Unshown and Unspoken
At the moment, I’m in Paris. By the way, I’m not in Paris.
– Maria in Angel
Ernst Lubitsch’s Angel (1937) is among the cinema’s perfect films. That it is not routinely cited as one of the director’s greatest achievements is puzzling and irritating – until we realise that, while often richly funny, it confuses many spectators by not strictly playing by the rules of the comedy genre. Not even the romantic comedy genre.
Indeed, it is among Lubitsch’s most dramatic and suspenseful works, pitched between the exceptional melodrama of The Man I Killed (1932) and the comedy-laced-with-sombre-moments of Cluny Brown (1946). But its suspense is of an especially intimate sort: purely focused on the hesitations, equivocations, doubts, feints and realisations that play out between the members of a romantic triangle composed of wife Maria Barker (Marlene Dietrich), husband Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall) and lover Anthony Halton (Melvyn Douglas). A film filled with silences, mute stillness, stark pauses without undue musical underlining.
Is there another movie before Alain Resnais’ Mélo (1986) so agonisingly fixed on the time it takes for a character, in a drawing room of one sort or another, to discover a photograph, see a face, recognise a melody, or hear a name spoken? “Surprise is the central motor of the film”, wrote Jacques Aumont in 1968, “becoming more than ever the very method of the narration which, at every moment, systematically avoids the conclusion almost ineluctably determined, within Hollywood’s scriptural system, by the given premises”. (1) Resnais is only one of many masters who appears to have secretly borrowed elements from Angel: the nervous trembling of the heroine at a race track, seen through the binoculars of an observer, anticipates Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946); the elaborate camera movement along the façade of a high-class Parisian “social club”, showing all transactions from outside, through curtains and windows, is reprised in Max Ophüls’ Le plaisir (1952); the signalling of the daily chill in a marital relationship by showing both parties diverting attention to their morning newspapers was picked up by Orson Welles for Citizen Kane (1941) …
Perhaps these filmmakers, too, wished to collude in the general occlusion of Lubitsch’s film, to bury the source of some of their (and cinema’s) best ideas? Whether he knew it or not, at the end of this transmitted history, Stanley Kubrick also channelled Angel in his Eyes Wide Shut (1998): another prime drama of remarriage (or rather, the revitalisation of marriage), played out against an exotically, fantastically artificial, Europeanised backdrop of cities and salons and adventures …
With characteristic precision and deftness, Angel establishes its central subject in an opening scene that involves a complex interplay of words and actions, looks and gestures. Maria flies into Paris (from her home base in London) and immediately checks into a hotel – under a false name, “Mrs Brown”. The desk clerk asks for her passport – for many international relations are unsettled and confused between the two World Wars, and such details need to be checked and recorded. Maria keeps her cool and hands over the document. The clerk, now alone, notices the name discrepancy. When Maria returns, the clerk (whom we will never see again in the film) has made his decision: he addresses her as “Mrs Brown”, thereby sealing – without any discussion or negotiation – their pact of complicity. Their secret is mutually understood, and unspoken.
Maria is introduced to us, in these first scenes of the film, as someone who can read the signs of interpersonal relations, and can play the game of manipulating these signs – making her the perfect Lubitsch heroine, we could say a mirrored alter ego of the director himself. Anthony, on the other hand, is slower off the mark. As an American visitor to this City of Lights, he is “taken for a ride” by the cab driver, and then fooled by the playful masquerade of Maria, whom he mistakes as the Russian Grand Duchess Anna (Laura Hope Crews). However, in a sudden shift of character position and perspective that Lubitsch exploits better than any filmmaker, Anthony then “turns the tables” on the real Duchess, pretending to be an innocent in Paris only to see the sites by day … as he eagerly awaits his “private” date with Maria by night.
There is much in Angel that is shadowy, mysterious, implicit – as Hollywood standards would have demanded by 1937, but in a way that Lubitsch knows well how to bend to his own expressive ends. The Russia/France political-historical subtext, involving the desperate diaspora of the pre-revolutionary Russian aristocracy, is subterranean but definitely present in the opening part of the story – anticipating films as diverse as Éric Rohmer’s Triple Agent (2004) and Vladimir Léon’s documentary Mes chers espions (2020). When the narrative switches to London, another set of geopolitical conflicts is indexed (via the banter of seasoned character actors Ernest Cossart and Edward Everett Horton).
But this is, of course, primarily a tale of love (and desire), of relationships (and marriage), not espionage. On the sexual level, the Duchess’ “salon” suggests a high-class brothel (or indeed a chain of such joints across Europe!), and Maria’s prior connection to this establishment conjures Catherine Deneuve’s adventures as Séverine in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour (1967). In whatever way Maria’s past is entwined with this place and its dealings, however, it surely involved a precarious struggle for survival: when Anthony asks her, “Have you ever been at the mercy of loneliness? Have you ever been a stranger in a strange city’”, she replies, “Often”. And when he further inquires, “What did you do”, she plaintively responds: “I cried”.
