Waving the Olive Branch is the most fun anyone who writes about movies can have. Sure, some of them may be, harumph, Classical Films of the Golden Age, but we prefer to call these Olive Films good, old fashioned popcorn-crunching movies that make your TV set (or whatever) glow with the excitement of real classy nostalgia . . .
The first bud on the Olive Branch we’re going to enjoy is an obscure little noir entitled Caught. Catch this for a convoluted plot: crazy megalomaniacal millionaire (aren’t they all) marries out of a need for power, but so abuses loving wife that she dumps him for a doctor. During a one night attempt at reconciliation with the mad millionaire, she becomes pregnant (don’t they all?).
Millionaire tries to leverage the baby-to-be to make the poor kid return to the abusive situation. Alas, millionaire suffers attack of (perhaps psychosomatic) angina (don’t they always). The innocent abused wife refuses the jerk millionaire his angina medicine, and calls her new doctor friend to help her after the millionaire croaks. But, ah ha!, the creepy millionaire is not dead, although, oh no!, the lovely innocent abused wife now looses her baby in the hysteria, for the which, frankly, we cannot blame her. Nonetheless, without the baby the young innocent kid is free of the creepy millionaire and can now marry her doctor. That’s the plot. We shall now have a drink before proceeding.
Back already? Caught would be a mundane and fairly boring film except for the cast, director, and background. The evil millionaire is played with ferocious feigned innocence by the magnificent Robert Ryan, who is really scary in this one. The doctor exceeds the boring stalwart protector suggested by the script with the performance by James Mason, as a loud voice of logic amid all this craziness. And then the lady in question is played by Barbara Bel Gedddes. Bel Geddes, the daughter of the famous theatrical and industrial designer Norman, her career choices, from this film through the Broadway Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to finally Miss Ellie in Dallas, were always both lucky and prefect stepping stone for her future.
The film was directed by German emigre Max Ophuls, after a fight with Howard Hughes over fractured contractual promises on previous films. Ophuls gleefully gave the millionaire as much of Howard’s characteristics as legally possible. Further, Ophuls was known as an incredibly detailed director with a near obsessive control of camera movement, to the point that James Mason wrote a little poem about it:
A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he’d never smile again.
The movie is infinitely watchable, and even if you know what’s coming, the style and grace of Ophuls’ camera, and the talent and verve of his performers will continue to pleasure any audience, with or without popcorn.
The next bud may not be quite so promising but has some certainly fascinating aspects. The move is called The Lost Moment, and it stars Robert Cummings, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead. The only film Martin Gabel, husband of Arlene Francis, ever directed, and perhaps that is not a bad thing. Based on a brilliant Henry James novella, The Aspern Papers, it is a story of nostalgia, regret, and the morals in exploiting the life of a dead celebrity. The producers have tried to make a horror movie out of what is essentially a film about exploitation and history. Cummings arrives in Venice seeking the unpublished writing of a long dead poet. Much to his surprise, the poet’s last mistress is still alive, albeit 105 years old. She has a niece, more than half her age, who takes care of her, and she does have unpublished writings of her genius lover. The publishing scoundrel works his wiles to get the papers, with very surprising results.
The major problem with The Lost Moment is the lack of charm displayed by Cummings. Hayward is suitably batty as the niece and Moorehead, as the 105-year-old head of the house, managers to chew the scenery while remaining motionless. At release time, her, shall we say, extreme make-up was the point of a great deal of publicity. And, with all great movie stars, the make-up is, ultimately, a slow second to the intensity of Moorehead’s performance.
Maybe it’s not a great film, but certainly suitable for a “B” position down to every lost moment.