8 December 2002 | bmacv
Haunting integrity of mood salvages noirish version of Henry James' Aspern Papers
A fine mist of the gothic lingers over The Lost Moment, as it would do in the following year's A Portrait of Jennie a mist that blurs the boundaries between past and present, between the quick and the dead. As it happens, Leonardo Bercovici adapted the screenplays for both movies, for The Lost Moment drawing (rather distantly) from Henry James' The Aspern Papers. And as in A Portrait of Jennie, his script made a haunting plunge into nineteenth-century romanticism, a rhapsody on obsession and loss.
The Lost Moment takes place (as all nineteenth-century rhapsodies should) in Venice, voluptuous and miasmatic. Arriving there incognito is a young New Yorker engaged in the literary trade (Robert Cummings), on the trail of love letters written by a poet who, after mysteriously disappearing decades before, has become a legend. Cummings knows that publishing the letters will make his name and his fortune, but he must be cagey about his purposes. The poet's mistress Juliana (Agnes Moorehead), is now a recluse of 105 living in reduced circumstances. Posing as a writer of means wanting to finish his novel, Cummings arranges to take rooms in her gloomy old palazzo.
Manderley was more inviting. The Mrs. Danvers of the piece proves to be Susan Hayward, the recluse's niece, grand-niece or even more distant kin. Draped in black with hair wrenched back into a bun, she dutifully carries out her aunt's wishes but makes it plain that Cummings' welcome will be chilly. The trappings are old-dark-house as well, with a servant girl who wanders the halls at night when she's not howling and whimpering, presumably from beatings by Hayward. Eventually Cummings meets the enfeebled Moorehead, whose dotage has not dimmed her mind or dulled her relish for the crafty games she plays; only she can lead him to the letters and shed light on the fate of their author. Events even stranger take place: At night, lured by ghostly piano music, Cummings finds Hayward, radiant in white, her tresses loosed, convinced that she is Juliana and he her poet-lover; as he phrases it, she's `walking dead among the living and living among the dead.' The claustrophobic menage-a-trois takes yet another Jamesian turning....
The Lost Moment is the sole directorial effort by Martin Gabel, a character actor who was married to Arlene Francis. Due either to his inexperience or holes in the script, some strands of the story lead nowhere, like that of the servant girl. Another concerns John Archer, whose aid Cummings enlists though he neither likes nor trusts him; his motives remain murky, and ultimately his sub-plot just fizzles out. Cummings proves another drawback. Always a weak actor, he sometimes (Kings Row, The Chase) rose to serviceable, and does here. Moorehead, buried under old-crone makeup and furlongs of black lace, is barely recognizable by visage or even by voice. Hayward's the surprise, negotiating the shifts from stern spinster to distraught damsel with grace and conviction.
Yet Gabel brings it off. Slow and resolutely low-key until it nears its finish, The Lost Moment stays compelling throughout, a literal-minded version of James' story that manages to maintain an languorous integrity all its own.