Blu-ray: ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ – Olive Signature Edition

Olive Films

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Olive Signature, Blu-ray) (1948), the second Hollywood film by European émigré Max Ophüls (who was credited as Opuls on his American movies), is his first American masterpiece, an exquisitely stylish romantic melodrama (based on a novel by Stefan Zweig) informed by his continental sensibility.

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead,” reads aging bon vivant Louis Jordan from a letter found in his tiny hotel room. Hair tousled and tux tired from yet another night of meaningless flirtation, he’s startled by these opening lines and suspends his preparations to flee a duel to read the history of a love affair that he can’t remember. For the rest of the film we’re transported to the life of Joan Fontaine’s awkward young Viennese woman, hopelessly enthralled by the dashing pianist from adolescence and momentarily his lover, the emotional pinnacle of her life but for the philandering rogue simply another fling in a blur of women passing through his bedroom.

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Blu-ray: ‘Caught’

The American films of German-born filmmaker Max Ophuls have never been as celebrated as his more overtly stylized and seductively romantic French films. That attitude is fed by a sense of ill-treatment by the studios. He dropped the “h” to become Max Opuls in the credits of his Hollywood movies, which can either be seen as an insult to his heritage or simply part of the American assimilation that his fellow immigrants also went through. More defining is Ophuls’ miserable experience on his first American project, Vendetta (1947), a production micromanaged by Howard Hughes, who ultimately fired Ophuls. That experience colored Ophuls’ entire American period to the point that he himself dismissed the films he made as compromised. I disagree with that assessment. His films haunt the space between the idealism of unconditional love and the reality of social barriers and fickle lovers. Yet his greatest films are anything but cynical; ironic certainly, but also melancholy, sad and wistful, and always respectful of the dignity of those who love well if not too wisely. There is a great dignity in his best American movies, but where his European films present obstacles in the form of social “rules” versus emotion and desire, his American films frame the same issues in terms of economics, opportunity, and the lack of social and legal power to break out of circumstances.

Olive previously gave us the Blu-ray and DVD debut of Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), the most continental of his American movies, a romantic tragedy set in an idealized past with a decadent, self-absorbed high society man and a dreamy poor girl briefly swept into his world. Caught shares the same elegant camerawork, evocative production design, and the meeting of high culture and working class society but imports it into contemporary (circa 1940s) United States. It’s the first truly “American” film of his American era and, for all the film’s over-enunciated social commentary, it is a powerful drama rooted in the dreams and anxieties and realities of American filmgoers.

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Cool and Classic: ‘Letter From an Unknown Woman’

Letter From an Unknown Woman (Olive) was the second Hollywood film by European émigré Max Ophuls (who was credited as Opuls on his American movies), but his first American masterpiece, and he invests this exquisitely stylish romantic melodrama (based on a novel by Stefan Zweig) with his continental sensibility.

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead,” reads aging bon vivant Louis Jordan from a letter found in his tiny hotel room. Hair tousled and tux tired from yet another night of meaningless flirtation, he’s startled by these opening lines and suspends his preparations to flee a duel to read the history of a love affair that he can’t remember. For the rest of the film we’re transported to the life of Joan Fontaine’s awkward young Viennese woman, hopelessly enthralled by the dashing pianist from adolescence and momentarily his lover, the emotional pinnacle of her life but for the philandering rogue simply another fling in a blur of women passing through his bedroom.

Fontaine delivers one of the best performances of her career, vulnerable and yearning without lapsing into sentimentality and ultimately showing a hidden strength as she risks all for one more moment with the love of her life. Jordan is genial and callow, an empty figure faced with the meaningless of his life and shamed with self discovery. Meanwhile Ophuls’ endlessly moving camera tracks, cranes, and circles around the characters while maintaining a measured distance, offering a privileged view of intimacy that captures both her life-defining rapture and his momentary engagement. It’s a sensibility more European than American, right down the empty gesture that concludes this sad melodrama, but it’s also a transition to making films in the American vernacular.

Ophuls only made four films in America. This is the first to make its long-awaited stateside debut on Blu-ray and DVD. No supplements.

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Max Ophuls in Hollywood on Turner Classic Movies

On Monday, January 23, Turner Classic Movies is showing all four films made by Max Ophuls, the great German director, during his brief tenure in America (when he dropped the “h” and signed his films “Max Opuls”).

