Ophüls. During 2011 and 2012 I saw all of Ophüls’ available films (his early pre ww2 German films are largely unavailable or lost). After leaving his homeland (Germany) he made a few films in Hollywood like Lang and other German defectors and then from 50-55 (just before he died, at age 55) made 4 films in a 6 year period in France- those films are MS, MP, MP, and MP. Sadly, he died with two top 100 all-time films as the last two films on his resume. I think he was the best director in the world during this time along with Kurosawa and Ozu. His filmography ranks him about 18th and he’s certainly a style-plus director. I get to more below in stylistic innovations/traits but Ophüls is one of the great movers of the camera in cinema history- his camera floats. His absolute dedication to the aesthetic help puts him here. He’s as connected to the tracking shot as Eisenstein is to the montage.
Best film: The Earrings of Madame de… It’ll blow you away. I’ve got it as the second best film of 1953 (it unfortuitously comes out the same year as Ozu’s best film Tokyo Story). PT adores Ophüls and calls him “the master of the tracking shot”. The camera glides. The film is brisk with no fat. There are dual meanings throughout perfectly marrying style and form. It opens with a stunning 5-minute opening shot, has dancing scenes with tracking and crane shots we won’t see again until maybe Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice. The film isn’t all style either- it’s a brilliant meditation on fate- like almost all of his work.
total archiveable films: 8
top 100 films: 2 (The Earrings of Madame De…, Lola Montes)
top 500 films: 6 (The Earrings of Madame De…, Lola Montes, Le Plaisir, Letter From an Unknown Woman, La Ronde, The Reckless Moment)
top 100 films of the decade: 7 (The Earrings of Madame De…, Lola Montes, Le Plaisir, Letter From an Unknown Woman, La Ronde, The Reckless Moment, Liebelei)
most overrated: Letter From an Unknown Woman. I’ve seen it twice and had it as a MS the first time and a weaker MP the second. It’s a wonderful film but I have it as his 4th best film (essentially tied for 4th) and TSPDT has it as his #2 film only slightly behind Madame De (#117 and #122 (I’ve got this at #250) respectively). Ophüls is just a bolder artist than this film would lead you to believe.
most underrated : Take your pick, I mean the only ones I don’t think are underrated are Letter From an Unknown Woman and Caught (simple recommend), So literally I think his other 6 films are pretty grossly underrated. If I had to single one out it would be La Ronde which somehow isn’t even in the top 1000 on TSPDT—I have it at #317.
gem I want to spotlight: Lola Montes. Andrew Sarris, the critic and author who I adore, called it the best film ever made (ok, yes he said this about a few films). It is Ophüls’ only color film and widescreen film and he takes full advantage of both.
stylistic innovations/traits: In many ways Ophüls is the perfect example of style over substance so it’s not surprising I like him more than the consensus. On the surface, his films are romantic costume period pieces (at least his French era films). The exact kind of film in France during the era the French new wave leaders were rebelling against (I have no idea whether they admired or hated Ophüls but when I’ve read about the New Wave they were mostly looking to America with Nicholas Ray and Minnelli—I know they liked Melville domestically). First and foremost he’s one of the absolute masters of the tracking shot and moving the camera—a Mount Rushmore figure there from Murnau to Ophüls to now maybe Cuaron. He has been championed for his work with feminism and women’s pictures. His films most often meditated on fate (hello Coen Brothers) and tragedy. I’ll end with a Sarris quote. “Ophüls is, like all great directors, inimitable, and if all the dollies and cranes in the world snap to attention when his name is mentioned, it is because he gave camera movement its finest hours in the history of the cinema.” – Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968).
- The Earrings of Madame De…
- Lola Montes
- Le Plaisir
- Letter from an Unknown Woman
- La Ronde
- The Reckless Moment
By year and grades
|1948- Letter From Unknown Woman||MP|
|1949- The Reckless Moment||MS|
|1950- La Ronde||MS|
|1952- Le Plaisir||MP|
|1953- The Earrings of Madame De…||MP|
|1955- Lola Montes||MP|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives
Hey @Drake, love the site. It looks like you updated your site a few days ago and just wanted to let you know that ever since then, every page has been very jumpy on all devices (phones, laptops, etc) moving up and down about every 10 seconds. Not sure if this is a problem with the site (never happened before the update) or maybe it’s just something on my part, but just wanted to let you know so that if other people are also experiencing this you could maybe look into it since it’s a bit hard to read as the text keeps moving up and down. Anyway, keep up the great work.
@Thomas Locke- thanks for the comment and heads up. I haven’t heard that or seen that but will look into it.
Hi @Drake. Just found your fantastic site and looking forward to exploring it all!
Like Thomas Locke mentioned in the previous comment, I’m also finding pages jumpy and thus harder to read. It seems to be that the carousel of images, at the top of each page, containing images of different height, is causing the following paragraphs of text and images to keep adjusting every few seconds.
