Next morning Joan Bennett goes out for a walk, sees the boyfriend lying dead and assumes her daughter is responsible. She looks up and down; no one's around. The wind is blowing and it's silent, except for this dinging sound throughout the scene, a piece of metal hitting a buoy or something - one of those nautical sounds. The film is set in Newport Beach, California, which is a small resort area with canals around it about an hour's drive south of LA. It's like an enclave in the middle of a wilderness. Even though there are other houses around, it's as if this family exists unto itself.
Joan Bennett has to lift this dead guy off the anchor, drag him into the boat, take him out across the bay and ditch the body. She's so straight and uptight; she's wearing these cat-eye Fifties-style glasses and she's all bundled up against the cold in a scarf and coat. Dumping the body is a big deal, and yet not a big deal - it's like one of her morning chores.
Ophuls shoots the scene in a strange way. Most of it is filmed on location right there on the beach, but in the middle of it there's one slightly awkward process shot that's very obviously back projection. We've often thought that it seems like a strange shot to insert into such an important scene, and yet it helps to create this really eerie space.
He sets up this incredible situation. For the rest of the film, Joan Bennett, in her very housewife-like way, is forced to go through a series of blackmail attempts to protect something which she started herself - because in fact the daughter didn't kill her boyfriend. The blackmailer, played by James Mason, is supposed to be the bad guy and yet he's a completely sympathetic character. His partner is pressuring him to go through with the blackmail but he falls in love with Joan Bennett and she falls in love with him.
At the end he sacrifices his life so that he can take the rap for the killing. She's weeping on her bed and you're crushed; it's so moving. Her husband calls from Europe, and, still weeping, she takes the call. All she can say to him is something like "We've got a blue tree for Christmas this year". She's irreversibly changed by the experience, but she knows that there's going to be nobody to tell, no outward manifestation of anything that's happened. The violence with which, at the end, the family is reconstructed is very typical of melodrama.
We're obsessed by mid-century American melodrama, and we think one reason is that a lot of it is strangely subversive. Often the directors were working with material that wasn't of their choosing; they had to take an absurd story and turn it into something wonderful. Many of their films create a troubling subtext to the familiar issues they deal with. There was so much repression, so much insistence on certain values, that there was a kind of bursting at the seams. These films owe their power to a particular socio-political continuum. Within the climate of the Fifties you had to work that way.
That's a position we're a little envious of: we, as contemporary, independent film-makers, don't have anything to resist and work against. Almost everything's up for grabs now, emotionally, in a way that wasn't the case 40 years ago, and we can kind of do what we want. Obviously, that's not something one would want to give away. But now that we don't have the same restrictions, something's been lost.
Hollywood has certainly lost the ability to make melodrama. You can't recreate the mindset that melodrama needs, the belief in self-sacrifice; that's one reason why the remake of Stella Dallas with Bette Midler didn't work. We've talked a lot about making a melodrama, but a melodrama for today. We haven't found a solution yet.
n Scott McGehee and David Siegel's first film, `Suture', opened earlier this year; it is released on video on 4 SeptemberReuse content