The Lost Moment is based on Henry James’ novella The Aspern Papers, though the movie is rather different in tone and plot (I want to review the novella in a later post). The movie is more in the line of a Gothic thriller/romance, akin to Rebecca.
Lewis Venable (Robert Cummings) is an American publisher interested in the writings of American poet Jeffrey Ashton (Jeffrey Aspern in the novella), a poet in the mold of Shelley or Byron. Ashton had written exquisite poems to a lovely woman named Juliana (Agnes Moorehead). When Venable hears that Juliana is still living at 105 years of age, in Venice, and that she might possess love letters from Ashton, he is determined to get his hands on those papers and publish them.
After his request by letter is refused, he visits her under a false name and becomes a lodger (she is badly in need of money). Also living with Juliana is her niece, Tina (Susan Hayward), who is distinctly hostile to Lewis. The entire house is riven with secrets and everyone – Tina, Juliana, and Lewis – are obsessed with those passionate love letters and the poet who wrote them.
There’s sort of a mystery, though not everything is answered at the end. Lewis feels strong hero-worship for Jeffrey Ashton and seems all to ready to topple headfirst into the ghost-ridden, self-contained fantasy world that Juliana and Tina have constructed for themselves.
Interestingly, the story ends up being Tina’s story most of all. When we first meet her, Susan Hayward plays her like a young Mrs. Danvers in training (seriously – if someone had ever made a movie about the backstory of Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca, Susan Hayward would have been a candidate). She has the same frigidity, same way of doing her hair, the habit of suddenly appearing without having seemed to have walked, same hostility to the new member of the household.
However, as the story unfolds, she reveals an exceedingly vulnerable side to her character. It’s almost like she’s playing dual roles, with her soul at stake. But unfortunately, the film ends too abruptly and there are many questions that are never answered about her. Who were her parents? How is she really related to Juliana? Why does the priest say that she never had a chance at happiness from the moment she was first born? We needed a bit more.
Agnes Moorehead, on the other hand, is nearly unrecognizable as Juliana. When the film came out, much was made about her makeup…and deservedly so. She’s plays her like a dried up husk of a human who seems more like a ghost than a real human, shrunken into herself. I would never have known it was her if I hadn’t already known it was her. Juliana lives on her letters and memories from Jeffrey Ashton
There is something very poisonous about her, even though Tina initially comes across as the hostile one. Almost as though Juliana was inadvertently possessing Tina (Plot Spoiler: Tina occasionally goes into fits where she imagines that SHE is Juliana and steals the letters from Juliana). Juliana even complains at one point about feeling as though she had lost Jeffrey to Tina. She resents her, but sort of inhabits her, as well.
It’s a fascinating movie. Imperfect. There is a potential villain who’s character ultimately goes nowhere and the last third does not quite live up to the first two-quarters, either. The film built such an excellent ghostly feel, but didn’t quite know how to wrap it all up.
The film is the only movie directed by Martin Gabel and it’s somewhat uneven at times, though I do not possess the necessary cinematic knowledge to say why. It just feels uneven, how scenes transition – not as seamless as, say, a Hitchcock film. However, The Lost Moment fairly reeks of atmosphere and I liked the score by Daniele Amfitheatrof (who also wrote a gorgeous and moving score for Letter From an Unknown Woman).
Robert Cummings actually does pretty well. He is borderline smarmy, which seems to suit the character, willing to use all the women to get what he wants, including a highly impressionable and young maid. The film is not quite, properly speaking, a romance. The filmmakers seem to be trying to bend the story in that direction at the end, but it by no means feels inevitable.
Another Plot Spoiler: The final irony of the film, I thought, was the ultimate fate of Jeffrey Ashton (a fate completely made up for the movie). He is this extraordinary poet, writing passionate love letters to the Divine Juliana and her extraordinary eyes, yet at the end of the film, he is revealed to have been just another cad, loving and leaving his woman. Ultimately, he comes off as less extraordinary than the people in the movie: Juliana, Tina. It’s the opposite in the novella, where the characters prove to be rather inadequate compared to the glorious poet.
Juliana ends up being the one who holds the key to the whole story, though she is not in the movie as much as Tina and Lewis Venable. But Agnes Moorehead does a magnificent job of sort of haunting the film. We don’t even get a good look at her face half the time she is in the scene, but she still haunts it. Like a living ghost. I would have enjoyed seeing more of her and getting more of her story and Tina’s. It’s not often that one complains about a movie being too short, but this is one of those times.
This is my contribution to “The Agnes Moorehead Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, who I want to thank for hosting this marvelous event! Click here for all the rest of the posts about her.