LOLA home                        HOME        CURRENT ISSUE 

Bits of Business:
The American Films of Max Ophüls

Joe McElhaney



The inception of a vision is everywhere and nowhere at all.

– Max Ophüls (1)

  1. Max Ophüls, trans. Robin Mann, ‘The Pleasure of Seeing’, in Paul Willemen (ed.), Ophüls (London: BFI Publishing, 1978), p. 31.

When observed from a distance, the trajectory of Max Ophüls’ Hollywood career – a long, frustrating period of waiting for work, the investment in several aborted projects, and eventually being allowed to direct four films (all financial failures), before returning to Europe in 1950 – could serve as a warning to deeply European artists with fantasies of adapting their aesthetic vision to American culture. But the specifics of this trajectory resist reduction to a simple cautionary tale. Ophüls’ American films, The Exile (1947), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Caught (1949) and The Reckless Moment (1949) bear the marks of compromises and adjustments, due to both the nature of Hollywood methods and the economic limitations of shooting independently or semi-independently. Nevertheless, Ophüls’ responses to the various challenges he faced often showed a remarkable ingenuity, and the reputation of his American work has risen so substantially that the films have long passed the stage of requiring elaborate defenses.


Moreover, Ophüls’ return to Europe was scarcely an attempt to flee from the repressive nature of Hollywood. What had originally been intended to be a brief return to Europe in order to work on two different independent productions with the American Walter Wanger (who had produced The Reckless Moment) stretched out across several years as the Wanger projects stalled. Instead, Ophüls devoted his attention to the productions upon which his post-war ‘art’ filmmaker reputation would be constructed: La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1951), Madame de … (1953) and Lola Montès (1955). Throughout this period, though, Ophüls intended to return to Hollywood and was in frequent correspondence with agents and producers over projects. (2) Ophüls was not in flight from Hollywood. He very much wanted to be a Hollywood director.


But what kind of Hollywood director was he? At the centre of Ophüls’ conflicts with producers and executives was his concern with the mobile long take. Ophüls does not stand alone in his use of this expressive strategy. During this period it was part of a trend among certain directors to resist or, for the most part, to modify some of the conventions of the continuity style. But Ophüls’ mobile camera posed particular problems, stood out. Lutz Bacher has shown that preview audiences reacted unfavourably to the original opening long take camera movements in The Exile as ‘too much movement seemingly unnecessary to sequence of story’. (3) The scale of the opening was subsequently reduced (although the sequence remains impressive). There were two other complaints, of a very similar nature, expressed at that preview. One preview card writes of ‘too much indefinite running around’ in the film while another refers to ‘too much running back and forth’. (4) And I would add to this something else, not mentioned in these preview cards and also present in his pre-Hollywood and post-Hollywood films: Ophüls’ investment in his actors performing endless bits of business, playing with props, constantly moving about and gesturing in an expressive manner. It is ostentatiously on display in the films and is not limited to the central actors. The extras are also mobilised, given bits of business, brief lines of dialogue that interrupt that principle action, and engage in ‘too much movement seemingly unnecessary to the sequence of story’.









2. Lutz Bacher, Max Ophüls in the Hollywood Studios (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1996), pp. 320-332.  



3. Bacher, p. 128.  


4. Ibid.

In The Reckless Moment, for example, when Lucia (Joan Bennett) arrives at the Midtown Hotel to meet with Darby, Ophüls stages this in two mobile shots. The first, of Lucia crossing the lobby and walking over to the front desk to ask for Darby, is a simple pan and slight track forward. The clerk (a cigarette constantly dangling from his mouth) steps back and makes the call to Darby. As this occurs, a key ring noisily slides across the desk from out-of-frame centre right. The temporary possessor of the key, a bleached blonde in a cheap fur coat, quickly steps into the shot and moves up to Lucia while talking to the desk clerk, as though oblivious to Lucia’s presence. She hastily apologises to the irritated Lucia as we hear the clerk at the same time say to Darby, over the phone, ‘Okay, I’ll tell her’. As the blonde exits, the clerk says to Lucia, ‘Mr. Darby wants you to wait for him at the bar’, this line begun in the first camera set-up and continuing into the next, a reverse-angle from behind the desk. As Lucia follows her instructions, she makes a semi-circle to the left, around a large column, as the camera tracks and pans, following her somewhat confused movements at a distance from behind the desk. As this occurs, Ophüls first allows us to hear and observe two musicians propped against opposite sides of the column, one of them saying to the other, ‘Each time we get a new singer, Joe has to …’


But as Lucia moves left and the camera follows her, the remainder of the line is lost as we see two other men standing against a wall, one of them saying to the other that ‘television is a big thing’. The remainder of that line, too, is lost as Lucia and the camera continue their journey to the left and around the desk, where two additional men are leaning against the end of the desk and we hear one of them say, ‘… took me for fifty last night. I don’t think the game was on the level’. Lucia then finds the entrance to the bar on the right, enters through its door, and the shot ends. None of this activity surrounding Lucia has any direct bearing on the principle dramatic action. Nevertheless, it establishes the sordid atmosphere of the hotel, so far removed from Lucia’s comfortable middle-class world, and becomes a type of realistic notation, the acknowledgement of a world beyond the immediate fictional one being represented – while also being quite theatrical, the extras all clearly placed by Ophüls and assigned their proper functions in order to fit into the tapestry being woven.


