Harvard Film Studies) (1992).
Susan M. White wrote The Cinema of Max Ophuls: Magisterial Vision and the Figure of Woman (Film and Culture) (1995). White's book looks at the content of Ophuls' work, especially as it relates to such political issues as the role of women in society.
There is a good short survey of Ophuls' films on-line, by Chris Fujiwara.
Ophuls was celebrated as one of the great directors in the article by François Truffaut that launched the auteur theory, "Une certaine tendance du cinema français" ("A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema") in Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 31, January 1954. His films were also loved by other early French auteurists, such as Jean-Luc Godard. The wonderful book that launched the auteur theory in the English-speaking world, Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema (1968), also did the most to make Ophuls' work visible in that world to a whole generation of film lovers. Sarris placed Ophuls in the top rank of filmmakers, and celebrated Ophuls' work, there and elsewhere, as one of the artistic high points of film history. Without the auteur theory, Ophuls would probably be just another little known, largely forgotten director today. Consequently, everyone who loves Ophuls' work owes a huge debt to auteurists.