Thursday, February 26, 2015

Max Ophüls | Letter from an Unknown Woman

over the edge of memory
by Douglas Messerli

Howard Koch and Max Ophüls (screenplay, based on a story by Stefan Zweig), Max Ophüls (director) Letter from an Unknown Woman / 1948

If there was ever proof that a highly sentimental and even uneventful story can become a great work of art in the hands of an auteur-director, one has only to see Max Ophüls’ memorable Letter to an Unknown Woman, which I watched yesterday in memory of its male lead, Louis Jourdan, who died this past week on February 14.

The Stefan Zweig story is less developed than Olive Higgins Prouty's Stella Dallas, and the lead actors of a work might describe as a woman’s “weepie”—Jourdan as the pianist Stefan Brand and Joan Fontaine as Lisa Berndle—spend much of the film in silent suffering. Lisa daydreams her life away with an imaginary affair with Stefan, and Stefan reads, throughout, the 86 minute-long letter which makes up the film’s plot. When she has the opportunity to speak, Fontaine manages only a few self-demurring remarks similar to what made her so memorable in both Suspicion and Rebecca; Jourdan charmingly gushes over his new-found “sorceress,” and, later, spends his last few minutes with her praising the same “unknown” woman’s cleverness in  having outwitted her husband in finding a way to join him in what he clearly expects will be a quick sexual fling. 
    In fact, hardly any of the film’s characters speak more than a few lines: Lisa’s mother (Mady Christians) manages to ignore her daughter so completely that she has no clue to effects upon her by the new, handsome tenant next door. Lisa’s kind, if imperious, husband, Johann Stauffer (Marcel Journet) politely questions his wife’s infatuation with Brand before—offstage—challenging the ex-pianist to a duel. At least, early in the film, Jourdan can express his presumably deep passions and irritation with his own failures through pretending to play the piano, but in the latter half of the film even that mechanism is “locked up” (a very odd trope indeed), and  he is left—after expressing his reaction to encountering Lisa again, “I feel that I am at the edge of memory”—with nothing but a would-be lover’s chatter in lines like “let’s have some champagne” and “put on some records.”

     The real hero of Ophül’s melodrama, accordingly, is his camera, as he artfully dances it up and down stairways, focuses it over perfectly designed railroad stations, and props it up against the cartoon set-up of an amusement park train ride around the world. Lisa hovers outside her dream-lover’s apartment, darts in and out of the local restaurants he haunts, and even sneaks into her would-be Lothario’s apartment, knowingly abandoning herself to him again and again. The only thing she is awarded for her desperate love is a bastard son, whom she keeps secret from the father, determining to be the only woman who asks him for nothing. In short, Lisa is the perfect chump, willing to be isolated from her parents, ostracized from proper society, and to suffer her punishment through her son’s and her own deaths—all for a passion she never quite has the opportunity to express.

      Yet for all that, the director is able to convince, even the most hard-boiled cynic, surely, of the beauty and intensity of that passion through his opera-like use of music, the detail-perfect costumes, the stunningly-appointed sets, and the luster of Jourdan’s and Fontaine’s faces. The Vienna Ophüls creates is obviously the superior one of the filmmaker’s soundstage as opposed to the haunted Austrian city. Who wouldn’t prefer the metal grille-work of the swirling staircase that leads to Lisa’s heaven, the commodious and affair-friendly cafes and the embroidered restaurant banquets, and the gracefully modulated moldings of grand opera and theater houses of that waltzing city to a small garrison city like Linz, where the major activity seems to be promenading around the central square during weekly band concerts? Who wouldn’t tell a lie about a mysterious lover to release the embrace of even a handsome soldier in order to get back to such a magical city?

    In short, Ophüls is not really as much interested in his addicted-to-love characters as he is determined to intoxicate his audiences with the wein of Wien. And toward that end, he becomes the male version of what Stefan calls Lisa, a sorcerer. Just as Vienna weaves such figures as the rakish hero into its spell, so too is Lisa re-modeled, so to speak, in the city’s image as she forces herself to study music, learn to dance, and, in general, to become a graceful partner worthy of the music-maker’s dapper company. As Stefan says, upon first meeting up with Lisa, “I very seldom get to where I have started out to go,”  so does the director of this masterwork lead us in every direction but straight-forward through this thinly-threaded plot. And when it ends—presumably with the deaths of son, holy mother, and father—we suffer more from the end of the voyage through the city than with the closing of these character’s lives.

Los Angeles, February 26, 2015

Monday, February 23, 2015

Walter Lang | The Desk Set

free association
by Douglas Messerli

Phoebe and Henry Ephron (writers, based on a play by William Marchant), Walter Lang (director) /  1957

I have never been able to understand why the 1957 Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy vehicle The Desk Set has been treated so unkindly by numerous critics. As the Time Out critic observes: “Most reviewers agreed at the time that Hepburn got far more out of this mere bauble of a sex comedy…than it deserved.”