The evening of “Max Ophuls in Hollywood” is followed by two of his greatest French films, La Ronde (1950) and The Earrings of Madame de… (1954), but while they are well represented in superb DVD editions stateside, the four American films showing Monday night—Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), The Reckless Moment (1949), Caught (1949) and the rarity The Exile (1947), his Hollywood debut—have still not been released on DVD in the U.S.

The films of Ophuls haunt the space between the idealism of unconditional love and the reality of social barriers and fickle lovers. Yet his greatest films are anything but cynical; ironic certainly, but also melancholy, sad and wistful, and always respectful of the dignity of those who love well if not too wisely. His fluid, elegantly choreographed camerawork and intimate yet observant directorial presence have resulted in some of the most delicate and beautiful films made on either side of the Atlantic, but his American films have never been as celebrated as his more overtly stylized and seductively romantic French films (Ophuls left Germany in the early 1930s for the same reason so many fellow artists did).

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DVD of the Week: Lola Montes

Lola Montes (Criterion), the final film from French auteur Max Ophuls, has been a hard film to see in any form resembling the director’s original conception. It was originally released in a version drastically recut by its producers, who were dumbfounded by the dense, layered carnival of affairs of the melancholy memory film Ophuls created. A restoration in the sixties only brought it partly back to Ophuls’ grand design. A previous DVD release by Fox Lorber was taken from the most complete version available but was poorly mastered in the wrong aspect ratio and a non-anamorphic presentation, with muddy color and crummy registration. Criterion has mastered this edition, for both DVD and Blu-ray, from the new 2008 film restoration (which received a too-brief release in repertory and arthouses across the country) and it is stunning, especially so on Blu-ray, where it seems to glow and arise from the screen. It’s the only film that Max Ophuls made in color and widescreen and has long been celebrated as one of the greatest triumphs of color film. This edition finally shows viewers why.

"Lola Montes" - Falling from social grace to the center ring

The tension between genuine emotion and the desire for love that suspends many of Max Ophuls’ dramas becomes the melancholy center ring of his final drama. He frames the story of “the world’s most scandalous woman” as a circus spectacle/pageant and contrasts the outrageous sensationalism of her reputation, garishly performed as a big-top cabaret narrated by ringmaster/MC Peter Ustinov, with offstage moments of tender candor and poignant, poetic flashbacks of her “notorious” affairs with artists, composers, politicians and royalty, from Franz Liszt (Will Qualdflieg) to King Ludwig of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook). Swept along by Ophuls’ gliding camerawork, which floats through the film as if on the wings of angels, her life bounces between cinematic ballet (with Ophuls the choreographer and conductor) and high-wire balancing act while the sweep and momentum of his camerawork weaves the spheres of her life—the flashbacks of her past life, the pageant presented in the center ring of the circus and the backstage drama of her failing health.

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La Ronde on TCM

The droll elegance of Max Ophuls graces the screen of Turner Classic Movies with La Ronde, one of my favorites of his wise and witty romances.

Danielle Darrieux
Danielle Darrieux

The great films of director Max Ophuls, the cinema’s most eloquent conductor of love stories both tragic and droll, haunt the space between the idealism of unconditional love and the reality of fickle lovers in a world of social barriers. Yet his films are anything but cynical; ironic certainly, but also melancholy, sad and wistful, and always respectful of the dignity of those who love well if not too wisely. La Ronde (1950) marked the German-born director’s triumphant return to Europe (he had fled to America in World War II) with a film of sparking wit, visual grace, continental sophistication and elegant poise. The director arrived in Paris in 1949 to develop a project for American producer Walter Wanger (with whom he had made his American masterpiece, The Reckless Moment, 1949) with which they hoped to entice Greta Garbo out of retirement. When that project, and others, failed to come together, Ophuls went to work for French producer Sacha Gordine on an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s play Reigen. Ophuls and his screenwriter, Jacques Natanson, preserved the play’s characters and the circular structure of lovers who meet for brief encounters then change partners in a daisy chain of affairs that bring us full circle. However, they replaced the subject of Schnitzler’s play (which follows the spread of venereal disease through the rounds of partners) and the cynical tone with his own sensibility: everybody is somebody’s fool in La Ronde.

