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Jack Clayton's The Innocents is well established as the best film version of Henry James' gothic ghost story The Turn of the Screw, and William Wyler's The Heiress takes top honors as the best James adaptation overall. Dropped almost completely out of the running is a 1947 adaptation of James' The Aspern Papers, a novella that appeals to lovers of arcane literary history. Although the story has been simplified and given a melodramatic climax, The Lost Moment conjures an atmospheric spell of 19th century mystery in a decaying mansion in Venice. It was directed with great sensitivity by Martin Gabel, an actor now known mostly from his role as an angry employer of Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, made two decades later. A refined mystery with psychological overtones that suggest the supernatural, The Lost Moment plays like a more intelligent version of one of Hitchcock's David O. Selznick films.
The B&W show creates a credible Old Venice atmosphere on lavish studio sets. Unscrupulous publisher Lewis Venable (Robert Cummings) travels to Italy in hopes of getting his hands on a legendary "lost" collection of letters written by the famed poet Jeffrey Ashton to his lover Juliana Bordereau. Ashton died mysteriously in 1847 and Juliana (Agnes Moorehead) is still alive at the age of 104. Lewis's ploy is to pose as an author renting a room, so as to get close to the Bordereau staff, and most particularly Tina Bordereau (Susan Hayward). Tina is said to be Juliana's niece but her youth suggests that she's separated from the old woman by at least one more generation. Lewis finds Tina hard and suspicious of his motives, and for the first couple of weeks he's denied access to any part of the palazzo beyond his one room. But he learns more from the maid Amelia (Joan Lorring of Stranger on the Prowl), and Tina is impressed by his hiring of a gardener to fix up the entrance to the old house. Then one night Lewis hears piano music echoing through the maze-like corridors. He follows it to its source deep within the house... and finds that the pianist is Tina, dressed like a young Juliana. In a serene trance, she awaits the arrival of her lover Jeffrey Ashton -- and then behaves as if Lewis is the famed long-lost poet.
The Lost Moment fulfills at least 99% of its mission before concluding in an all-too ordinary manner. Henry James' suspenseful original story ends in a far more believable note, with the Lewis Venable character failing to fully exploit a momentary opportunity, and losing his quest once it has passed. Martin Gabel and screenwriter Leonardo Bercovici (Portrait of Jennie) perform wonders setting up a delicate situation. Lewis Venable is a pretender-thief but also a devoted lover of Ashton's poetry. He wants to profit by publishing the lost love letters yet is sincere in his claim that great artists' work should belong to the world and is too important to be allowed to perish. That's the first conflict in the story. Any biographer-journalist can tell stories about subjects keeping fantastic stories to themselves, and refusing to share them. The show begins with a slow tracking shot to a library shelf where several books appear to be missing; perhaps only bibliophiles and librarians can really appreciate The Lost Moment.
At this point the romantic story kicks in, and it's a real balancing act. The authentic, 104-year-old Juliana is only concerned about keeping her house, for she believes that she'll not die as long as she stays there. Young Tina has apparently been raised on a mental diet of adoration for the lost Jeffrey, so much so that she's adopted a second identity as 'Young Juliana'. Lewis finds himself confronted with a binary Juliana situation, with two versions of the same person in one haunted house. Rather than humor one and seduce the other, he inadvertently falls in love with Tina/Young Juliana. So we end up with three romantic loonies for the price of one. The kicker is that the situation isn't at all silly. The script, direction and particularly the performers keep most of it in line.
Agnes Moorehead is the aged Juliana, but if her name weren't in the credits we'd never know. I don't recognize Moorehead's voice and the excellent makeup obliterates her appearance. Hal Mohr's camera doesn't let us see Juliana's face more than three or four times, and even then she barely moves. She's like Dickens' Miss Havisham in a late stage of fossilization. According to various reviews, the critics made as much noise over Moorehead's makeup job (credited to Bud Westmore) as Dick Smith received twenty years later for Dustin Hoffman's ancient Little Big Man.
For Susan Hayward and Robert Cummings The Lost Moment was an opportunity to play key roles in a classy period romantic mystery. Ms. Hayward holds the romantic story together. She's suitably frosty as Tina, the untrusting landlady who apparently beats the poor maid Amelia. Little is made of that sadistic streak, nor of Tina's unfortunate psychological disturbance; if Lewis expects her to magically readjust after her twisted upbringing, he's a fool. Hayward is also appropriately glamorous and fetching as the eternally optimistic Young Juliana. Again, one would think that after being locked up in that house for 20+ years the average psycho spinster would have difficulty keeping the roles straight, let alone comporting herself with such grace and aplomb. But Hayward pulls it off with style.
The more I see of Robert Cummings the less tolerant I am of critics that dismiss his performances as lightweight or inappropriate. Lewis Venable doesn't have to kick a dog to be an underhanded sneak. Plenty of people put on masks to get what they want, and we usually forgive them so long as they don't directly victimize us. Lewis isn't himself sure about his mission. He's talked himself into the necessity of grabbing those letters but he's not immune to their spell nor that of the 'personal Juliana' he's discovered. Cummings does a very good job keeping this ambiguous state of affairs in balance.
Twist the storyline a bit and The Lost Moment veers rather closely to Hitchcock's Vertigo. If Tina were purposely inventing her Juliana 'ghost persona' to draw Lewis into a trap, we'd have Vertigo in a tighter form, with one or two fewer plot contrivances. Instead of being hypnotized by a portrait in a museum, Tina is possessed by the original Llorona herself.
The eventual downside to The Lost Moment arrives with a conclusion that reaches for a swift resolution, breaking with the slow weirdness of what's gone before. The maid Amelia seems to know secrets that we never learn. We're also a bit confused about the role of Charles (John Archer), who begins as Lewis's confederate in burglary and then exits the story in a big rush, without spoiling things for our covetous hero. And the cavalier way Lewis handles the ultra-ultra sacred letters only makes sense if he's unconsciously trying not to get away with his crime. The movie succeeds in so many atypical ways that lovers of weird gothic romances probably won't mind a bit.
Aided by excellent matte work, the Hollywood sets evoke a European feel almost as complete as those for Max Ophuls' Letter from an Unknown Woman. The entertainments on the town and in a restaurant are particularly well done, as is an introductory shot of Lewis waiting by a canal, put across with minimal means. One incident lifted from the novella sees the ancient Juliana trying to raise money by selling a cameo miniature of her beloved Jeffrey. The tiny painting resembles Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose own letters reportedly inspired James' novel.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Lost Moment is another of their beautiful HD transfers, done without digital restoration. Minor spotting, scratches and other slight damage poke through here and there, but it can also be said that natural textures and granularity have not been affected by automatic buffing tools. Daniele Amphitheatrof's effective music score is especially spooky in the early reels when the mystery is being established.
Olive has released a number of independent Walter Wanger productions on disc. For this one his title logo and end title have been replaced with cards from NTA, slapped on by that company when the film was purchased for Television. Thankfully the content of the film hasn't been affected -- I've seen many other TV versions that cut a crude new logo right into the middle of a final shot, spoiling the film's finish.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Lost Moment Blu-ray rates:
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