Liebelei is a heartbreaker, and in it you can see the genesis of some of the director's later pictures — not just La ronde, his other Schnitzler adaptation, but also Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Earrings of Madame de . . . In fact, Liebelei introduces one scene that Ophüls restaged in both Unknown Woman and Madame de . . .: the lovestruck couple who keep dancing after everyone else has departed. In Liebelei it's the young dragoon lieutenant Fritz (Wolfgang Liebeneiner, whose cowlick and longing eyes give him a touchingly boyish look) and the musician's daughter Christine (Magda Schneider), an aspiring opera singer, and they're dancing to a player piano that Fritz's comrade-in-arms Theo (Will Eichberg) and Christine's best friend, Mitzi (Luise Ullrich), have fed with coins before slipping away to bed. This romance too is doomed. Fritz has been sleeping with the wife of a baron; he breaks off with her, but the suspicious baron learns the truth, and as a soldier and a man of honor Fritz has no choice but to fight a duel with him. This antiquated code of conduct has its own life; it can't be stopped. (When Theo tries to persuade his commanding officer to call it off, he loses his commission.) The useless duel in the woods that plays out an aristocratic set of rules turns up again in Madame de . . ., where it also serves as an ironic device that exposes the enslavement of the characters — and where it crowns a more complex narrative structure.
LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (February 8) is the most unconventional of Ophüls's American movies; it feels so European that you can't believe he got away with it, especially under Hughes's eye. The story takes the form of a letter from a dying woman (Joan Fontaine) who has thrown away her life for the love of a self-involved, womanizing pianist (Louis Jourdan) who doesn't recognize the depth of her affection till it's too late. The movie is like Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle" but with a worthless hero. Both CAUGHT (January 23) and THE RECKLESS MOMENT (February 9) are distinctly American in subject matter if not in style. The Reckless Moment is so tense and so meticulously crafted, and performed with such conviction by the two stars, Joan Bennett and James Mason, that it catches you up despite the implausible plot. Mason is a reluctant blackmailer who falls in love with his victim, Bennett. She's desperate to protect her teenage daughter from the repercussions of the accidental death of her older, mercenary lover (the supremely creepy Shepperd Strudwick). Under Hughes, Ophüls usually had little control over the material he was handed, and here style almost trumps content. In Caught, however, he and the screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, transformed the content. They rewrote the official source material, a Libbie Block novel called Wild Calendar, as a terrifying tale of a covetous poor girl (Barbara Bel Geddes) who marries an unstable millionaire (Robert Ryan) and then tries to leave him for an idealistic doctor (James Mason). This brilliantly directed and acted film noir was Ophüls's revenge on his producer: Ryan's character, Smith Ohlrig, is the movies' unkindest portrait of Hughes.
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