Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on October 1, 2015
After enjoying many of the Susan Hayward films that aired on TCM last month, I decided to seek out some of her other work and in the process I stumbled across The Lost Moment (1947). And as regular readers know, I usually focus my attention on horror films and thrillers during the month of October and this neglected black-and-white gem that tells a haunting story about lost love and an unspeakable crime of passion is the perfect film to kick-start the season of scaring.
This surprisingly sumptuous Universal production takes place in Venice where an ambitious publisher named Lewis Venable (Robert Cummings), disguises himself as a writer and takes lodging in a sprawling waterway estate owned by the 105-year-old lover (Agnes Moorehead) of a renowned poet who disappeared under mysterious circumstances decades earlier. He hopes to gain access to a stash of love letters written by the poet to his lady love but the woman’s stern niece (Susan Hayward) suspects that the publisher is up to no good. While attempting to find the missing letters, Cummings’s character uncovers many horrible family secrets hidden within the walls of the crumbling cobweb coated estate that he hadn’t bargained for.
Based on Henrry James’s short novel The Aspern Papers, The Lost Moment has frequently been labeled a film noir but I think that has done it a slight disservice. Anyone with a remote appreciation of Gothic literature and uncanny tales involving old dark houses and time-withered crones will recognize these as basic horror flourishes designed to generate fear. James wrote a number of psychological ghost stories and although this doesn’t exactly qualify as one of his supernatural tales, it does lean in that direction and the film adaptation shares much in common with classic Universal horror movies.
The film is wrapped in a shimmery fog and lit mostly by candles that dance off dusty walls. And the house at the center of all the drama, with its spectacular canal-side setting, long twisting hallways, dark balconies, spiraling stairs and decomposing garden, evokes plenty of ghosts. It may not be a typical horror film but this gothic romance about conflicted characters, doomed romance and ever-shifting identities will haunt you.
Heavy on atmosphere and loaded with ambiance, the film should appeal to seasoned fans of classic horror who also appreciate creative literary adaptations such as Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) and Robert Stevenson’s Jane Eyre (1943). The score is perfectly eerie and the sets are just plain stunning. It’s obvious that a lot of thought and care went into the production.
Producer Walter Wanger thought the project would be a good vehicle for Susan Hayward who he’d been grooming for stardom and he smartly convinced Universal, well known for their horror output at the time, to make the picture. Wagner hoped to get Charles Boyer or Rex Harrison to costar as the deceitful publisher who ends up romancing Hayward but when those plans fell through Robert Cummings was cast along with Agnes Moorehead as the ancient spinster. The film was highly anticipated and received lots of press coverage including a piece in Life magazine that detailed Agnes Moorehead’s elaborate transformation by legendary make-up artist Buddy Westmore who helped create monsters for a number of films including Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), This Island Earth (1955) and The Leech Woman (1960). Both Hayward and Moorehead, who got along famously on and off set (Moorehead once called herself Hayward’s “greatest fan”), hoped their layered performances would earn them Oscar nominations and Wanger was sure he had a major hit on his hands after a successful pre-screening where audiences gave the film almost universal praise. Unfortunately, critics didn’t feel the same way.
“All these familiar devices add up to little more than average ‘horror’ and Susan Hayward and Robert Cummings are weak in the department of romance. Miss Hayward performs as the daft niece with a rigidity that is almost ludicrous, and Mr. Cummings has the unctuous manner of a nice young undertaker as the publisher.” – New York Times
“The Lost Moment is a ponderous, majestic and throughly dull picture. “ – The New World Telegram
“Robert Cummings gives a performance that is probably meant to be sensitive but turns out to be unctuous; Agnes Moorehead is called on to do nothing more than shiver slightly from time to time.” – The New Republic
“Extremely off the beaten track, The Lost Moment will puzzle the average audience.” – Box Office
Apparently “unctuous” was the trendy word of the month. The negative reviews drove audiences away and the film, which was made for almost $1,400, 000, suffered a $886,494 loss and was soon buried by Universal. In addition, its director never made another film.
