Late Ophuls

From June 6 through July 2, the Gene Siskel Film Center presents Late Ophuls, a series featuring the last eight films directed by the brilliant international filmmaker Max Ophuls. This final phase of Ophuls’s career, beginning after World War II and divided between America and France, represents one of the great creative bursts in film history, comparable to Hitchcock in the 1950s, Godard in the early 1960s, and Altman in the 1970s.

Ophuls (1902-57) was born to a family of wealthy Jewish textile merchants in the France-bordering Saar region of Germany. However, many observers have characterized Ophuls’s nostalgic/ironic sensibility as distinctively Viennese, after the city in which he worked briefly as a theater director in the 1920s and in which three of his greatest films are set.

Ophuls transferred his allegiance from theater to cinema in the 1930s, working mainly in Germany until the Nazi threat drove him to France and, in 1941, to the United States. He languished in Hollywood for six years before he got a chance to direct THE EXILE (1947). Its success led to three more films, LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948), CAUGHT (1949), and THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949), all box-office failures that are now widely regarded as subtly devastating critiques of romanticism and/or the American Dream.

Walter Wanger, the producer of THE RECKLESS MOMENT, sent Ophuls to Paris to work on a comeback vehicle for Greta Garbo. The project never materialized, but Ophuls reestablished his link to France, which served as the base for his four final masterpieces, LA RONDE (1950), LE PLAISIR (1952), THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE… (1953), and LOLA MONTÈS (1956). Ophuls’s spectacular final film was blighted by financial failure and brutal reediting; both its reputation and its running time were later restored by devoted admirers. Ophuls died of heart disease shortly after the butchered version of LOLA MONTÈS was released.

As with such masters of transplanted Germanic irony as Ernst Lubitsch, Douglas Sirk, and Billy Wilder, Ophuls’s reputation has grown enormously with the passing years. The French New Wave critics-turned-directors lionized him for his ability to elevate novelettish stories through the elegance of his style. In their concentration on feminine consciousness and their interrogation of gender stereotypes, Ophuls’s films have fascinated feminist-oriented film analysts such as Molly Haskell and Laura Mulvey. His breathtaking mastery of décor and camera movement continue to inspire filmmakers; Stanley Kubrick, Jacques Demy, Todd Haynes, and Paul Thomas Anderson (who called him “my idol and a true genius”) are among the directors who have cited Ophuls as a major influence.

Special thanks to Lynn Fero, CBS; John Poole, Corinth Films; Diane Eberhardt, Cultural Services of the French Embassy, Chicago; Sarah Finklea, Brian Belovarac, Janus Films; Paul Ginsburg, NBC Universal; Emily Horn, Paramount Pictures; Eric Di Bernardo, Rialto Pictures; Helena Brissenden, Jared Sapolin, Sony Pictures Entertainment; Todd Wiener, Steven Hill, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

-- Martin Rubin

Weekend double-bill discount!
Buy a ticket at our regular prices for the 3:00 Ophuls film on June 6, 13, 21, or 27, and get a ticket for the second Ophuls film that day at this discount rate (tickets must be purchased at the same time): General Admission $7; Students $5; Members $4. (This discount rate applies to the second film only.)

Archival print!
1949, Max Ophuls, USA, 88 min.
With Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Ryan, James Mason

“The most interesting and emotionally complex of Ophuls’s American pictures.”--Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

Fueled by fashion magazines, a charm-school graduate’s dreams of marrying a handsome rich man come true with a vengeance in the form of psychotic multimillionaire Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan in a terrifying performance, modeled on Howard Hughes). She finds refuge with an altruistic doctor (Mason), and the parallel universes identified with the two men form the heart of this rich hybrid of melodrama and film noir. Archival 35mm print courtesy of UCLA Film & Television Archive. CAUGHT - Preservation funded by The Film Foundation. (MR)

Friday, June 12, 6:00 pm
Saturday, June 13, 4:45 pm


1953, Max Ophuls, France, 105 min.
With Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica

“One of the most beautiful things ever created by human hands.”
--Dave Kehr, The New York Times

A consensus choice as Ophuls’s greatest film, MADAME DE... is a tragedy triggered by a trifle. The frivolous, flirtatious, and fickle title character (whose full name is never revealed) secretly sells a pair of earrings to cover her debts; passing from hand to hand, the baubles trace an ironic circle that fatefully intersects the heroine’s adulterous affair with an Italian diplomat. One of the many wonders of this sublime film is how such a superficial character (much like the earrings themselves) can stir such deep emotions; to paraphrase one of the script’s most famous lines, “It’s only superficially superficial.” In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)

Saturday, June 27, 3:00 pm
Thursday, July 2, 6:00 pm

1947, Max Ophuls, USA, 95 min.
With Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Maria Montez, Paule Croset