As a film addressing the Eternal Triangle of two men and one woman, Angel is scrupulously fair, and extra-special because of this: there is no obviously “weaker party” or “fall guy” in this trio, hence no easy choice for Maria, and no easy point of identification for us. Lubitsch serves up longing galore, and inherent rivalry between the men, but no outright enmity (male fights and battles, as in Hawks or Ford, always clarify and simplify these situations) – instead, friendship between the two men is the order of the day, even (as foreshadowed in the opening sequence of Maria and the clerk) complicity. This is what makes the tension so agonising for us as spectators of the unfolding drama: we truly cannot predict what direction it will go in, or how it will resolve itself. There are several believable, even “fair” ways that it could end.
Underneath – or hand-in-hand with – the treatment of the triangle lies another theme, especially pertaining to the film’s investigation of marriage. It has been adroitly identified by Cristina Álvarez López: “What happens to a couple when the woman is left alone at home while the man goes out to work? Commanding the men’s attention, an important telegram or a commitment at the theatre cannot wait; but the films stay with the women, accompanying them in their dissatisfaction and portraying their wounded pride”. Men’s world of work versus women’s world of the emotions: this is Gertrud (Carl Dreyer, 1964) territory. Comparing the Lubitsch of Angel to the Philippe Garrel of Jealousy (2013), she suggests: “The directors, instead of judging these central characters, conspire with the impulsive, irrational, illogical feelings born within them, opting for a narration full of ellipses and gaps, sudden revelations, unexpected shocks, things unseen and unsaid”. (2) From this angle, Angel is truly a “woman’s film”.
It is also a work, typical of Lubitsch, in which all social relations (including the most intimate) are “read”, deciphered, decoded – by the characters as much as by us. Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson are masters at the tagging, circulating and “re-semanticising” of elements (tunes, objects, clothes, words) across the turns and phases of the narrative, which are always decanted by the differential levels of knowledge each character possesses (and the way in which the dialogue indirectly dances around these different levels – talk is always coded here, which is another form of unspokenness). Maria “claims” the music that has been offered to her by the strolling player in a restaurant, and that music (as we shall see) is drawn into the excruciating tension of events; the tag-name “Angel” itself is transformed from a term of endearment to a code-word (to avoid the use of real names), and eventually an identity – a cluster of values – that must be either inhabited or rejected (“You’re not Angel” … “You must say goodbye to Angel”). Edgardo Cozarinsky in “The Gaze of the Outsider”, his superb essay on Lubitsch, illuminates the metaphoric motif of food (and its being eaten or not) in Angel:
Lady Barker’s servants study the plates that come back from the dining table so as to read the moods of their masters: Sir has eaten well, Madame has not touched her veal, and his guest has minutely cut up his without so much as tasting it. Their deductions evoke less the classic auguries, divining the future in the entrails of classic beasts, than the minor characters of a late Henry James novel, such as the Assinghams in The Golden Bowl, relentlessly cast off by a central intrigue that ignores them. (3)
As always in Lubitsch, this intensely cinematic configuration of chamber drama depends on the spatial relation of adjacent rooms, on doors opened and closed, on precise entries and exists from the screen, on pointed re-framings by the narrating camera … and on the sudden narrative ellipses created by contriving to place key moments of action off-screen. This is, of course, the very essence of what was sold, at the time, as the “Lubitsch Touch”; but it was always more than a matter of simple, sexual innuendo (although that it is a prime part of its pleasure). In Angel, the moves of Raphaelson’s superbly constructed (and brilliantly dialogued) script are married to Lubitsch’s formalist tendencies in an almost paroxysmic way: four privileged moments of off-screen ellipsis mark, very precisely, the key turning points, and ultimate resolution, of this triangular drama. (We must understand the scriptwriting device of the turning point in a suitably formalist way here: it is not just a significant dramatic event, but also one that, in a split second move, rearranges the configuration of the characters’ relationships.)