The Kanins, who wrote Hepburn’s and Tracy’s Adam’s Rib, were generally wittier writers than the Ephrons, but their shrill version of feminism in their 1949 film, where Hepburn (as Amanda Bonner) takes sexual equality to ridiculous heights by demanding an athletically-gifted woman lift her opposing-lawyer husband over her head. Similarly absurd is Ring Lardner’s and Michael Kanin’s presentation of Hepburn (as Tess Harding) in Woman of the Year of 1942 as a brilliantly multi-lingual internationalist who adopts a Greek boy more as a symbolic gesture than as a someone who she might actually wish to love and nurture. In both of these National Film Registry movies, the errant Hepburn is forced to retreat to the position of a housewife, particularly in Woman of the Year, where she slinks back into the kitchen in an attempt to make waffles (disastrously) to appease her ignored husband.

     In The Desk Set, on the other hand, Hepburn (as Bunny Watson) is beloved by Richard Sumner (Tracy) primarily because she is brilliant and capable of witty conversation. The only retreat she is asked to make in the Ephrons’ script (based on the 1955 Broadway play by William Marchant) is from her apparent fear and disdain of his EMARAC* computer, which Sumner utilizes to propose to her and which, accordingly, Watson quickly comes to embrace, while recognizing it, nonetheless, as an equal suitor for her fiancée’s future love. And surely the straight-speaking Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, and the other working women of the network reference department do far more for women’s rights than does the confused and abused housewife, Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday); Mike (Gig Young) is a far superior foil for Sumner’s attention than the evidently gay song-writer, Kip, played by David Wayne in the 1949 comedy. If Stevens and Cukor are simply better directors than The Desk Set’s Walter Lang (and I’m not certain I might effectively argue that position), he makes up for it in the wonderful late evening pajama-party-dinner scene and the homey sequence in the up-stairs stacks of the reference library, wherein, for some of the few moments of any Hepburn-Tracy film, the couple actually do seem to be radiantly happy in each other’s presence. 
      Although both Woman of the Year and Adam’s Rib tackle important topical subjects—the equality of the sexes and World War II internationalism—The Desk Set takes on an equally vital topic concerning the future of human workers in an age of increasing dependence upon computers—a topic, in fact, slightly ahead of its time. Seldom has a film more specifically honed in on the issues of “the age of anxiety” than in The Desk Set, where even the mention of an Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator sends employees rushing off to their union offices and the legal department’s Smithers into a near nervous-breakdown. Even the commonsensical Watson (a kind of would-be detective in her attempts to track down Sumner’s reason for having turned up in their “little iron lung”) expresses her fears that such computers might ultimately make the human race obsolete.

     Fortunately the computer’s vaguely Turing-like mathematician-creator (he is after all, a man who adds things up, a “sumner”) is a fairly bumbling and loveable fool who, apparently disinterested in opposite sex—at least early on in this tale—wears different colored socks, confuses the days of the week, and generally doesn’t give a fig for the accoutrements of power and wealth. In short, is he a lot like the absent-minded “prof” as friends described Turing. His gradually growing attraction to the Head of the network reference department is also a bit like Turing’s attraction to Joan Clarke: her intelligence makes her easy to talk to, and the domesticity she offers is appealing. His real love—again a bit like Turing’s hand-built home computer, named after his beloved childhood friend, Christopher—is, as Watson describes Sumner’s machine, Emily EMARAC! After all, this relationship has to, at least, pretend it is exclusively heterosexual—although that fact doesn’t stop Bunny from wondering whether Sumner might not be the marrying kind (“Don’t you like women?” she queries him in her intimate conversation with him in the library stacks).
     I doubt whether, in fact, the original playwright or the Ephrons knew anything about Alan Turing, but it can’t be simply coincidental, surely, that when a telephone caller Sumner answers, asks him to name Santa’s reindeer, the computer creator answers first with the names of five of the seven dwarfs (Dopey, Sneezy, Grouchy, Happy, and Sleepy) before finishing up with Rudolph and Blitzen. Given what I’ve noted above about Turing’s own reactions to Snow White, it does indeed seem difficult not to suspect the reference here is to the British mathematician. 
     Similarly, Watson’s discovery that Sumner spent the war in Greenland (a far bigger, and less green island than England, but still suggestive of Turing’s isolated existence at Bletchley) doing something so secret that even she couldn’t track it down, again hints at the possibility of the author’s knowledge of Turing.  
    The film takes the relationship no further, and it is doubtful that, except for a few individuals, the audiences of the day would ever have made any connection with the British genius. Indeed, it doesn’t matter whatsoever in the story—except that the Turing machine of this tale is just what the mathematician predicted it might become: a machine with an intelligence that makes it, at first, very difficult to distinguish from a human being. Emily EMARAC, at least as presented in The Desk Set, appears, in “her” “fits” of bad behavior, likely to continue to win Sumner’s heart, even if Watson has fully captured his admiration and affection. As Watson, herself, expresses the situation: her experience has been that most of the elderly men she has seen who appear to be cruising as they circle the block, are simply looking for a parking space. I suppose those who read The Desk Set primarily as a sex comedy, might find it somewhat disappointing. But as a statement of the future of human species interactions with machines it is quite fascinating and truly forward looking, particularly when recall that Turing committed suicide only a year before the production of the play. Better to have a computer in a world where, as Bunny Watson recognizes, it is necessary to “associate many things with many things.”

*The running titles of this film spell the computer’s name as EMMARAC, but have consistently referred to it as EMARAC in connection with the words the initials refer to, choosing to also write electromagnetic as one word.

Oscar Sunday, 2015