Ophüls does not entirely stand alone during this period in his commitment to this kind of staging. Both Vincente Minnelli and Orson Welles have a similar need to abundantly fill a mobile frame, to energise it by complicating distinctions between major and minor activity. In the trial sequence for The Lady from Shanghai (1948), for example, Welles individualises virtually everyone in the vast courtroom, from the jurors to the spectators, through grotesquerie and various verbal and physical asides that add nothing to a clearer understanding of the narrative. In The Clock (1945), Minnelli stages a late-night diner sequence in one long mobile take, the camera tracking along an array of indelibly sketched eccentric characters, in which the film’s protagonists in the shot become little more than spectators in this parade. Minnelli would later state that Ophüls was his ‘spiritual leader’ for the ways in which Ophüls’ films ‘swirled with movement, dancing about the deep-toned decors along with his waltzing actors’. (5) It is not clear, however, what Ophüls films Minnelli might have seen before he began directing, and his ‘spiritual leader’ claim may be entirely retroactive. (6)


Rather than pursue a line of enquiry based on leaders and followers, it is more useful to speak of certain filmmakers engaging in an implicit dialogue with one another over questions of mobility, staging and shot duration. (To my knowledge, Welles never publicly spoke about Ophüls.) If we simply compare Ophüls to these two directors in terms of their work in the 1940s, we may get a clearer sense of how far one could go in pursuing a concern with the mobile frame. For example, some of Welles’ most elaborate camera movements are lost to history, as they were significantly tampered with in the editing room – such as the party sequence in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), comprised of one extended tracking shot through the Amberson mansion for an entire reel. But Minnelli’s more ambitious camera movements did not suffer a similar fate, nor does there appear to be any evidence of strong resistance (from the studio, from critics, from audiences) to Minnelli’s mobility in comparison with Ophüls or Welles. In fact, Minnelli was praised by James Agee in Time magazine in 1945 for a ‘love of mobility, of snooping and sailing and drifting’ while also noting Minnelli takes ‘infinite pains to invent minor bits of business with anonymous individuals and groups’. (7)


It would be tempting to argue that Minnelli’s approach to the image, whatever its flourishes, remains fundamentally subordinate to the narrative in a way that does not occur in Ophüls and Welles. But narrative in Minnelli derives its interest from the sense of delayed urgency, its fascination with the anecdote, or from an extreme simplicity in terms of the basic story situation and in which the mobile frame becomes part of Minnelli’s dreamlike world, outside of time. On the rare occasions when Minnelli has to face a heavily plotted scenario, such as Undercurrent (1946), mobility becomes more restricted, as though the burden of unpacking the story weighs the film down. But in Ophüls and Welles, we often find an abundance of story, of plot machinations and complications that do little to impede the need for complex mobility. The films engage in a piling on of effects in which perceptual attention must face a high degree of alertness in terms of both image and narrative, and in which narrative coherence may sometimes appear to be under attack. The literature on Welles and, especially, Ophüls does not lack for extended analyses and descriptions of the narrative content of the films, with occasional nods to visual style. Clearly, then, one may examine these films strictly at the level of whatever meaning emerges through the story, if one has such inclinations. Such inclinations are not my own here. For André Bazin, the plot of The Lady from Shanghai ‘serves as little more than a pretext’ that ‘no longer interferes with the underlying action, from which the themes blossom out in something close to their pure states’. (8) These themes? Moral ones: the nature of ethical choices, of freedom to chose between good and evil ‘inscribed within a modern form of destiny’ that is essential to Welles’ work. But Bazin does not indicate how such meaning arises through the form of the film, aside from his quoting bits of voice-over narration. In fact, Bazin finds the film to be ‘relatively conventional’ in its photography and découpage. (9)


‘Life for me is movement’: a line delivered early in Lola Montès by its title character, and endlessly quoted in the literature on Ophüls, as it so immediately lends itself to an allegorical reading of the films. Divorced from any context, though, Lola’s statement would just as easily find a happy home in Hollywood cinema, with its reliance on an action-driven and a cause-and-effect, goal-oriented narrative model -- Die Hard (1988) as much as Letter from an Unknown Woman. But in Ophüls, movement of the camera and the human figures repeatedly lends itself to metaphor: rising and falling, criss-crossing, moving in circles, moving forward and back, or constantly pacing. While such rhetorical strategies are not entirely foreign to Minnelli or Welles, they are neither as constant nor as insistent as they are in Ophüls. But is movement in Ophüls (necessarily) always tied to life? Ophüls’ characters, in both his American films and his European, do not contemplate: they move, they take action. Even their reveries are a confirmation and extension of how they already feel about something.