After six years in a limbo of exile, unemployment, and aborted projects, Ophuls was hired by producer-screenwriter-star Fairbanks to direct this historical adventure of deposed British monarch Charles II’s romance with a lovely Dutch flower-seller (Croset) while dodging Roundhead spies in Holland. Ophuls responded to this resurrection with his most exuberant film, filled with dazzling camera movements, vivid performances (especially by villainous Henry Daniell and vivacious Maria Montez), and inventive bits of business, all deepened by an Ophulsian undercurrent of bittersweet regret. 35mm. (MR)

Sunday, June 21, 5:15 pm
Tuesday, June 23, 6:00 pm

1948, Max Ophuls, USA, 86 min.
With Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan

“Of all the cinema’s fables of doomed love, none is more piercing than this.”--Tony Rayns, Time Out

The most European of Ophuls’s American movies--and, in the eyes of many critics, the best--LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN is both an exquisitely romantic film and a delicately ironic accounting of the price of romanticism. Set in Ophuls’s dream version of turn-of-the-century Vienna, it tells of a starstruck girl (Fontaine) who is seduced by a dashing concert pianist--for him a one-night stand, for her a lifelong passion. Archival 35mm print courtesy of UCLA Film & Television Archive. LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN - Preservation funded by The Film Foundation. (MR)

Saturday, June 27, 5:00 pm
Tuesday, June 30, 6:00 pm

1956, Max Ophuls, France, 110 min.
With Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov

“The sumptuous restoration recovers not just the movie’s look but its meaning...a colossal spectacle about colossal spectacles.”--Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Based loosely on the life of a notorious 19th-century courtesan whose many lovers included Franz Liszt and King Ludwig of Bavaria, Ophuls’s spectacular swansong is framed by scenes of the faded Lola as a circus attraction, coaxed by the ringmaster (Ustinov) into recalling highlights of her splendid, sordid life. Notoriously butchered after its disastrous premiere, LOLA endured nearly as many vicissitudes as Lola herself, finally emerging triumphant in this near-definitive version supervised by the Cinémathèque Française, which restores five missing minutes, the original CinemaScope ratio, the original magnetic soundtrack, and, most crucially, the vibrant color. In French and English with English subtitles. 35mm widescreen. (MR)

Sunday, June 21, 3:00 pm
Wednesday, June 24, 6:00 pm and 8:15 pm
Thursday, June 25, 6:00 pm

Archival print!
1952, Max Ophuls, France, 98 min.
With Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Simone Simon

“The greatest French film since the Liberation.”--Jean-Luc Godard

Three stories by Guy de Maupassant examine the theme of pleasure, which, as the film demonstrates, is not always jolly. “Le Masque” uncovers the mystery behind a frenetic masked reveler at a ball. In “La Maison Tellier,” a rural bordello shuts down while its employees attend a communion. In “Le Modèle,” a painter tires of his beautiful model. LE PLAISIR contains some of Ophuls’s most stunning camera movements, including a dizzying swirl around the dance floor in “Le Masque” and a gliding crane shot around the exterior of the bordello in “La Maison Tellier.” In French with English subtitles. Archival 35mm print courtesy of Cultural Services of the French Embassy, Cultures France, and the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères. (MR)

Saturday, June 6, 5:00 pm
Tuesday, June 9, 6:00 pm

Archival print!
1949, Max Ophuls, USA, 82 min.
With Joan Bennett, James Mason

“A marvelous, tantalizing thriller.”--Time Out

This haunting, high-tension example of “domestic noir” was remade in 2001 as THE DEEP END (with Tilda Swinton in the Joan Bennett role), but, as Jonathan Rosenbaum noted in the Chicago Reader, the remake is “not a patch on the original.” A California housewife tries to cover up her daughter’s crime and finds herself immersed in corpses, blackmail, and a criminal underworld so much more threatening--and fascinating--than her bourgeois domesticity. Archival 35mm print courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment. (MR)

Saturday, June 13, 3:00 pm
Tuesday, June 16, 6:00 pm

1950, Max Ophuls, France, 97 min.
With Anton Walbrook, Simone Signoret

Ophuls and his screenwriters transformed Arthur Schnitzler’s cynical play into a dazzling metafictional maze by adding a character (Walbrook) who serves as narrator, stage manager, film editor, demigod, and personification of the audience’s desire to see everything “en ronde.” A brief encounter between a soldier and a prostitute (Signoret) sets in motion a merry-go-round of couplings in which one partner moves on to another, encompassing a cross-section of classes, ages, and attitudes in 1900 Vienna. The dream cast also features Serge Reggiani, Simone Simon, Daniel Gélin, Danielle Darrieux, Fernand Gravey, Odette Joyeux, Jean-Louis Barrault, Isa Miranda, and Gérard Philipe. In French with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)

Saturday, June 6, 3:00 pm
Thursday, June 11, 6:00 pm

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