Along with the ten characters of the original, Ophuls adds an eleventh: the “Meneur de jeu,” a master of ceremonies, or perhaps a conductor in the orchestra of seduction. Played by Anton Walbrook, this combination narrator, stage manager and director guides the audience from behind the scenes of a studio into this grown-up fairy tale version of fin-de-siecle Vienna, a romanticized vision of a romantic past created like a half-scale model. He trades his street dress for evening clothes, cape and cane, as if dressing up for a night at the opera, and then meets the first player, a streetwalker played by Simone Signoret, as she is carried along on the carousel he winds to life. “Are you making fun of me?” she asks this gently sardonic figure in evening clothes and cape. “I make fun of no one,” he replies, and it is true. He passes no judgment and, if anything, seems protective of these fickle lovers who come together for a night, a day, a tryst, and then move on to the next.

Read the complete article here. La Ronde plays late Saturday night/early Sunday morning, September 6.

DVD of the Week – ‘The Godfather Collection: The Coppola Restoration’ – September 23, 2008

Francis Ford Coppola and Paramount first put out The Godfather Trilogy in a special edition in 2001, at a time when the archival materials at hand had yet to be extensively restored. The original negative was worn out and the prints used for mastering were not accurate to the original release. The new release The Godfather Collection: The Coppola Restoration, released on both DVD and Blu-ray, is a corrective.

"Now who's being naive, Kaye?"
"Now who's being naive, Kaye?"

Is it overkill to claim that The Godfather on Blu-ray is a sign of the format coming to maturity? Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s bestseller remains the great American epic of the immigrant dream turned family business. Al Pacino stars as Michael Corleone in this dark side of the American dream story, rising from clean-cut son of New York Godfather Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in an Oscar –winning performance) to ruthless mob leader to modern American businessman trying to pull his family’s tentacles from the criminal world. The Godfather (1972) has become the great evocation of the dark side of the American Dream (“I believe in America,” it begins) and The Godfather, Part II (1974) is less a sequel than a further exploration of the family business that both reaches back from and looks beyond the story of the first film, contrasting Michael’s increasingly ruthless rise with the life of young Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro, who won his first Oscar for the role). Both films won multiple Oscars, including “Best Picture, Coppola picked up a Best Director award for Part II. Separately the films are masterpieces. Together, they are a landmark work of American cinema.

Francis Ford Coppola oversaw this DVD and cinematographer Gordon Willis personally supervised the restoration and mastering of the film for DVD, and new featurettes on the film and on the restoration process supplement the already rich collection of supplements carried over from the previous special edition.

Read the complete review on my MSN DVD column here.
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Heart-Shaped World: “The Earrings of Madame de…” on Parallax View

You may have noticed that there was no “DVD of the Week” this week. The MSN column was on hiatus while I was at the Toronto International Film Festival. However, I did start catching up on releases when I got back, among the Criterion releases of three Max Ophuls French classics. I put a few impressions of Earrings of Madame de… down in a piece for Parallax View:

"Earrings of Madame de...": Reflections of a life
"The Earrings of Madame de...": Reflections of an empty life

The Earrings of Madame de… has been called one of the perfect pictures of cinema. And it is amazing, a piece that is not just directed, not just choreographed, but sculpted in time and space, with actors and décor as the raw materials and the camera carving out the story. Charles Boyer gives what I believe is the most delicate and nuanced performance of his career as the General, the very picture of a cultured gentleman at ease with social convention and manners, the confident, smiling high society habitué. Vittorio De Sica, as the Italian diplomat, Baron Donati, is suave and serious, hiding a romantic passion, where the General is easy and joshing to hide a lack of feeling. When he falls for the Countess (Danielle Darrieux), the Madame de… of the title married to the General, the scene is played out at a dance that Andrew Sarris describes so much better than I could: “In a series of Strauss waltz sequences, the most dazzling courtship in film history is conducted before the probing eyes of the Parisian Belle Epoque aristocracy.” Her whole social life has been a series of flirtations and romantic play, but this scene is unabashedly romantic, a fairy tale of love at first sight. But it’s a fleeting moment, and for all the dreamy romance of the scenes, it’s hard to feel the heat between them because the passion simply doesn’t break through their carefully cultivated facades.

Read the complete piece here.