5. Vincente Minnelli, with Hector Arce, I Remember It Well (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974), p. 122.  

6. When I heard Minnelli speak at Ohio University in 1977, he expressed surprise at the information, offered by someone in the audience, that Ophüls had worked in Hollywood.  





7. James Agee, Agee on Film, Volume One (New York: Perigee Books, 1983), pp. 358-359. The only review Agee ever gave an Ophüls film was for The Exile, which he praises, in a somewhat condescending manner, without ever mentioning Ophüls or referring to the camera movements: pp. 383-384.  






8. André Bazin, trans. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Orson Welles: A Critical View (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1972), pp. 93-94.  

9. Bazin, p. 94.

When the young Lisa (Joan Fontaine) explores Stefan’s apartment in Letter from an Unknown Woman, the camera follows her as she walks about the space. However, Lisa’s vision of Stefan is not transformed as a result of observing the décor – a décor, moreover, that Ophüls does not emphasise through cutting or moving in to closer views of it. Lisa has already made up her mind about this man and of the central role he will play in her life. (Given his obsession with décor expressing the personality and aesthetic vision of the character, had Minnelli directed Letter  such a sequence would have undoubtedly assumed a very different implication.)


In Ophüls, we find a cinema of spectacle but not a cinema of the spectator. In Minnelli and Welles, on the other hand, the dialectic between the two is often fundamental: the Chinese theatre sequence in The Lady from Shanghai, for example, in which the presence of Elsa (Rita Hayworth) and of Michael O’Hara (Welles) in the audience ultimately becomes a spectacle that surpasses what is occurring on stage. And in Minnelli, one cannot create spectacle until one has first been a spectator, with the latter position never completely abandoned. In Ophüls, in spite of the preponderance of sequences set in viewing spaces, his characters spend little time in observing the show. They leave before it is over (as Lisa does at the performance of The Magic Flute) or are distracted even when confined to their seats. In Caught, the disinterest of Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes) in watching the film Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) is screening for her and a group of business associates is enacted through two gestures: the first of these her laughter at something unrelated to the film itself, causing Ohlrig to explode in anger; and the second Leonara walking out on the screening entirely, in response to Ohlrig’s humiliation of her. And in Letter from an Unknown Woman, Lisa’s pleasure in not attending Stefan’s concerts is something close to an auto-erotic experience for her.


The moral themes that Bazin detects in Welles also affect how Welles’ protagonists function as spectators, in which the act of viewing itself becomes tied to the ethical decisions one must make. In Welles’ The Stranger (1946), Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young) ultimately has a fundamental duty to look at the documentary films shown to her, however much she initially resists this, because through them she must now face the Nazism of her own husband, albeit indirectly through his ‘creation’, the concentration camps. Ophüls, though, tends to keep the larger historical and political questions that obsess Welles at an ironic distance. History and politics are out there – somewhere – but must be kept at bay in favor of the more immediate needs of this universe, in which history and politics ideally have no more weight than the painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence that hangs on the wall of the loan office in The Reckless Moment. Spectacle overrides all.


Or until it can no longer do so. An implied question in Ophüls’ conception of movement is whether this world of ‘indefinite running around’ and endless bits of business, so distracting to American audience in the 1940s, is not also tied to exhaustion, negation and death. Central to Ophüls’ modernism is his fascination with the non-subject, with erased identities, the unknown or the (literally and metaphorically) unseen. In The Exile, when an exiled King Charles (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), temporarily living undercover, describes the strangeness of the world, he cites the soliloquy in Macbeth (a play filmed by Welles a year later) that refers to a world ‘full of sound and fury’. But Charles leaves off the rest of the line: ‘… signifying nothing’. Would including the rest of the line make Ophüls’ fascination with ‘nothing’ too explicit?


In Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), a more substantial section of this Macbeth soliloquy is used, including the reference to ‘signifying nothing’. Minnelli can acknowledge the possibility of negation because his cinema will almost invariably return to the transformative possibilities of movement. Ophüls is more skeptical. In Caught, as Quinada (James Mason) is discussing the disappearance (yet again) of Leonora with his colleague, Dr. Hoffman (Frank Ferguson), Ophüls makes Leonora’s desk, placed in between the two men, the center of this conversation. The men stand on opposite sides of the waiting room to their suite of offices. And while part of their conversation is filmed in shot/reverse shots (Hoffman’s bit of business here is to constantly trim his whiskers with an electric razor as he talks), the sequence is book ended by craning shots moving into and around the desk. On the one hand, the rhetorical force of these movements points to a temporary absence that is waiting to be refilled: Leonora forsaking the attractions of wealth and materialism as she returns to Quinada, eventually marrying him. (This is how the film will conclude, in its rather shaky ‘happy ending’.) On the other, the rhetorical expressiveness just as forcefully implies that all of this movement and activity is around a void, a void that is not simply Leonora herself but also the world being shown, the spectacle that is unfolding. The word on Leonora’s notebook, shown upside down but clearly readable in capital letters: SPIRAL.


from Issue 6: Distances


© Joe McElhaney 2013.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.