I can understand why some critics might have been underwhelmed by Robert Cummings but I think he’s very good here. His low-key approach allows him to become somewhat of a blank slate that the other characters can project their desires and fears onto. He’s a well-groomed “everyman” and that also allows the audience to develop their own relationship with him while he’s on screen. Susan Hayward on the other hand has rarely been as measured. Her portrayal of the deeply troubled Tina, struggling to contain two dueling personalities is deeply nuanced and utterly compelling. Last but not least, Agnes Moorehead may have been confined to a chair throughout most of the film but her line delivery is unmatched. She’s unrecognizable under all that makeup and becomes utterly lost in her role under layers of black lace and latex. I wanted more of her but I always do.
Martin Gabel, an award-winning character actor who was one of the original members of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre, was responsible for directing this forgotten treasure and it’s buoyed by the creative work of scriptwriter Leonardo Bercovici (The Bishop’s Wife; 1947, Portrait of Jennie; 1948), cinematographer Hal Mohr (The Cat Creeps; 1930, A Midsummer’s Night Dream; 1935, Phantom of the Opera; 1943), composer Daniele Amfitheatrof (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; 1941, Letter from an Unknown Woman; 1948, The Naked Jungle; 1954, It Came From Beneath the Sea; 1956) and art director Alexander Golitzen (Foreign Correspondent; 1940, Scarlet Street; 1945, All That Heaven Allows; 1955, This Island Earth; 1955, The Incredible Shrinking Man; 1957). Many of these individuals worked together on multiple projects and their combined body of credits is mighty impressive, especially if you appreciate thrillers, mysteries, unusual fantasy and horror cinema.
I’ve found scant information about Martin Gabel besides his acting credits that include M (1951), Deadline – U.S.A.(1952) and Marnie (1962), but while watching The Lost Moment it’s impossible to overlook its debt to Orson Welles’s films, particularly Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). In Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles: A Biography, Gabel is quoted as saying, “His (Welles) great thing was an invention of the mise-en-scène in a way that no one had done before.” The director was undoubtedly inspired by Welles’s ability to compose painterly scenes with shadow and light that made dramatic use of confined sets and controlled spaces.
Despite its somewhat lost status among American film enthusiasts, I suspect it has a much wider fanbase in Europe and the U.K. where its influence may be apparent in a number of suspenseful Italian and British thrillers including Who Saw Her Die? (1972), Amuck (1972) and Don’t Look Now (1973). It’s melancholy overtones may have even inspired Visconti while he was making Death in Venice (1971). All these films, much like The Lost Moment, have protagonists who travel to Venice in search of something ambiguous that is difficult or impossible to obtain. The ancient Italian city, with its winding waterways, narrow streets and cryptic dead-ends, acts as a sort of dangerous maze that they must venture through in order to complete their quest. The old crone, played to perfection by Agnes Moorehead, may also have imitators such as Baroness Meinster in The Brides of Dracula (1960), Norma Bates in Psycho (1960), Mrs. Allardyce in Burnt Offerings (1976) and most recently the nameless chair-bound apartment dweller in The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2014).
It’s a terrible shame that The Lost Moment was neglected for so long. If critics had been kinder and audiences more receptive, there’s a high probability that director Martin Gabel would have continued making movies and he might have been remembered alongside some of the more interesting filmmakers who were working at Universal in the late forties and fifties. But when he died at age 73 in 1986 after suffering a massive heart attack the New York Times didn’t bother to mention his singular directing credit in their obituary. Today we can only guess at the possibilities his career may have taken but at least he left us with a wonderful example of his talent as well as the skills of all those involved in this highly recommended production.
The curious can purchase copies of The Lost Moment on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films and it’s currently streaming at Amazon, which is where I caught it.
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