Max Ophüls, the supreme romantic visual stylist of the cinema, and a master of the tracking shot, was perhaps the most European and continental director who ever worked in Hollywood, for whom romance was a sacred trust, and the camera revealed the innermost workings of the hearts of his characters. Yet this was just a small part of his career.
Born Maximillian Oppenheimer on 6 May 1902, Saarbrücken, Germany, Ophüls 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 (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, never in the best of health, 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 19th 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.
Ophüls started directing films in 1931, scoring an early success with his romantic drama Liebelei (1933), directing a total of eighteen films in Germany and France between 1931 and 1940. But Ophüls was always on the move; he found himself 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 for his life again, moving through Switzerland to Italy, and arriving in the United States in 1941.
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.
This set the stage for Ophüls’ final two American films, 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 filmic romance. Caught and The Reckless Moment are curious films, unlike other American noirs of the period, and reminiscent in their poetic approach to the cinema to Jean Renoir’s brilliant Woman on the Beach (1947), another noir by a director fleeing the Third Reich.
Caught tells the story of a young and somewhat naive 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). 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 runs a free health clinic in a rundown part of town. However, after a brief fling with Ohlrig that lasts only a single night, Leonora becomes pregnant by him, but this plot complication is solved by a convenient miscarriage at the end of the film. 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 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. 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, after directors Preston Sturges, Stuart Heisler, Mel Ferrer and Hughes himself all took turns helming the project, which opened to disastrous reviews and negligible box-office. Caught was a modest success, enhanced considerably by Lee Garmes’ moody lighting, and Ophüls’ incessantly dollying camerawork, which by this time had become his trademark.
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 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 has followed Donnelly to the crash scene. With his dying breath, Donnelly returns Bea and Ted’s letters to Lucia, and when the police arrive on the scene, “confesses” to Ted’s murder. Lucia, it seems, can now return to her life as it was before. And you thought your life was complicated!
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 noir 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. And, as always, he 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 in part:
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 was a brilliant director, and he certainly knew a great deal about the dark side of human nature, as his many romantic tragedies amply demonstrate. But he was not a 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 of his American films, determined to make the sort of films he’d made his reputation with, before the Nazis came to power. He would make only four more films, and they are among the most sublime in cinema history: La Ronde, Le Plaisir, Madame de… and Lola Montès. All are films of sublime romance, a world away from the two American noirs Ophüls created, which remain peculiarly his own, a mixture of passion and old-world style.