Academic journal article CineAction

Plunging off the Deep End into the Reckless Moment

Academic journal article CineAction

Plunging off the Deep End into the Reckless Moment

Article excerpt

The recent appearance of The Deep End (Scott McGehee, David Siegel) gives a particular resonance to the film of which it appears to be a remake: Max Ophuls' last Hollywood film The Reckless Moment (1949), which in my opinion deserves far more recognition than it has received as one of his masterpieces and one of the supreme achievements of classical Hollywood. I say 'appears to be' because, while The Deep End follows The Reckless Moment's plotline almost scene by scene, Ophuls' film is nowhere credited. Both film credit a fictional source. 'The Blank Wall' by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, somewhat confusingly described in Ophuls' film as a 'story in The Ladies Home Journal' and in The Deep End as a 'novel'. The new film's cinematic derivation was also curiously glossed over (if not totally repressed) in all the reviews I have read, the nearest reference being not to Ophuls but to 'a forties domestic melodrama'. I must not allow my anger at this omission to prevent my doing justice to The Deep End: it is a well-ma de, well acted, directed and photographed movie of some intelligence, certainly among the best American films released so far this year (a swift glance at the competition will counter any sense that that is a great compliment). Beside the Ophuls original it dwindles into insignificance.

The continuing failure to recognize The Reckless Moment's status is both exemplified and confirmed by its current unavailability. (If, like me, you have managed to make a copy from one of its rare appearances on television you can count yourself extremely fortunate). I wrote about the film as a whole in my book Personal Views (also, I'm afraid, long out of print and hard to find) and don't like repeating myself. What I offer here is a detailed analysis of one crucial sequence, which will exemplify the themes and tone of the film (so different from the tone of The Deep End) as well as illustrating the extraordinary delicacy and precision of Ophuls' mise-en-scene. Those who require a plot synopsis, however, can safely be referred to the new film, bearing in mind the two major departures from the original: the transformation of the rebellious teenage daughter into a teenage gay son, and the total absence of one crucial character, Sybil, the black maidservant. (One may wonder, in The Deep End, why this woman, the film's protagonist, living in the most affluent circumstances, with three difficult children to raise, a father-in-law prone to heart attacks, and a husband frequently absent abroad, apparently requires no domestic help whatever, presumably doing all the housework, cleaning and cooking singlehanded).

The sequence to be examined is that in which the blackmailer Martin Donnelly/James Mason first appears, infiltrating the bourgeois home (its equivalent in The Deep End is much shorter, with no trace of the Ophulsian detail and complexity of tone). It occurs approximately 28 minutes from the start of the film, lasts seven minutes and ten seconds, and consists of twenty-six shots. There can be no doubt that, had Ophuls been working in complete freedom, the shot count would be far lower, many of the cuts replaced by reframings, the sequence as it stands clearly exemplifying his compromise with 'the Hollywood system' of shooting and editing. As it stands, it contains far more camera movement, far less editing, than one expects within a 'typical' Hollywood sequence. (For a detailed account of Ophuls' struggles see Lutz Bacher's Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios, a book indispensable not only to those interested in Ophuls but to anyone interested in the methodology of classical Hollywood and the problems faced b y unconventional filmmakers). I have argued (in the essay on Letter From an Unknown Woman in my book Sexual Politics and Narrative Film) that we should not automatically deplore the restrictions imposed on Ophuls' Hollywood films by the 'interference' of producers: what matters is the result. Bacher's book exposes the inadequacy of the conventional notion that Ophuls' experiences in Hollywood were primarily of struggle and frustration. …

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