@Ash — thanks for the comment and for visiting the site. I think I fixed it– fingered crossed
What is the most entertaining or accessible Ophulus film to start with?
@Azman– I mean the Reckless Moment is an 80 minute thriller and is very good. Le Plaisir is three short stores– gorgeous. The Earrings of Madame De– can’t go wrong there either. I’d start with one of those three if you can’t swing it in order.
I think there’s no reason not to start with the famous one, Earrings of Madame de… It’s not difficult to get into and quite entertaining for such a simple drama; reminds me of Annie Hall or Royal Tenenbaums in that sense. Top notch constant camera movement too to keep the energy and pacing on point.
You should check out “La Signora Di Tutti / Everybody’s Woman” (1934). One of his early movies and already a masterpiece that has all the traits of his more well-known post-war movies. It’s probably my second favorite after “Madame de…” and was obviously one of the films that influenced Welles for Citizen Kane. Unfortunately it’s a forgotten gem and only available on a bunch of dvds, I got an italian one with good picture quality and english subtitles.
@Flo- thanks for the recommendation– I’d love to see it- but yes- looks quite hard to find. I’ll keep my eyes out for it.
Just saw lola montes for the first time, it blew my mind. I remember you saying in one of your reviews about a movie that it can belong to any decade. Well that can be said for lola montes as well. I was watching a high quality version and didn’t realize that it was made in 50s (thought it may be of late 60s). Its one of the best colored movies of all time. Now I’m a fan of colors in french cinema (first the umbrellas of cherbourg and now this).
Can you recommend me some of the best colored movies of french cinema (other than godard and kieslowski films because I have seen them) ?
@M*A*S*H– I don’t know if it is quote on the level of those two films- but Varda’s Le Bonheur is an achievement in color for sure- http://thecinemaarchives.com/2019/03/19/le-bonheur-1965-varda/
@M*A*S*H-I don’t know if you are asking for old or relatively new french movies. But I have to recommend Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy(2019).It has my pick for the best opening of cinema in 2019. And two other shots(the one with the white statues,the shot of the couple walking between the bare trees)that could be the best single frame of 2019. And countless other cinematic paintings. Not to mention the genius washed out photography by Polanski showing Alfred Dreyfus’ prison life.
@M*A*S*H – late reply but you should definitely check out Plein Soleil by Réné Clément if you havent already.
It’s been under my radar but idk why I’ve not seen it yet. I’ll definitely watch it soon.
@Drake- you should definitely see La signora di tutti from 1934. A solid MS with some exceptional acting, tracking shots, montages and uses of music. After Liebelei this just my second Ophuls film, but he is already one of my favorite directors of the 30s.
@RujK- Thank you for the recommendation!
[…] 17. Max Ophüls […]
Is that shot of the carousel taken from “La Ronde” or from “Le Plaisir” ? I recall it being in “La Ronde” but not sure
@Snow Frog- hmm- you could be right and it has been 10 years since my Ophuls study. I’ll remove the title until one of us can confirm. Thanks for the help
Sorry to intrude, but I can confirm that the screenshot is from La Ronde.
Drake would you consider ophuls to be a master of mise en scene? I mean, looking at all the images here, i think the shots are arranged beautifully. They are very cluttered sort of in the same way immamura is but more burgeoise or upper class… instead of fishtanks and broken windows he uses curtains and mirrors. Obviously his camera movement is his big thing, but from what i remember, and from what im seeing here on your page he seems to be a master of mise en scene
@Big chungus- Been about 10 years since my big Ophuls study so I am overdue for another study but I like it- good stuff. I wouldn’t put his work here on the level of an Ozu or some others (von Sternberg, Greenaway) but still.
My ranking of Ophuls’ films that I`ve seen:
1. Lola Montes MP
2. The Earrings of Madame De… MP
3. Le Plaisir MP
4. La Ronde MP
5. Letter from an Unknown Woman MS/MP
6. La signora di tutti MS
7. The Reckless Moment MS
8. Liebelei HR
If you haven’t seen Ophüls’s Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., swashbuckler “The Exile,” do. I’d place it neck and neck with Letter from an Unknown Woman as his best Hollywood-era work. It’s tremendous fun. Great performances, lush set design, brilliant shot composition, and seemingly effortless camera movement. The only way it’s less than a MS is if one is prejudiced against simply and unapologetically entertaining films.
@MoPo- Thank you for visiting the site, the comment and the recommendation. I have not had the chance to catch this- I’ll look for it.
The bad news is that it isn’t available on Blu-ray. The good news is that it’s in the public domain, so it’s easily viewable for free (in a pretty good transfer) on YouTube and elsewhere.
@MoPo- Thank you again- I’ll also keep an eye out for it on Turner Classic Movies- I’d have to imagine it finds its way there every once in awhile.