Tuesday, December 4, 2007

An Opuls Film / The High Sign

A key concept of the classic women's film is the Women's Secret; as manhood is a badge of honor, womanhood is a secret society, a terrifying mystery, a password, The High Sign. The women's films are full of invisible ink and substitution cyphers; to watch them is to be admitted to their secret world. There's more intrigue than in a hundred spy films. There are coded transmissions and cloak-and-dagger adventures, but no one ever get any medals. Men die gloriously in war films, while women have to suffer in melodramas. The women of women's films (and their audiences) recognize each other with passing glances. They know each other’s secret.

"You don't know how a family can surround you at times," says Joan Bennet to James Mason in The Reckless Moment, and of course he responds with a tense "No, I don't." How could he understand?

A little math: Max Ophüls made four pictures in the United States, one every year 1947-1949; only the first one isn’t a
"women's picture"; on those three films, he signed his name Max Opuls, ditching not only the umlaut over his (adopted) surname but that pesky "h" too; and finally, while the first of those was a period piece, the last two were set in contemporary America, and of those The Reckless Moment is the second, making it Ophüls / Opuls’ last American picture.

It’s a blackmail plot: Bennet is the suburban mother with the steely resolve and Mason is the downtown mobster with the Irish brogue. He’s got letters incriminating her teenage daughter in a sleazy older lover’s death; he trails off while reading one aloud before the suggestive details become too strong. He’s in over his head; he’s the innocent. Being a criminal doesn’t prepare you for being a woman. He’s a naïf, taking the blame with his dying breath at the end of the film; he might absolve her of police action, but it’s nothing compared to her personal burden. The closest she can ever come to showing her emotions is by lying. In the final shot, with three men dead—Mason, his co-conspirator, the lover—she tells her husband about the Christmas tree they’re going to get. As she goes down the stairs to answer his telephone call, the camera explores every emotional possibility. She’s in turmoil, but no one notices. We’re in on her secret, and it’s terrifying.