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The Noir Vision of Max Ophüls, Romantic Fatalist

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Here’s a new piece I wrote on the American noir films of the great Max Ophüls in Film International.

As I note at the start of my essay, “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.”

You can read the rest of the essay here; my thanks to Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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