Channel surfing any service that specializes in classic films, your eye can’t help but be seized by the merest flash of a film by Max Ophüls. A master of mise en scene and a filmmaker who single-handedly expanded the boundaries of what came to be called film noir, Ophüls made 30 movies in Germany, France and Hollywood , most of them acknowledged masterpieces and every one of them a black and white feast for the eyes.
Maximilian Oppenheimer was born in Germany, a Jewish stage actor who took on the new last name to avoid shaming the family name. His years of stage work, acting and then directing, inform his films, which have a theatrical quality — sets densely packed with layers of imagery, concentrated lighting and intense energy jammed within the frame.
Famed for his foggy, crowded nightlife scenes, his daylight exteriors, seen mostly in his French films, are just as brimming over with life, the lighting contrasts just as startling.
Every so often I stumble across one I haven’t seen, and instantly recognizing its origins, I’m drawn in. TCM recently ran “Le Plaisir,” a postcard pretty conceit rounding up three clever stories by Guy de Maupassant. Nightlife scenes capture a fury of activity and smokey atmosphere, a church funeral in the last episode is practically a Dutch Master painting with its use of skylights stained glass (in a black and film) and candles.
“La Ronde” is his most famous film, similarly rococo in style, anecdotal and capturing a broad swath of life, this time in turn of the 20th century Vienna.
“The Earrings of Madame de...” recreates 19th century Paris high life again. This time, we meet a cavalcade of characters thanks to a pricey pair of earrings.
And then, there was my first unforgettable exposure to Ophüls, his Hollywood masterpiece, “Letter from an Unknown Woman.” The faint air of doom, broken romance and a lost place and time vividly come to life in this melodrama about a cowardly rake of a pianist (Louis Jordan) who gets a letter that may unravel the source of his downfall. Just gorgeous in its recreation of 19th century Vienna, it has as much Stefan Zweig bite as a Hollywood film of 1948 could have managed.
Does anyone today put as much care and craft into mise en scene (“putting in the scene”), fussing over framing, set dressing, decor, shadowy lighting and camera movement — through windows, street fog, smoke or snow? The texture of the images is what marks an Ophüls film, frame by frame. Who else is that visually particular?
Aside from Wes Anderson, a fluffier master of modern mise en scene, nobody comes to mind. He shares the maestro’s mania for detail in depth, the touches that make a world feel lived in, and at in films such as “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” least some of Ophüls’ passion for making his camera seem it is eavesdropping, slipping through windows, curtains and the like, uninvited, to deliver us to a world long gone.