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In Hollywood in the 1940s, Ophüls directed four films, all commercial failures. A notoriously shy and fastidious man, Ophüls was ill-suited to the competitive nature of American studios. His European sensibilities, which translate into his films, were equally unsuited to a postwar American audience. After the swashbuckling romance of The Exile (1947) came two explorations of film noir, The Reckless Moment and Caught (both 1949). Both star James Mason, whose dark sexuality, bordering on the sinister, is a perfect match for Ophüls’s style. In between Ophüls directed Letter From an Unknown Woman, one of his greatest films.

In Letter, the cinematographer of Liebelei, Franz Planer, returns, as does the setting of Vienna at the turn of the century, the story this time based on a Stefan Zweig novella. In what is perhaps his most deliriously sentimental work, Ophüls tells a fatalistic love story about obsession, longing and unrequited love through breathtaking visual narrative. Set to Franz Liszt’s “Un Sospiro” (“a sigh”), it reads like a love poem to the old Europe. Vienna around 1900 is yet again the setting for his adaptation of Schnitzler’s La Ronde (1950), made after his return to France and his biggest commercial success. 

Ophüls’s final film, made in France, and a first, astonishing foray into colour, was Lola Montès (1955). Based on the story of the notorious 19th-century dancer and courtesan who was a lover of both Liszt and Ludwig I of Bavaria, it was the most expensive film ever made in Europe until then. Dizzying and intoxicating in the ambition and lusciousness of its staging, it was, nonetheless, a commercial failure. Perhaps its complex, non-linear narrative of flashbacks proved too challenging, but Ophüls’s unique treatment of time and the use of the retrospective as a narrative mode was one of his boldest contributions to world cinema.

In 1957, shortly after its failure, Ophüls, who — like many of his characters — had a weak heart, died aged only 54. He revealed the range of expression possible in cinema and, perhaps most importantly, his films remind us of the fragility that exists in us all.
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