USA (88 mi) 1949 d: Max Ophüls
A somewhat downbeat and dreary take on the American Dream, filled with a nightmarish pessimism about the corrupting influence of money, and considering when this was made, it’s a prescient comment on the otherwise sunny decade of the 50’s in America, a decade of supposed optimism and promise, an era when Americans pulled themselves out of the doldrums of the post-war trauma of the 40’s and moved to the suburbs, building new lives for themselves and their Baby Boomer children. Clashes between Communism and Capitalism were just beginning, and German director Max Ophüls was driven out of Europe by the Nazi’s, emigrating to the United States where he was fired from his first job by Howard Hughes. This film may be the director’s revenge, taking aim at the huge ego and tyrannical style of Hughes who surrounded himself with Yes men, throwing around directives and always telling others what to do, but leaving himself isolated and alone in the process, much like Charles Foster Kane living alone in his massive estate of Xanadu at the end of CITIZEN KANE (1941). After Kirk Douglas and Ginger Rogers dropped out for what were considered script differences, Robert Ryan and Barbara Bel Geddes were borrowed from RKO to make this picture, where Ryan as international business tycoon Smith Ohlrig (modeled after Hughes) is a ruthlessly impatient man used to getting his way, but also subject to heart ailments when he doesn’t, momentarily turning him into a panicked weakling in desperate need of his life saving emergency medicine. But this is a starring vehicle for Bel Geddes as Leonora, who is seen initially in her cramped apartment paging through magazines, picking out extravagant jewels and minks that in her eyes define success. Saving her money to attend a charm school learning manners and etiquette, her idea of femininity is modeling fur coats in a department store, hoping to catch the eye of a rich millionaire who will sweep her off her feet at the perfume counter. For many women in the 50’s this aptly describes the American Dream, as going to college and choosing a career was never the first option, which always remained finding a wealthy husband.
Despite receiving an invitation to an exclusive party on Ohlrig’s yacht, Leonora spends most of the day pouting instead of primping, ending up going at the last minute where she misses the ride, left alone at the pier waiting in the darkness for someone to pick her up. When a man arrives from the yacht, she asks for a ride, but he has important business to take care of, but brings her along, eventually driving her to his mammoth estate on Long Island, but she refuses to come inside. Bel Geddes is a nice girl, perhaps overly sweet and naïve, and a bit mousy, always second guessing and questioning herself, while Ryan is bluntly direct and to the point, icy cold, never mincing words, refusing to ever let anyone, even his doctors, make decisions affecting his life, where on the spot he decides to get married just to prove his psychiatrist wrong. When he picks Bel Geddes, you’d think she’d be the picture of happiness and bliss after their marriage, but instead she mopes around in a gloom of self-doubt, rationalizing that it was never about the money, when it was obviously about the money, then convincing herself “he wasn’t like that before we were married,” when in fact he was exactly like that from the moment she met him, a dictatorial control freak who always has to have it his way. Adapted from the Libbie Block novel by Arthur Laurents, who also wrote Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948), the problem is a weak script, as all the characters, including the leads, come off as too one-dimensional, where none of them are that interesting, where Curt Bois (who calls everyone “darling”) as Ohlrig’s assistant, was apparently hired to play the piano 24 hours a day, so everytime Ohlrig arrives home, he reminds Leonora that it’s time for them to go to work, playing the same tune over and over again to the point of near madness. They fall into predictable patterns, become mired in their own delusional traps, where all Ohlrig wants is some eye candy on his arm who waits on his beck and call, like a hired employee, but when he discovers he can’t order her around like the rest of the staff, she bolts the first chance she gets.
Making a new life for herself, she finds another small, cramped room and a job as a receptionist for a pair of young doctors serving mostly poor kids, which is where she meets James Mason (in his first American picture) as Dr. Larry Quinada, who hires her, though after a few weeks he questions her disorganization, as her desk is a mess, and she continues to hold onto her idealistic views on marriage, advising women patients in the waiting room on the art of marrying a rich husband, even after discovering what a sham her own life has become. But instead of motivating her to improve her skills and make better choices, Leonora ends up running away in shame, where Ohlrig sweet talks her back to the mansion, but she quickly discovers ulterior motives behind his actions, as he’s already orchestrating her life again as if nothing’s changed. Running back to the good doctor, things improve momentarily, expressed in a dizzyingly choreographed dinner sequence between the two of them as they end up doing the waltz on a crowded dance floor, where Lee Garmes’ camera swoops around walls peering in and out of the rooms, creating an idyllic moment when he asks her to marry him. Complications ensue, however, as she’s already married and pregnant, and neither one to the good doctor, so rather than tell him, she again drops out of sight until the doctor tracks her down, where Mason and Ryan have a mano a mano talk, as Ryan lowers the hammer and sadistically reveals the facts of life. Despite the conservative nature of the times, being cooped up in the mansion of a man who has no interest in her, who in fact openly despises her, does not seem to be the right environment to live or have a baby, especially when she’s met someone who actually cares about her. But in this film, that’s not an option, where instead there’s a contrived ending, where Mason gives a long involved speech to Bel Geddes in the back of an ambulance, an ominous picture of melodramatic destiny and gloom, where one finds freedom and hope in the ultimate tragedy of their lives, pulling success out of failure, which may as well be an answered prayer to “lead us not into temptation (money), but deliver us from evil (corrupted power).”