The first moment comes 20 minutes in, when Maria and Anthony walk in a park at the end of their first (and, as it turns out, only) shared night of love – an intimacy that “may or may not” have occurred, according to the necessary mystifications and indirections the film deploys to avoid censorship. They sit on a bench, talk and kiss (Charles Lang’s magnificent cinematography here recalling his work two years prior on Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson) until, off-screen, an old flower-seller beckons, and Anthony exits their two-shot. Lubitsch then stages a boldly extended take of 45 seconds (which is quite long by Old Hollywood standards): the camera tracks behind Anthony as he approaches the seller, a sweet old dear who has a bunch of violets already outstretched toward him. He pays her and doesn’t let her give him any change (his line “Merci beaucoup” neatly recalling and reversing the earlier scene with the taxi driver). As the woman manages her purse, Anthony exits their shared frame. Her eyes track everything that subsequently occurs off-screen: Anthony calling out for the now-vanished “Angel” (the name he has given Maria), and running about in vain to find her. During this protracted eye-tracking gesture, Frederick Hollander’s plangent waltz score is held back until the woman, too, leaves the frame. In the next shot, a coda to the scene, she decides to pick the discarded violets up, dust them off and re-sell them to next pair of lovers along her park way.
The second major turning point offers, at 52 minutes, an extraordinary reprise of the first, but in an ultra-condensed fashion (like in the best cartoons, Lubitsch always uses repetition to speed things up). Anthony and Frederick have become friends, since they realised they once “shared” a woman In Italy during World War I; they have no idea that they now share another (but Maria, elsewhere in the house, has already nervously inferred who the “Poochie” is that her husband has invited over). Anthony looks up at a picture on the wall – at first off-screen – which turns out to be an old painting; then the camera whips down (it’s Anthony’s POV) to what we know to be a photo of Maria, but turned away from view. Two-shot of the men sitting together; as Frederick pours the drinks, Anthony leaves the frame (as he did at the first turning point) to take a look at the photo. Then a 10-second pause, as the camera stays on Frederick (as it did on the flower seller); lap-dissolve to the next scene. No view of Anthony’s action; no playing-out of the consequence; no off-screen exclamation (or off-screen sound of any kind: a very ghostly effect). The unspoken and the unshown rule the scene. What breathtaking economy and suspense!
The film’s third major turning point at 75 minutes is not (perhaps could not be) elided: alone in his study, Frederick finds out, via his servant and a telephone call, about his wife’s secret trip to Paris on their privately chartered plane – an inference painfully confirmed by her very next proposition to travel there again “for shopping”. The event, however, is granted a poignant, elliptical coda some moments later, tied into the representational style of the first two turning points: Frederick rings Anthony, and as the latter’s servant lays the open phone down on the table, we realise that Frederick is hearing his rival play the “Angel” theme on the piano, the worst possible confirmation of all … but without, once more, any reverse shot of Fredrick’s reaction.
With a pleasing circularity, Angel returns to, and ends in, Paris – at the Russian Salon of the Grand Duchess, no less. Something established in the earlier sequence is here amplified: the arrangement of this establishment into multiple, separate chambers (Lubitsch need not bother to show us the other, “communal” spaces). “Waiting rooms”, as the expression goes. And what waiting happens here! Anthony with the Duchess; Frederick with the Duchess; and another spot to which the Duchess is called to confer with an “old woman” … I won’t say too much, for the sake of those yet to experience this film for the first time, but what it builds to and where it closes is extraordinary: a decision (taken off-screen, no discussion heard), and an act (shown as simply and plainly as possible, in one 23-second shot, without expressionistic shadows) that is perfectly pure – without words, without any sound until the final reprise of the music before the final fade-out. And with no facial expression either, by the end, whether in mid-shot or close-up: with supreme eloquence, mastery and tact, Lubitsch bids adieu to his characters by framing and filming them from the back.
When I look back today over the PowerPoint presentation I made in 2014 for a university lecture on Angel, I see that my final slide bears a (mainly rhetorical) question heading: “Is this the greatest final shot in cinema?” (This frame comes a few moments before the final one reproduced above.)
Maybe, in his career too swiftly truncated by death at age 55 (which is what I was in 2014), Lubitsch achieved only one other ending that is more sublime than this: in The Man I Killed, where the playing of a piano and a violin, and the presence of an older couple, cement a man and woman in the face of all the near-impossible obstacles that the plot has set up. (4) Here in Angel, the film of surprise, we know that things could go either way – as Aumont remarks, “everything is equally possible”, anything can happen. (5)
It’s true, the dream is over. But it doesn’t have to be.
– Maria in Angel
1. Jacques Aumont, “Angel”, in Bernard Eisenschitz & Jean Narboni (eds), Ernst Lubitsch (Cahiers du cinéma/Cinémathèque française, 1985), p. 122; reprinted from Cahiers du cinéma, no. 198 (February 1968), p. 41. back
3. Edgardo Cozarinsky, “Le regard de l’outsider”, in Ernst Lubitsch, p. 77; a later reworking of this essay appears as “Lubitsch como outsider” in Cozarinsky, Cinematógrafos (BAFICI, 2010), pp. 25-30. back
5. Aumont, “Angel”, p. 122. back
This text was initially published in Portuguese
translation by the website À pala de Walsh on 18 March 2021.
© Adrian Martin 2014 / 2021