Friday, October 10, 2008

La Ronde (1950): Ophüls Visits the Past

I adore the past. It is so much more restful than the present. And so much more reliable than the future. ~ The narrator of La Ronde (1950)

Ain't it the truth! And no one knew how to bring the real, remembered and imagined past to vivid, extravagant life on screen quite like Max Ophüls. In the course of a brief, peripatetic lifetime, the director Max Ophüls, born in 1902 in Alsace-Lorraine of Jewish descent, tried as best he could to outrace the overwhelming tide of history. He forged a career in the theatre and the movies, dodged the Nazis, and made his way out of Europe to Hollywood. There he almost starved for years while waiting for a job, but survived the studio system, producing a few gems in the process.
Of the Hollywood films, one was a bright entertainment, the unjustly neglected The Exile with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in 1947.

Two were flawed but engaging attempts at film noirs, Caught (1949) with Robert Ryan,  and The Reckless Moment (1949) both starred James Mason at the start of his U.S. career. In the latter film Ophüls also evoked a fine performance as a desperate, respectable housewife from one of the most interesting actresses of the '40s, Joan Bennett. The director also made one possible masterpiece, Letter from an Unknown Woman in 1948 with Joan Fontaine.

While waiting for his friend and then MGM producer John Houseman to find financing for a proposed biography of Edgar Degas that might have featured dancers Leslie Caron and Cyd Charisse, the director returned to postwar Europe. Ophüls took all his pent-up creativity, the polished techniques he'd absorbed and hoped to translate to the screen back to France, where the film industry was struggling to be reborn. There, on a shoestring budget not evident on the screen, he adapted the controversial, sexually frank play Reigen,  by the early 20th century Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler....More on the TCM Movie Morlocks


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