- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

The rise of Adolf Hitler compelled several famous movie directors to restart their careers in exile. In the case of Max Ophuls (1902-1957), whose sojourn in Hollywood is the subject of a series that continues this afternoon at the National Gallery of Art and concludes next Sunday, the exile split his career into four phases with a triumphant backtracking finale.

The future film director was born Max Oppenheimer in Saarbrucken, Germany, and changed his last name when attracted to the theater. He hoped to spare his father, a garment manufacturer, social embarrassment if the stage failed to pan out. On the contrary, it led to prolific success as a director during the 1920s, predominantly in Vienna. A cautious entry into the movie business followed after the advent of talkies. Mr. Ophuls initially worked as a dialogue director for a Russian transplant, Anatole Litvak, at the UFA studios in Berlin. Recruited by Warner Bros. after the international success of his “Mayerling” in 1936, Mr. Litvak would later abet Mr. Ophuls’ move from Switzerland to the United States.

Mr. Ophuls completed four features in Germany before relocating to France, where he completed nine films and became a citizen in 1938. The Nazi invasion drove him into exile in Switzerland, where he resumed theatrical projects until his departure for America. Although two prestigious French directors, Jean Renoir and Rene Clair, had resumed work in Hollywood during World War II, Mr. Ophuls met with repeated setbacks. His Hollywood phase kicked in belatedly with a Douglas Fairbanks Jr. swashbuckler, “The Exile,” in 1947.

Then came a flurry of ominously impressive romantic melodramas — “Letter From an Unknown Woman” in 1948, “Caught” and “The Reckless Moment” a year later — that left a lasting impression with admirers despite scant impact at the box office. This trio also anticipated the thematic preoccupations and stylistic assurance of the last phase of Mr. Ophuls’ career. He returned to France for an evocative and inimitable quartet of romantic costume melodramas that peaked with a superlative fable of upper-class adultery and marital estrangement, “The Earrings of Madame de … ,” in 1953.

The National Gallery has already screened “The Exile” and “The Reckless Moment,” astutely updated a few years ago as the suspense thriller “The Deep End.” A revival of “Letter From an Unknown Woman,” the abiding critical favorite among Mr. Ophuls’ Hollywood movies, is scheduled for today at 4:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the East Building. “Caught” is booked for the same hour on April 27. Both programs are free. Revealing firsthand accounts of these pictures may be found in John Houseman’s memoir “Front and Center” and Arthur Laurents’ autobiography “Original Story.” Mr. Houseman was the producer of “Unknown Woman” and Mr. Laurents the screenwriter of “Caught.”

Familiarity with “Madame de …,” Mr. Ophuls’ crowning masterpiece, should enhance retrospective fondness for the American pictures, which foreshadowed aspects of its heartbreaking plot and pictorial finesse. Derived from a Stefan Zweig book, “Unknown Woman” recalls pivotal events in a lifelong, ill-fated infatuation. The object of adoration is a concert pianist, Stefan Brand, played by Louis Jourdan. His lovelorn conquest, Joan Fontaine’s Lisa, acquires her passion in adolescence and clings to it despite a privileged marriage and the crushing revelation that her great love has forgotten her existence.

Similar humiliations await the heroines of “Caught” and “Madame de … ,” although the former has a contemporary social setting and allows leading lady Barbara Bel Geddes to survive a sinister misalliance. Her mismate is a psychotic industrialist played by Robert Ryan, whose flair for homicidal or self-destructive undercurrents was scintillating in the late 1940s. His character, Smith Ohlrig, sported a facetious last name that didn’t quite square with the business interests of his real-life model, Howard Hughes. Mr. Laurents had been encouraged to fashion a caricature of Mr. Hughes by the director, unceremoniously sacked a couple of years earlier from a Hughes debacle titled “Vendetta.” This remains the sorriest movie ever attributed in part to a pair of great directors, Max Ophuls and Preston Sturges, both of whom got the sack.

Once alienated from her rich, spiteful, unstable spouse, Miss Bel Geddes’ character is rescued by James Mason as a dedicated pediatrician in a Manhattan slum neighborhood. As a matter of fact, he came to the rescue of successive Ophuls heroines in “Caught” and “The Reckless Moment.” In the latter, he martyrs himself by protecting Joan Bennett from a lurid blackmail scheme.

“Caught” boasts a lovely interlude in which Mr. Mason and Miss Bel Geddes share a dance at a nightclub. Their movements around the crowded floor culminate in his marriage proposal. Years later, Mr. Ophuls elaborated this disarming love scene into his greatest virtuoso sequence: an overlapping cascade of ballroom embraces shared by Danielle Darrieux as Madame de … and Vittorio De Sica as her new lover. Their mutual attraction surges from flirtation to intoxication as they waltz around the dance floor at five successive balls. It’s the ultimate breathtaking Ophuls set piece, and its brilliance owes something to the opportunities he finally was able to exploit as a wayfarer in Hollywood.

TITLE: “Letter From an Unknown Woman”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Released in 1948, two decades before the advent of the film rating system; adult subject matter)

CREDITS: Directed by Max Ophuls. Produced by John Houseman. Screenplay by Howard Koch, based on the novel by Stefan Zweig.

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes

TITLE: “Caught”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Released in 1949;adult subject matter)

CREDITS: Directed by Max Ophuls. Produced by Wolfgang Reinhardt. Screenplay by Arthur Laurents.

RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes


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